This region must stop fighting over scraps, get moving on something meaningful and decide what is really important to our future.
Southern cities are in an awkward point in history. Our populations have grown in a time as the economy moved away from the agriculture that established us, through the industrial revolution that built some of us and on into an auto-dependant, single-family-home-loan driven economy that has failed us. We have never really been cities in the traditional sense. Towns, occasionally. Villages, sometimes. Squares, perhaps. But never really cities.
Anyone who has followed my posts knows that I am on a quest for benchmarks, simple starting points and solutions to our Economic Development, Urban Design and Social Interaction dilemmas. Returning from Dallas, I’d hoped to write another top-10 list of best practices like I did with Denver and DC. I could point out Fort Worth’s parking lot screening and Dallas’s free trolley. I’d love to explore the urban residential explosion in both towns or the demolition of the old Cowboy’s Stadium less than one year after the last game there. I tend to get very excited about this stuff and can’t wait to share.
But… three depressing things have stuck in my mind sullying my mood for a couple of weeks.
Fighting over scraps
Most southern cities are fighting like dogs over scraps. Whenever I come back from Texas, I can’t help but wonder why Memphis, Louisville and Birmingham even exist. Why are we still here? How do we compete?
We keep building infrastructure like I-269 for businesses that never come. We move a company from one part of our own town to another part of our own town and call that growth.
Driving around Dallas at times feels like flying around with Astro on the Jetsons. Huge, majestic office buildings are everywhere, downtown and miles from it. The Dallas CBD office submarket is almost twice as large as our entire metro regional office market. The Dallas area has about six other submarkets as large or larger than our entire metro market. The Dallas area has almost 175 MILLION square feet of space filled with smart people not even including the Fort Worth area.
Taking our time
Most southern cities do not commit. We drag our feet, hoping things will work out if we just think about it long enough. Texans react fast! We spend years planning with no true implementation. Texans have a hair-brained idea and then run with it for years.
About ten years ago we opened the Madison Avenue trolley line. In that time we have successfully developed nothing that depends on or was inspired by that massive investment. We didn’t change any zoning, recruit any developers, assemble any property, attract any businesses or anything else that encompasses transit oriented development.
In the same ten years since, Uptown Dallas has turned McKinney Street into a residential showpiece along their trolley line just outside of downtown. Three, four and five story apartment buildings fill in between one story restaurants. Townhouses take the place of old parking lots. High-end retailers are a short walk from trolley stops. While we have been fighting over CVS locations and spending seven years trying to adopt the Unified Development Code, Dallas has reinvented an entire area as a true mixed use neighborhood that acts as a city within the city.
Valuing the wrong things
Most southern cities do not value the right things. Often it is difficult to tell if we value anything at all. We abandon neighborhoods, office buildings, roads and sewer systems. But more than anything else we abandon schools and clearly have little value for education beyond saying someone should do something about it.
Every time I have been to Dallas there have been prominent education stories in the Sunday paper. These are huge spreads on the performance of dozens of area school districts. How are we really doing on math? How are we really doing in reading? How does this position us for the economy of the future? Dallas knows the answer. They show what they value by tracking it, reporting on it, talking about it and participating in it.
Improve or Move
So, a business goes downtown, out-east or Olive Branch? It is really hard to keep up the fight when you see the scale of a Texas sized real estate market.
So, an apartment building goes along the trolley line, near the University of Memphis or in Bartlett? It is really hard to keep up the fight when you have seen the answer in person and walked down a street that someone has fully committed to restoring.
So, some of our kids will go to college, trade school or drop out? It is really hard to keep up the fight when you have met people who do not have this conversation because most people just expect their kids to go get degrees.
Economic Development is really just real estate development. We can commit to improving what we have, where it is located and the people who will use it over time. Or we can keep moving the pieces around, where we can, when we can for the few people we can hold onto.
People today are incredibly mobile. They see improvement or they move to another place that has what they want.
On Smart City Memphi,s we discuss the problems and pitch solutions. But we must start committing to moving fast. We have to stop fighting with each other over scraps and focus on improving what’s here. We have to start thinking about what we value and what we are really willing to do to prove it.
Or we can forget ever being considered a real city worthy of being included in the same conversation with Dallas or Houston or San Antonio or Austin. Texans do it big and make no excuses. Memphis and other southern cities have to improve or risk losing everything.
And if you think we are competing in any way today, you are fooling yourself. We are cutting our own throats, while the momentum in some other cities may never slow down long enough for us to catch up.