The Tunnels Didn't Kill Downtown Dallas; Dallas Killed Downtown Dallas

Categories: Schutze

thetunnelsfromdowntowndalla360.jpg

The Dallas City Council is reopening the question of whether the underground tunnel system beneath the buildings downtown is what killed downtown street commerce in the 1990s. Apparently now that downtown is on the rebound, some people suffer from a superstitious fear that reopening closed portions of the tunnel system might awaken and unleash slumbering ghosts.

I've just been here too long. I remember downtown with the tunnels and without. The debate about the tunnels killing downtown reminds me of Ridley Walker, a dystopian novel my son had me read a couple years ago: In a primitive post-apocalyptic society centuries after the nuclear holocaust, illiterate people speaking a kind of fractured English try to piece together clues to what happened.

They believe that an ancient leader whom they call "Mr Clevver" conspired with an evil being whom they call "the littl Shynin man the Addom" to blow up the world. Now, whenever I hear the tunnel debate surfacing again at City Hall, I think of it as the story of "Mr Toonl" who conspired with an evil force called "Ovr Buildin" to suck the bodily juices out of downtown Dallas.

The belief is that the underground tunnel system, which contained myriad shops and eateries, was responsible for killing downtown's sidewalk retail scene in the '90s. It's a view popularized by former Mayor Laura Miller, who apparently believed that all of the people who used to gang the sidewalks downtown climbed down into the tunnels and, from there, just disappeared.

It could explain why there is such superstition about efforts to reopen any portion of the closed tunnels: Maybe people are worried all those tens of thousands of pedestrians are still down there. And plenty pissed off by now, one would think. Yeah, if that's true, don't open the door.

But we're not illiterate Iron Age post-apocalyptic people. Yet. Can we not go back and read a little bit of recorded history? If we did, the annals would tell us that downtown Dallas died a death of a thousand cuts, the worst of which was the insane over-building of the office market here in the early to mid-1980s. That's what left us naked with a bull's-eye on our backs.

The entire Texas real estate market collapsed in a slow-rolling series of economic crises in the late 1980s and early 1990s, often lumped together now in memory as the "Savings and Loan Crisis."

Nobody took a worse hit than Dallas. Downtown is a lot better now than it was five years ago, but it hasn't come close to full recovery. Mr. Clevver himself couldn't have done longer-lasting damage if he had bombed the place.

What was it like before? It was all kinds of things. It was cool, it was trashy, it was chic, it was coarse. There were fancy-pants dining establishments and little walk-down Greek cafeterias. Downtown was all kinds of stuff all junked together and a whole lot of fun.

I spoke to city councilman Scott Griggs yesterday, and he said he does think the tunnels contributed to the decline of downtown but only as an element in a larger mentality. The idea back then was to control and sanitize downtown, make it less public and more like a suburban shopping mall.

"Downtown became very anti-pedestrian," he said. He said turning all of the streets downtown into one-way thoroughfares allowed cars to go faster and rendered intersections more daunting for walkers. In that atmosphere the tunnels offered a safer and more privately controlled alternative. For downtown to be vibrant again, he said, it must embrace the "complex chaos" that urban theorist Jane Jacobs wrote about.

It's getting there. My caveat would be this: How about City Hall and the city council stepping the hell back every little chance they get and allowing people to do what they think will work? If somebody downtown thinks he can make money re-opening a portion of the tunnel system under his building, let him go for it. If somebody else wants to serve lunch in hot-air balloons and won't drop the bananas Foster on anybody, let him try.

Why doesn't City Hall and especially the city council learn how to just get out of the way? What is wrong with City Hall people anyway? Oh, and now I have just thought of something really scary. It's about those tens of thousands of people being down in the tunnels all these years. You know where the biggest closed unexplored manmade cavern is under downtown, right? Underneath City Hall.

Is ... that ... where ... they ... come from?

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104 comments
tomhoop
tomhoop

I personally enjoyed parking and being able to walk underground in the months of June, July, and August, and a little in January too. 


WhyDontYouJoinNAMBLA
WhyDontYouJoinNAMBLA

Why are we pretending that "street commerce" is somehow universally better than commerce in a tunnel? This is an opinion posited as fact and gospel.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

Why is there a derth of pedestrian traffic on the downtown streets? It's not because of the tunnels.

