The Changing Face of Dallas, Texas

On the final day of the NewCities Summit, those of us opting to join the Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) site visit set off with one big question on our minds: just how does the interplay between government and private sector actors shape the fast-growing city of Dallas? Moreover, how does this interplay take place in city with no state or local income tax and a mere 8.25%1 sales tax – a regime unfamiliar to many of the international participants?

The visit consisted of a sightseeing bus tour along some of the best PPP projects Dallas has to offer, with several key stops along the way.

We began by learning about The Stewpot, an initiative aimed at getting the homeless into the art world. This provides vulnerable and isolated individuals with a social support network, means of income, as well as a creative outlet and artistic voice. Offering daily classes and organising monthly exhibitions, this inspiring initiative boasts great results, with several participants already having become self-sufficient artists.

Our next point of call was Dallas Fair Park. Located only three miles from downtown Dallas, this predominantly African American area should have been a thriving real estate market. Land prices and average income, however, are half that of the surrounding areas. In order to spur a more equitable and inclusive development of the city, the city runs several initiatives in order to reconnect the area with Dallas’ thriving urban economy. This includes a fully equipped Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) station; increasing thoroughfare, making the area more accessible, and providing much needed mobility to employment for those unable to afford a car.

The city is using infrastructural initiatives to reconnect disadvantaged areas, including DART stations and supermarkets

Another rather unconventional PPP project pertained to one of the most basic yet often overlooked infrastructural networks: food provision. With over 30.000 residents, Dallas Fair Park is serviced by only one small grocery store and a handful of corner and liquor stores. The economically vulnerable are thus further disadvantaged by only being able to purchase a poorer selection of disproportionately expensive food. As the area has a relatively high unemployment rate and a crumbling educational system, new stores would also provide much needed, easily accessible, employment for the local population. While various stores had swooped in on what seems like an unsatisfied demand, they soon pulled out due to an inability to sell enough (high return) good as well as sustaining disproportionately high losses on stolen goods. The city is now trying to encourage large supermarkets to open up in the area through a series of tax and land incentives – subsidizing the cost of supplying Fair Park residents with good affordable food.

Downtown Dallas, with a population of 8000 residents, also has no grocery store

As the tour continued, we passed the largest source of tax revenue to the city: the state fair park (a large exhibition center for trade shows), as well as various large scale mixed-use developments which aim to stimulate pockets of the city, making them more resident friendly, sustainable and ultimately livable. With little money to invest, these PPP projects consist mainly in tax breaks and the provision of cheap land. As we stop off in downtown Dallas to visit the Main Street Gardens, a highlight of downtown’s new park system,our attention is again drawn to the provision of food. With extremely high land prices and a population saturated with cars, downtown Dallas is not equipped with a grocery store to supply its 8,000 strong resident population. Hopes are that a decline of car culture will pave the way for a revitalization of the urban core.

Participants attentively listening to an overview of Downtown Dallas in Dallas Fair Park © NewCities/Rex C Curry

The Parkland Hospital, a $1.27 billion state-of-the-art public hospital complex, is an example of PPP done right

The final stop on our journey is the Parkland Hospital – a gigantic 2.5mil square foot/230k square meter state-of-the-art public hospital complex. An example of a PPP done right, the complex boasts an innovative network of separated service and customer corridors and lifts, full air-conditioning (the old hospital was designed without, in a city where temperatures regularly go over 93 degrees Fahrenheit or 34 degrees Celsius during the summer months!), all stylish enough to make a mid-ranged hotel manager embarrassed. With a price tag of $1.27 billion, the financing plan includes a combination of $747 million in tax and revenue bonds, $350 million from Parkland’s current and future cash reserves, and $150 million in philanthropic gifts. With an expected 30.000 people per day, over 865 permanent beds and the ability to double this capacity, the Parkland Hospital will no doubt become one of the top public health facilities in the US.

Participants enjoying a tour of the almost complete Parkland Hospital © NewCities/Rex C Curry

In a city where only the working class and so called “hipsters” frequent the sidewalks, more initiatives are needed to give Dallasites the vibrant city life they deserve

The tour offered an inspiring overview of some of the dynamic partnerships that are re-shaping Dallas. One of the central challenges remains how to engage South Side, an area housing many of Dallas’ poor. With plenty of open space currently occupied by empty shrub-reclaimed lots and second hand car dealers, there are large reserves of land value to be unlocked. Which mix of PPP and infrastructural investment is needed to develop the area in a way that is both sustainable and inclusive. Dallas certainly has challenges: there is an over reliance on cars and it remains one of the most unequal cities in the US.2 The city is also expecting a county-wide doubling in population by 2025, which will require important forward planning. This tour showed us that the city is in full action, ready to tackle these challenges head-on. Examples include; the largest mileages of light rail in the US, police and safety patrols on bikes, and protective pod-like bike racks not to be found in even some of the most cycle friendly cities. With these, Dallas is clearly sending out a message about the city it wants to become.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NewCities or any other organisation.

1. Window on State Government

2. Dallas News