"Leveraging Our Resources," or: If You Read One Council Briefing All Day, Make It This One

The Dallas skyline circa 1982, as depicted in this morning's economic development council briefing
At the end of February, city and council officials explained Dallas's meager 0.8 percent population growth over the last decade thusly: "The third-largest city in Texas is simply built out." Which lead police chief-turned-mayoral candidate David Kunkle to wonder whether it wasn't time to re-brand Big D as the "'donut hole' of stagnant growth surrounded by prosperous cities."

At some point today, Karl Zavitkovsky, head of the Office of Economic Development, will attempt to offer the Dallas City Council some context surrounding those Census stats, as well as insist that low growth isn't necessarily a bad thing. As in: "There is no statistical association whatsoever between population growth and productivity growth," to quote Richard Florida's quote that appears in this morning's PowerPoint.

I spoke with Zavitkovsky late Monday about the reasoning behind the briefing, which is full of demographics maps, before-and-after pictures and stats ranging from education to income to population shifts. You'll be able to watch it here, of course; not sure when it'll happen -- it appears the gas-drilling task force debate has just been moved from the after-lunch session to this morning. But his sneak peek, in which he addresses everything from Dallas's inability to annex land to the need to address public education, follows.

What purpose do you hope this presentation serves?

When something like a Census report comes out, you want to put that in context. The Census report is just a snapshot at a point in time, like a corporate balance sheet is year-end picture. With us, you had a relatively small number in terms of population increase but a lot of movement inside the city relative to a lot of different groups. And there was a lot of relative activity between the different cities in the region. The whole idea was, let's look at this in context. Let's look at how far the city's come in the last 25, 30 years; let's look at the type of policies we've put in place. The fact is, we know we don't have an ability to annex land. Most of the growth that's taken place in the U.S. over the last 50, 60 years has come from annexation and sprawl, and we recognized long ago that couldn't really happen here, which is why we put Forward Dallas! in place and supported DART in terms of expansion effort.

The inability to annex land doesn't mean you'll have huge population growth, so you have to leverage the resources you have most effectively. We need to leverage our downtown and find ways to be able to stabilize neighborhoods and leverage our public transportation. That's a very long-term term process, and redevelopment is often more costly and time-consuming than new development. We wanted to make sure you can't really compare growth in an older center city with the outlying suburbs, and you also begin to see -- what you really see -- is a much closer identification with the outer-ring suburbs and the city center. If you look at Plano and Richardson and Garland, in terms of education and income stats, they're dealing with a lack of ability to grow physically also. And you're also having to make sure you're willing to provide basic services and destinations for people to go and places where people want to be.

The 800-pound gorilla in all this is the public education system, and that's something we have to come to grips with as a city and as a region. We at the city don't have direct control over that, but there are certainly ways where we can collaborate with other institutions, whether it's charters or DISD or some of the education institutes.

When The Times story came out at the end of February, Kunkle seized upon it, wondering if Dallas wasn't becoming the doughnut hole of stagnation surrounded by other areas doing far better than the city center. How much of this briefing is intended to counter the sentiment behind that statement?

Let's set the facts straight before we begin to distort them. That's what we're trying to do here: lay out some of the facts and the context of what's taken place over the last 30 years and lay out the fact it's important to plan and to tie your development strategy and planning strategy together and look for serious partners in the whole execution phase. The idea is to tell the council, "Look, guys, here are some real opportunities going forward, many of which we've launched." Some are further along than others, but take West Dallas: You have a planning structure in place. There are a lot of initiatives along the transit lines. There's a lot of this that's in place, and you have to think along a longer longer time horizon.

For me, I think you only have so much you can say in a soundbite. I don't think there was any intention to deal with any of the programs that the various candidates have mentioned. But it doesn't make any sense to compare smalll cities in the region with a large city. It isn't a reasonable comparison.

The other point there is most of the cities that have grown in population have done so because they can annex additional land. And then there are Chicago and Pittsburgh, which have been thought of as successful urban re-developers, and they actually lost population. Yet even with that loss -- in Chicago's case, at least -- its wealth indicators went up. There are a lot of complicated measures, and you can play with those numbers a lot. But the fact is, we're in the midst of a lartge redevelopment initiative, which means redeveloping old buildings, replacing infrastructure, taking on things like the Bishop Arts area, where you're trying to build on a very organic growth and maintain the character of that neighborhood. And then there's West Dallas, were you're asking: How do we leverage off this public-works project -- the Trinity -- and do so in the context of the existing neighborhoods.

And you can feel pretty good about a lot of things that have happened downtown, even though we're a ways away. We had nobody living downtown in the mid-'90s, so a lot of things have happened to change that. But all this time takes a lot of time, so if you take your eyes off the ball or you allow yourself to get too distracted, you forget what's really important and what kind of urban identity you want to have a decade or so from now.