There's hardly anything worth going to on the streets of downtown Dallas.

Yeah, there are a few restaurants worth going out to. And there is the grand dame, Neiman's.

But there isn't much else. So people who work downtown go to their jobs, when the day is done they get back in their cars and go home. Near their home is where they shop, those shopping plazas near their homes are busy. and full of merchants.

The excuse of one-way streets being "anti-pedestrian" is a joke. Most every CBD in this country that has a vibrant retail and pedestrian traffic has one-way streets....

As someone pointed out below it is a bit of a chicken and egg issue. Retail won't come back until people reside in sufficient density to support the retail...and there is a limited amount of people who will move downtown until the retail is there for the goods and services they demand. The City stepped in and put retailers into spaces with concessions on rent, some even not paying any rent....and the retailers still couldn't make a profit.

Tim.Covington
Tim.Covington

"How about City Hall and the city council stepping the hell back every little chance they get and allowing people to do what they think will work?"


How do you expect city council members, community leaders, and other politicians to get their "equity"? 

BigDave
BigDave

Wilbur and Wilbur Jr. read a book in today's installment of Wilbur's Wankings. 

Wilbur and his genius son Wilbur Jr. will not rest until Dallas becomes the next Detroit.


BMFF

everlastingphelps
everlastingphelps topcommenter

It's simple math.  If the tunnels killed street traffic, then the street traffic would be in the tunnels.  Since the tunnels aren't full of people, they didn't steal the street traffic.  The traffic just went away for All The Other Reasons.

thetrickykid
thetrickykid

I lived in Dallas and Houston. The tunnels in Houston are more expansive than Dallas and I would say 99% of the buildings in Downtown Houston are connected to them. There is as much foot traffic in Houston as in Chicago but they are all underground. I was amazed to see the thousands of Houstonians down there. But similar to Dallas, the tunnels kill outdoor pedestrian foot traffic. 

The problem is not with the tunnels however - it is the high cost of living in downtown. Make the rent of apartments/condos/townhomes in downtown Dallas affordable so regular working folks will be willing to move there. Establish safe and clean grocery stores near them. Euthanize the homeless. Build more above ground restaurants and invest less in tunnels. Give tunnel shop owners incentives for moving their stores above ground. I think over time, this will help downtown Dallas become a bustling metropolis. 

d-may
d-may

Turn them into catacombs. If Dallas is going to be a world class city, we need a world class City of the Dead!

(Only half joking.)

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

A few years back a friend and I decided to rid our bikes downtown to get lunch at City Tavern. It was a Sunday. It was shocking how empty it was. We owned Elm on freaking bicycles. I don't care for the tunnels personally but the issue is getting people to move there. I've looked into it and the rents for apartments in downtown are insanely high for Dallas. I rented a three bedroom house on La Vista for what they wanted for an apartment downtown. And I had a nearby grocery store and could walk to the Lakewood Landing. They need to get the rents down.

craigmcneiljd
craigmcneiljd

Dallas could also do what Fort Worth has successfully done.  Invite retail and restaurants (and people) downtown. Give free (or validated) parking after 5 and on weekends.  Fort Worth made a lot of bucks downtown by foregoing after-hours parking income.

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

The catacombs in Paris are the second creepiest place I've ever been, only slightly less creepy than the church outside of Prague built of human bones because of the plague.

Darren
Darren

@P1Gunter I lived downtown for 15 months.  Weekends were like a ghost town.  It's pretty telling when the Starbucks closes at 3pm for the day.  Rent (after factoring in parking) is too high for the area.  The only choices for dinner were a) a high-end restaurant, b) a bar, or c) a sandwich/sub shop (which there were 4 within a three block radius).

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@craigmcneiljd

Ft Worth has it's bum problem under control downtown. The last time I was in Downtown Dallas it appeared the Bums had downtown under control.

CitzenKim
CitzenKim

@craigmcneiljd  Man you hit it right on the head!  Why go downtown for ANYTHING when greedy bastards make you pay $5 - $10 bucks to park on nights and weekends.  No Thanks!!


