News Article | 10/4/2007

Sky’s the new limit for urban living in Texas, and beyond

DALLAS — The helipad atop the swank, 33-story W Hotel offers a panoramic view of Victory Park. Ross Perot Jr., his helicopter nearby, proudly points to glimmering high-rise condominiums, luxury hotels, office buildings and giant cranes poised to build more on 275 acres of former wasteland.

“This is a part of Dallas that had been forgotten,” says Perot, one of Texas’ top residential and commercial real estate developers and the leader of a $3 billion-plus effort to create a massive downtown district from scratch.

The son and namesake of a billionaire two-time presidential candidate, Perot is convinced that without residential and entertainment choices in a dense urban setting reminiscent of New York or Chicago, Dallas risks losing its business edge.

“Our offices want this kind of neighborhood,” he says. “It’s good for recruiting.”

High-rise urban living in Texas?

This is the largest state in the contiguous USA, stretching more than 700 miles from east to west and north to south, and space often seems infinite. Here, living large — and spread out — hasn’t been just a choice but almost a birthright.

However, Perot’s development — and similar plans by other developers in Austin, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio — have put Texas on the front lines of a movement reshaping downtowns across the USA.

What changed here?

Gas prices soared. Traffic congestion choked highways. Air quality worsened and so did pressure from environmental regulators. Light-rail lines came online. And demographics shifted: As baby boomers became empty nesters, their desire for convenience and fun suddenly merged with those of young professionals. Both groups are flocking to urban settings.

“People are tired of the big house, they’re tired of the big yard, and there’s a real movement to simplify your lifestyle as children leave,” Perot says. “You can move into a beautiful downtown home, walk to the arts, walk to a basketball game, walk to restaurants. There is something unique in the downtown fabric that you couldn’t get in the suburbs.”

Texas now is home to three of the nation’s 10 most populous cities (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio). Its population continues to grow at phenomenal rates: It added 4 million people in the 1990s and more than 2.5 million so far this decade to top 23.5 million, second only to California.

As people pour in, the state is starting to rein in its historical outward spread and venturing into un-Texan territory: high-density development, downtown living, mass transit and neighborhoods built not just for cars, but for walkers and all things urban.

“The competitive advantage of the six or 10 ‘real’ cities in the country is that they offered unrivaled urban living,” says Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. “What you have now is a much larger number of places where you can live an urban lifestyle.

“More and more cities see their built form as part of the sale, part of the calculus,” he says. “If all you have is a dead downtown and strip malls, you’re toast. There’s a big part of the workforce that just won’t tolerate that anymore.”

Texas is rapidly learning that lesson. Its cities are growing up — literally. High-rises, multilevel apartment and condominium buildings are rising in downtowns, on old industrial sites and in abandoned neighborhoods.

The success of light rail in Dallas in particular has spawned developments mixing condos, offices and shops around transit stops in the city and suburbs such as Plano.

If there are any doubts that living in the city has undergone a 180-degree image transformation, consider the marketing pitch for The Vista, a seven-story, 129-unit residential building with street-level retail at Victory Park: “An exciting rental opportunity for the inner-city dweller.”

Inner-city? That word alone would have had people running for the suburbs a decade ago.

When Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., traveled across the country to research his book, This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America, “I went looking for sprawl and urbanism,” he says. He found both in Texas.

“It was a little counterintuitive,” Flint says.

“This is Texas, the land of wide-open spaces. I found examples of urbanism.”

Revamping cityscapes

Meet the new urban Texas:

•Austin has doubled its population every 20 years (709,893 in 2006) since it was founded in 1839. Much of that time, Texas’ capital city has grown away from downtown. Now, the focus is on increasing the population density downtown by building upward.

“At least four towers are going up right now,” says Fritz Steiner, dean of the architecture school at the University of Texas-Austin. “It’s pretty dramatic. All around the edges of downtown or central area, one sees, if not high-rises, other apartments and condominium projects.”

Like Dallas’ Victory Park, the Block 21 development in Austin will have a W Hotel. Shops and restaurants will be on the ground floor and condos above.

A 32-mile commuter rail line will run from downtown Austin to Leander, a town to the northwest. Several residential-retail developments built around transit stops are being planned. The old municipal airport close to downtown is being developed into shops, parks, bike trails, offices, a medical center and residences, including some units for low-income families. An area west of the university has been rezoned to encourage greater density.

