Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dallas City Council hears about benefits of planning denser neighborhoods

Four top urban planners from the U.S. and Canada on Wednesday urged the Dallas City Council to encourage development of dense neighborhoods where people have choices about the kind of transportation they use.

The forum with the planners came at an important time for the council.

In coming weeks, the council will consider a major overhaul of the city's zoning code with an eye toward encouraging development of the kind of densely populated neighborhoods that define cities with vibrant urban cores.

The proposed new zoning ordinance – known as form-based zoning for its focus on the look of buildings rather than their use – has stirred some controversy on the council over where and how it should be used in Dallas.

On Wednesday, urban planner and Brookings Institution fellow Christopher Leinberger urged the council to select about seven areas in Dallas of several hundred acres or more and to use zoning regulations to encourage those areas to densely develop with residences, shopping and offices.

Meanwhile, the city should also determine what neighborhoods it wants to protect from that kind of density, he said.

Compared with the traditional suburban-style development Dallas has seen for decades, "walkable urban places are unbelievably complex. You need to have a strategy," Leinberger said.

Larry Beasley, former director of planning for the city of Vancouver, said Dallas needs to do a better job thinking about its design and the look and feel of its future development, both on a neighborhood scale and on the scale of the entire city.

He suggested creating public design centers, possibly at libraries, where Dallas citizens could go and look at the proposed design of projects in their neighborhoods.

The idea intrigued Mayor Tom Leppert, who said it could be a good way to engage people outside of City Hall.

Mr. Leppert, a former construction company chief executive, said he is also interested in finding ways to make it simpler to build dense urban neighborhoods.

"Clearly we need to approach it in a different way. The traditional process is not getting what the city needs, but you better define the areas where you want this to happen," he said.

Council member Angela Hunt called Wednesday's forum "an incredible meeting" that brought forth a flood of new ideas about urban planning for Dallas.

"We need to focus on areas we want to develop [densely], identify them, put a boundary around them. Then we need to identify areas we want to protect. Too often it's a battle between developers and neighborhoods," she said.

If the city determines at the outset what it wants, those battles don't have to be so bitter, she said.

Also speaking before the council at Wednesday's forum were Los Angeles transportation planner James Rojas, and former Charlottesville, Va., Mayor Maurice Cox.