How do you interpret and reconcile the stats contained within the presentation -- like, say, "Per capita income grew faster in Dallas than in the region and faster than in most of the largest DFW cities" and "Median household income grew slower in Dallas compared to per capita income"?

What that says to you is you have some potentially inequitable income distribution. In your center city you don't have a lot of families coming into that area. You have young professionals, empty-nesters. You have a whole different dynamic, so your income levels come up;. Something not in that briefing is you have 18,000 African-American students who departed the DISD from 2000 to 2010, and that might say to you, as there's upward mobility it might be moving to a suburb where there's perceived to be a higher quality public education. That's a valid point, which reinforces the fact that at the top of everybody radar's screen ought to be the education issue and not who's fault it is but how we can start dealing with it in the context of who can do what and how can you make some inroads. But there's no question in terms of the immigration, it's largely Hispanic, and the income levels and perhaps the education levels are lower in terms of the input, so you need to develop a social infrastructure to be able to integrate that and a school system that can be able to take that input and be more successful in terms of the outcome.

The real point here was: Look, we've got real choices to make as we go forward -- not only with our budget but also our next bond program. And we need to figure out how to take the resources we have and get the most bang for our buck and where should we be putting them.

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As far as annexation, that's not even a viable option - I'm with Robert on that one. Even if there was an abundance of land available for annexation, we can't take care of what we've got inside the city limits now much less take on other mouths to feed. In order to annex, a city has to be able to provide basic services/infrastructure within a set time frame for the annexed area. Imagine how irritated everybody would be if bond funding or some other gov't funding was used for newly annexed areas rather than being spent in areas where people have been paying into the tax system for years.

With regards to downtown, significant strides have been made and are continuing to be made to improve it - it just takes time. Vacant land in Dallas for new development...yes...we have some...particularly in south Dallas. But consider...if you see vacant land in a city and it's not a park or just a property owner hold out, guess what? there's a reason it's not developed. ONE of the many reasons south Dallas has not been developed is the environmental remediation costs associated with getting the area cleaned up from years of abuse from toxic solvents, arsenic and lead. The groundwater is totally polluted. Add to that the fact there's a load of floodplain property down there and you've got one fiscally unattractive, expensive area to develop. If the city worked with the property owners and the state to clean it all up, ED would have something to market. But who's going to pay for it? and how will the powers that be react to gentrification issues in this area once it is developable and somebody actually builds something? gentrification is a necessary evil.

and I'm sick of Dallas being compared to every other town in this state/country. We're not them, we're never going to be them...we know where we are weak, we know where we are strong. yet we build elaborate monuments and bridges....change the mindset = change Dallas.

Alrighty...my soapbox is now sawdust.

Who Ray
Who Ray

Dya think the City's failed policies might have something to do with the lackluster growth? NAH. We just can't get enough "leverage". There are too many "constraints". BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, with all of the buzzwords and hyperbolae. It's time for City Hall to wake up and stop listening to these justifications for lackluster performance


Okay first of all, the Bishop Arts District has happened with almost no help from the City and was most certainly NOT ever an initiative of the City.

Second, the lack of ability to annex more land is NOT the reason that Dallas didn't grow. There's a whole lotta places that are still country/farmland in this "town". They just all happen to be the "southern sector" where let's be real, developers don't *really* want to come, because of all the minorities and all.

Third, it makes complete sense for the economic development leaders on city staff here to take a good look at what "landlocked" older inner-ring suburbs have been doing. Why? Because those places HAVE to be more creative on order to remain competitive with the "big city" like Dallas, which seems to be faring much worse these days.... sooooo why would anyone suggest that the inner-ring suburbs are "dealing with" lack of growth? They aren't!! They are "dealing with" absorbing the people who don't want to live in Dallas! Wake up, Karl!!! We could learn a thing or two from them!

Finally, his last response made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

A few observations:

1) Ft. Worth completely smoked Dallas in terms of both income growth and educational attainment. That is the REAL takeaway from all those slides--- the rest of the stuff comparing Dallas to Allen, Mesquite, etc. is just psychotic distraction.

2) I understand Zavitkovsky's point about annexation contributing to population growth. So, why didn't he perform an "apples to apples" comparison (which would be pretty easy using off the shelf software). Just compare demographic changes in Dallas to those in Houston, Austin, and other cities using just the "pre annexation" demographic blocks.

3) Comparing Dallas to Pittsburgh and Chicago is just plain silly-- how did Dallas perform relative to other land constrained Sunbelt cities: Atlanta, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, San Diego, etc.--- all of these cities have been built out for years and haven't been active at land annexation.

Now, some snarky comments:

1) The demographic charts are nearly useless without some identifying geographic points on them--- I could figure things out (roughly) by magnifying the charts and intuiting where the freeways and major streets ran, but that's probably too much to expect out of most council members.