•In Fort Worth, where the billionaire Bass family has spurred development of the arts and loft projects downtown, Trinity River View is a proposed 800-acre complex of schools, parks, housing and shops that could add 25,000 residents.

•In Houston, there are plans for Discovery Green, a 12-acre park next to the downtown convention center. A 37-story condo tower will rise beside it. Warehouses and factories are being converted to housing. A light-rail line from downtown is sparking development.

•San Antonio’s signature River Walk will add another 1½ miles to link major museums by the end of next year, a plan that’s drawing interest from residential developers.

The movement also is accelerating beyond Texas. Phoenix, Las Vegas and several other cities that don’t have a rich urban heritage are embracing high-density projects.

Phoenix is building a light-rail system to connect with suburbs. Cities along the rail line that’s scheduled to open next year are rezoning around transit stations to encourage urban development.

High-rises aren’t new to Vegas, but they’re getting bigger and taller and are more than just hotels and casinos. On the north end of the Strip, the 76-acre Project CityCenter by MGM-Mirage is a city within a city. Downtown, a complex that will include a transportation terminal, city offices and other commercial development are planned.

“It’s a new culture for us in southern Nevada,” says Debra March, director of the Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “East Coast cities have had that higher-density flavor for some time. For us, it’s a new experience.”

Many of the 5,000-6,000 people who move to Las Vegas every month come from New York or New Jersey, March notes. There, she adds, “they’ve been accustomed to high-rise development … as a lifestyle choice.”

Looking up in Dallas

It should come as no surprise that Texas’ new passion for drawing people downtown is playing out in a big way in “Big D.”

Dallas did not experience the dizzying real estate boom that other parts of the USA saw earlier this decade. That has spared it the freefalls in prices and sales that have staggered other areas.

Last year, the city adopted its first growth plan that details a long-term vision. The theme of Forward Dallas! is clear: density, density, density.

Dense development is clustering along the 45-mile Dallas Area Rapid Transit light-rail line that connects Dallas and Plano to the north and Garland to the northeast. Construction is underway to almost double the system. By 2013, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Love Field, the major airports serving the city, will be linked to rail.

Developers here like transit. A 2005 study by professors at the University of North Texas in Denton estimated that more than $3.3 billion had been invested or planned near light-rail stations since 1999.

“About five years ago, I could count maybe two developers who sort of had an idea what transit-oriented development was about,” says Peer Chacko, assistant director of Dallas’ long-range planning division. “All this has changed.”

Only two developers applied for public funding for such development four years ago, he says. More than 50 applied last year.

“These ideas are not usually associated with Texas,” Chacko says. “Density is still in many communities considered a bad word. Public housing is associated with it.”

Upscale and elevated

Victory Park is as far from public housing as you can get. It’s anchored by the American Airlines Center, which opened in 2001 as the home of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, a team partly owned by Perot. “New cities were not developed originally to be very dense,” says Perot, chairman of Hillwood development company. “Dallas grew in a traditional suburban program because land was cheap.”

Perot owned land all around the arena. He used it to create a glitzy neighborhood from an industrial wasteland. Power plants, fuel storage tanks, a railroad maintenance yard and incinerators had left cancer-causing substances behind.

About 15 million gallons of tainted groundwater had to be cleaned and 750,000 cubic yards of dirt moved.

Perot wanted a community where “you basically can live, work and play,” he says.

Victory Park is wooing largely high-end residents. The W Dallas Victory Hotel & Residences are selling for $400,000 to $7 million. Other projects include The House, a 28-story, 147-unit residential tower designed by renowned French designer Philippe Starck. And Victory Tower, 43 stories featuring the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 90 residential units, office and retail space. And Cirque, a 28-story high-rise with 252 apartments.

Whatever the model, Cathy Phillips is ecstatic about the transformation as she browses through Haven, a home accessory store and one of the boutiques that line Victory Park Lane in the shadow of high-rises.

“I love the feel of it,” says Phillips, a fundraising activist who splits her time between Dallas and California.

Jon Tutolo, Haven’s owner, has clients who live part time in other cities or abroad. The growing cosmopolitan nature of its population may help explain Dallas’ embrace of urbanism.

Northern cities provide much of the inspiration for Dallas’ upward mobility, but they’re not publicly touted as the role models.

“In secret, we look at what they do,” Dallas city planner Chacko says. “But we try to avoid pointing to them too much as an example. It doesn’t sell very well to the public. If we say New York or Chicago, they say, ‘We’re Dallas.’ There’s a very strong level of pride.”