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Rampant NIMBYism Is Driving DFW's Dismal Walkability Ranking, Developers Say

When it comes to development buzzwords, few are as ubiquitous as “walkability.” But despite the industry’s attachment to the term, Dallas-Fort Worth is still one of the least walkable cities in the nation, and developers say restrictive zoning is mostly to blame.

This year's Smart Growth America study ranked DFW No. 27 out of the nation’s 35 largest metros for its walkability. While much progress has been made over the last two decades to achieve walkable urbanism elsewhere, zoning regulations that favor low-density development have gone a long way in stymying widespread change.

“Zoning in Dallas and our surrounding suburban areas is not mixed zoning,” TBG Partners principal Mark Meyer said. “We’re fighting uphill battles for politicians and city officials to understand that this is an acceptable way to create better, sustainable development forms.”


DFW’s subpar walkability ranking is rooted in its history as a car-dependent city, said Christoper Leinberger, co-author of the Smart Growth America study and co-founder and managing director of Places Platform. Unlike Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., most of the Metroplex was developed during the age of automobiles. 

“The vast majority of [DFW’s] built environment has been built since the Second World War, and that’s all driveable suburban,” he said. “That means you have to convert driveable suburban rather than rebuilding and redeveloping existing walkable urban.”

The market share of walkable urbanism in DFW has grown significantly over the last five years, Leinberger said, with well-known developments like Klyde Warren Park, Legacy West and Bishop Arts District serving as important catalysts. 

Still, less than 1% of DFW’s land mass is classified as walkable urban, Leinberger said, which means the Metroplex has a long way to go before it can come close to competing with the nation’s most walkable cities.

Only 24% of DFW’s office stock is walkable. That figure is 73% in New York City and 60% in Seattle. The percentages are even grimmer when it comes to other asset types. Just 8% of DFW’s retail stock, 11% of multifamily and 3.4% of for-sale housing is walkable.

“Just getting up to 2% or 3% over the next decade would provide a lot of economic benefit and tremendous growth,” Leinberger said. “You have a long way to go, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

The economic benefits of walkability are well-documented. Walkable urbanism in the nation’s 35 largest metros accounts for 19.1% of U.S. real gross domestic product while making up only 1.2% of the nation’s total land mass, Smart Growth America found.

Walkable areas are known to command premiums in commercial rents and for-sale home prices. Office space in walkable urban areas commands an average 44% premium, and retail registers a 41% boost, per Smart Growth America. 

Other studies show access to walkability also positively impacts public health, safety and racial equity.

Despite all of the known benefits, zoning in DFW remains unfavorable to walkable urbanism. To achieve walkability, a developer must lock in density. In some areas, that can be a nearly insurmountable task.

“That’s where the NIMBYs come in,” said Nadia Christian, partner at DFW-based Wolverine Interests. “They want the retail, they want the restaurants, but they don’t want the people who will support the local businesses.”

Tackling NIMBYism comes down to education, Christian and Meyer said. People often equate density to traffic congestion, overcrowding of schools and crime, all of which are preconceived notions developers work hard to undo.

“People that are elected to city council very much sit in the standpoint that everything needs to be separated, and by it being separated, it protects my individual land value,” Meyer said. “All of the studies done over the last 30 years show that urban, connected development creates better land value long-term, and that is something we as designers and planners are having to educate people on.”

Developers at Wolverine Interests had to sacrifice density to get their Allen City Center project approved.

In many cases, developers like Christian are forced to reduce density to get council approval. This was the case at Wolverine Interests’ Allen City Center, which in 2019 was rejected by the council after a large contingent of residents opposed the project’s density. 

Earlier this week, the council approved the project, but only after Christian and her team returned with fewer residential units.

“Years later, here we are, and we’re going to go ahead and build an urban residential mixed-use project,” she said. “But it’s different: We have less density, and we’re going to have less retail because the retail is not going to be supported if we don’t have the people.”

It isn't enough to explain why density is critical to the success of the overall project, Christian said. Developers must get creative, and one resource Christian has employed is an Urban Land Institute course that puts laypeople in the shoes of developers. 

The program, called UrbanPlan, presents participants with a fictitious request for proposals and asks them to come up with a development that meets the outlined goals. The exercise demonstrates the many variables that must be in place to make a deal work.

“It puts them in the perspective of the developer to see the hundreds of ongoing problems we are constantly trying to navigate,” she said. “Hopefully, when they have a developer come through their P&Z or council, they have a much better understanding of why we make some of these decisions for our development.”

Another effort underway in Dallas is spearheaded by a volunteer organization known as the Urban Design Peer Review Panel, a group made up of development professionals who provide urban design advice to elected officials. 

One of the goals of the program is to support Dallas’ comprehensive plan, which emphasizes the importance of walkable mixed-use development. It also seeks to foster effective working relationships with developers.

TBG Partners held a tactical urbanism pop-up on Crowdus Street in Deep Ellum in 2015. Eight years later, the firm is working to permanently close the street to cars, which would create open space in a sea of development.

Meyer said efforts like these are critical to communicating the importance of density, especially in suburban areas. But an even simpler way to demonstrate value is through tactical urbanism, a low-cost, temporary way of exposing people to the impact of urban design.

Better Block, a Dallas-based nonprofit, specializes in tactical urbanism. The organization works with neighbors, council members, small-business owners and stakeholders to reimagine areas, especially those that are suffering from disinvestment.

The organization recently created a pop-up park at a crime-ridden strip mall in northeast Dallas to demonstrate what the area could look like if the city council votes to allocate $5.5M in tax revenue to create a permanent park, according to the Dallas Morning News. The project, if approved, is expected to be transformational for the low-income neighborhood.

“What that does is all of the sudden, people come together and say, ‘Oh, I see the potential here,'” Meyer said. “That is the start of incremental change. … If you don’t believe in something, you have to see it to believe it.”

That shift in perspective has already begun to take hold in DFW, evidenced by the many walkable projects being planned around mass transit. Between 2016 and 2018, 81 development projects were completed within a quarter-mile of Dallas Area Rapid Transit stations, comprising property value of $5.1B.

Optimists like Meyer and Leinberger say the only way to go is up. Despite the region’s low walkability ranking, DFW placed sixth on Smart Growth America’s future growth momentum scale, which shows there is great opportunity for enhanced walkability through greater density, improved transportation, pedestrian infrastructure and other measures.

“Give Dallas 50 years and it will probably be a much more mixed, walkable place than it ever has been,” Meyer said.