2) The charts boasting that many Dallas districts exceeded national averages are just plain stupid. Of course there are going to be areas that exceed the national averages--- so what?

3) Grammar, grammar, grammar!!! Is it too much to ask that folks proofread their presentations before submitting them to Council? Someone should tell staff that spell check doesn't correct capitalization errors.

In summary, Zavitosky's presentation would be much more interesting and useful if he:

1) explained why Ft. Worth appears to be racing ahead of Dallas in terms of income and educational advancement; and

2) was able to show how Dallas measures up to other Sunbelt cities (controlling for the annexation issue, of course). Again, this is something easily done using off-the-shelf demographic software.


Wow! What a terrible grasp of reality this person has. It is as if the Southern Sector (or whatever you want to call it) doesn't even exist. "Built out"? Total hogwash! You can drive from downtown Dallas through North Oak Cliff and be in the middle of totally undeveloped land in 15 minutes. The city can act as if this huge expanse of land doesn't exist or isn't important, but it really the only direction Dallas can go.

The "immigration".... I will leave that one alone.

Public education won't get better until expectations are placed on the kids and the kids are held accountable. Also, DISD is clearly in need of a serious house-cleaning; it, like most institutions in this town, is thoroughly corrupt and is much more of a money machine for those associated with it than any kind of educational system.

cynical old bastard
cynical old bastard

There is a huge opportunity for growth in Dallas. It's called the Southern Sector. But it will not grow until politicians like Mike Rawlings stop hiring people like Willis Johnson and Kathy Neely. As long as the "pay to play" and "equity" traditions continue no large and/or smart developer/corporation is going to do anything in that sector.


"Okay first of all, the Bishop Arts District has happened with almost no help from the City"

That's what he meant when he called its growth "organic."

"developers don't *really* want to come, because of all the minorities and all."

Developers shy away from poor areas and crime-ridden areas because potential customers and residents shy away from them.

Thus Dallas' growth was slow because it mostly involved tearing down old properties on the north side and redeveloping them. That's expensive and frequently displaced thousands of residents as older apartment properties were torn down.

Ien Black
Ien Black

yeah fort worth "raced ahead" into miles and miles of cheaper cookie cuter suburbs and half empty shopping centers, pretty impressive.

(From Fort Worth, Moved to Dallas)

Enrique De La Fuente
Enrique De La Fuente

Fort Worth "raced" ahead because it is not landlocked. Imagine if North Dallas was not restricted by Plano...Dallas would have continued to race ahead.

Miami? It got hit bad with the financial mess. We talk about empty condos...check that place out.

San Diego? You think you have problems with City Hall, check their's out.

Atlanta? It's economy has also taken a rather big hit.

I'll give Karl some credit. We like to bash City Hall and Council, and rightfully so in many cases, but in this one instance, I impressed.

Enrique De La Fuente
Enrique De La Fuente

Regarding the Southern Sector, the fact there is a substanial portion of undeveloped land, does that mean we want and should develop it all?

Some land maybe part of a flood plain, other parts are part of the Trinity Forest, and some parts are actually suitable for development.

That is probably one of the Southern Sector's great assets...it is rather green compared to other parts of North Texas, which is why we need to be smart as to how we develop it.

Oak Cliff Townie
Oak Cliff Townie

Google Earth South Dallas .

Lots of what is green is green because it is Flood Plain.

In other areas of South Dallas the city is paying for its neglect of Basic Code Enforcement Standards Because of reasons to numerous to mention

Whats left are places where people live.


@cob: Amen.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

Again, I'm not making any judgement as to whether Ft. Worth was better or worse (when controlling for developable land, etc.). I'm simply saying that he provided zero information that could be used to make the analysis, even though he has access to the tools which would enable him to do so.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

So... can we see a FACT-BASED comparison of Dallas to Miami, San Diego and Atlanta? I mean, really, is it too much to ask for a presentation like this to be based on something other than anecdotes?

And, with respect to Ft. Worth, he could have compared Dallas to the areas of Ft. Worth that were already urbanized in 2000. Now, THAT would be useful--- THAT would provide information necessary to make a comparative evaluation of the effectiveness of the City's economic development policies over the last several years.


I don't recall having said that we should develop it all. I am stating what I have stated many times before on UP: the argument that Dallas is "built out" is patently absurd. The pathetic growth described by the latest census should be a cause for alarm to the city proper - it indicates that what puny growth there was in the last decade was on account of poorly educated people with little or no resources to support themselves. I know it is a bad word but "taxes" are a vital part of any city. What do you think the outcome will be if the city continues to be populated by uneducated people who have no money (hint: they can't pay taxes)?

All the rest of the "constrained by" this and "constrained by" that arguments are just excuses for poor leadership.

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