Ft Worth has it together.

rusknative
rusknative

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz @thetrickykid Go ride a Dart Train to downtown Dallas and back,  and stay with your same opinions.  Also dress really nice, carry an expensive purse and laptop, and wear jewelry.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@Darren

If rents are too high, then the apartments would be empty, but I read this in the DMN

... in the last 15 years, developers have added close to 8,000 central business district residential units.

And this:

Downtown Dallas has the highest retail vacancy rate of any North Texas business district.

So, it looks like lack of retail, not high rents, is the issue.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

@TheRuddSki  I cant cross Ross and Pearl without having to reroute myself to avoid being harassed for money at least 3 times a week.  And all they want is money.  One guy asked if I could spare a $1 for food, I said no, but you can have my extra McD's cheeseburger.  He said fuck no, I dont want your food.  I guess he didnt really want to eat either

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

Untermensch.  A term the Nazis used for the 20 million human beings they murdered.  Human beings they considered "inferior".

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@dfwheathen

A modest proposal?

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@rusknative

Don't they all... Don't they all. And big jugs of Carlo Rossi Merlot.

rusknative
rusknative

@PlanoDave yep...don't see Walmart, Home Depot, or Lowes opening up in Downtown Dallas anytime soon.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@tpfkap

I couldn't find that info, which is important to the discussion, maybe DO can find out?

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@TheRuddSki  

But what is the occupancy rate?  From what I have seen most of these residential projects are driven by grants, ad valorem exemptions and TIFs.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@Mervis_Earl

Likely Merlot.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@Myrna

I'm babysitting my 8-month old granddaughter, thanks for your concern. And I have quite a life, but the weathers been too chilly for river-running, or fishing the abundant lakes before I toddle back to the coast when the Gulf waters are a bit warmer. Early retirement is exhausting!

How 'bout you, planning to complain about me for a few hours before you accuse me of making it "all about me"? Or, do you plan to pass out early?

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

@TheRuddSki  Touchy today?  One would expect that you could find something to do where you live, not in Texas, that is.  But, yet you're here haranguing all day, every day.  You should get a life.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@Myrna

I don't live in Texas, I comment here, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Does that answer your question?

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

Neither of you live in Dallas.  Ruddski doesn't even live  in Texas.  Ruddski, don't you have a website where you live that you'd rather chat on?

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@PlanoDave

Yeah, downtown just seems too canyon-like.

Last time I was in Dallas, the old State-Thomas area was really hopping, McKinney, etc. Sidewalk seating, etc. that's where I would live if I were forced to live in Dallas.

However, I'd live in downtown FW In a heartbeat.

PlanoDave
PlanoDave

@TheRuddSki Both valid points.  Truth is, outside the cheerleaders for downtown living and 80-hour per week workaholics, why would anybody want to live downtown? It's not NY, Chicago, Seattle or San Francisco.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@PlanoDave

Then the solution is not to lower rents on units that seem to have no occupancy problems, the solution is building more units, but with lower rents.

BUT, in a market which (presumably) has no problem renting out units at a "high" rate, what market incentive is there to offer lower rates?

PlanoDave
PlanoDave

@TheRuddSki Chicken or egg.


Retail goes where there is sufficient traffic to support their business model.  Absent that traffic, no affordable retail. 


And 8,000 new units does not equal sufficient foot traffic.  For a store my company is opening in Austin, we are looking at over 150,000 passes per week.  You just can't get that kind of shopper traffic in downtown Dallas.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@Myrna

That's a switch, usually you call me a "queen" when you go off on your rants.

Your LOOK buddy should be along soon, looks like Myrna's gonna need another intervention soon.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

@TheRuddSki  You're a real prince; a prince among men.  Just think.  You condescended to feed one of the people you joke off as "bums".  How altruistic....

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@ScottsMerkin

Worked near Oak Lawn & Maple briefly - Step out for a smoke, they line up, tell their stories, five to ten at a time.

The only guy I contributed to was a black, legless gentleman who hung outside the donut shop daily in his wheelchair, never asked anyone for anything. I'd go there three or so times a week, would always buy him breakfast. A very gracious guy.

This was around 1998 or so, I don't think he'd still be alive.

Mervis_Earl
Mervis_Earl

@ScottsMerkin Valets are creeping into Sundance Square with the new renovations. Still plenty of options for free parking though.

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