I recently wrote about the need to embrace reality when it comes to land use regulation, culture, politics, and economics. My interpretation can seem a bit… dark. It’s not my intention to discourage people looking to make a positive difference in their communities. I’ve just seen how things tend to play out and the process doesn’t exactly favor mom and pop operations that are juggling day jobs, raising kids, and working on limited budgets. Telling motivated individuals to go out into the world and build great new small scale walkable mixed use urbanism of the kind once found on every Main Street in North America is disingenuous. Yes, it’s “possible.” But it’s also incredibly unlikely in most places. Building from scratch or even modifying existing properties isn’t the answer for these folks. We need to be honest about that.
I’ll use the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas as an example. A few years ago I was in Dallas to attend a series of overlapping city planning conferences. Deep Ellum was a recurring theme and a number of events were held there as demonstration projects. Back in 1973 city officials bulldozed most of the neighborhood to make way for a massive elevated highway. Urban removal killed two birds with one stone. State and federal money provided commuter infrastructure that supported the ever growing new middle class suburbs on the edge of town while simultaneously wiping away blight near downtown. What’s not to love? (Anyone want to guess who lived in Deep Ellum before it was razed?)
Dallas locals like Jason Roberts of Build a Better Block as well as fellow participants from out of state like Street Plans Collaborative advocate fast, cheap, temporary, and iterative programming for neglected neighborhoods. Potted plants, inexpensive outdoor furniture, food trucks, street vendors, bicycle accommodations, string lights, outdoor movie nights, and live music can reactivate otherwise dead streets, vacant lots, and disused storefronts. If done sensitively with the active participation of the people who already live in the neighborhood these techniques can be transformative. The goal is to discover what works and build upon those successes incrementally over time. It’s bootstrap urban revival on a shoestring budget.
These days market demand for urban living is strong and there’s money to be made in redeveloping what’s left of these old neighborhoods. They have “authenticity” and “texture” that can’t be duplicated in new construction. Deep Ellum is well located within walking and biking distance of the central business district as well as Baylor University Medical Center. There’s a spread between what these buildings are now and what they could be with new investment and institutional support.
While I was in town conference hopping I attended a side presentation organized by a group of prominent business leaders who advocate pulling down the highway that cuts through Deep Ellum. This meeting was held at the behest of the American Conservative and D Magazine populated by a lot of old white guys in suits, not crunchy hippie treehuggers.
The business argument is simple. The aging highway is at the end of its design life and neither the city of Dallas nor the Texas Department of Transportation has the money to rebuild it since both are functionally insolvent. Dismantling the highway would liberate a huge amount of downtown land that could be redeveloped by the private sector. Construction jobs would be created up front, market demand for urban living would be satisfied, and substantial tax revenue would be generated for the city for many decades into the future. In other words, a cost center would become a profit center.
And let’s not forget there’s a tremendous amount of money to be made for well placed developers with deep pockets. Hence all the wine and cheese gatherings and thought leaders with their PowerPoints. I hasten to add this isn’t corruption per se. The cost in time, money, and political wrangling is enormous. Only exceptionally well funded organizations can work their way through these endless processes and achieve any kind of worthwhile goal. Why would anyone bother if there wasn’t an equally massive payoff at the end?
The reality of how land is redeveloped in this context is simple. The cost of buying distressed property, site remediation, upgrading the infrastructure, accommodating all the requirements of multiple bureaucracies from the fire marshal to institutional investors – all while still creating a product the market wants and can actually afford to pay for… leads to this. It’s referred to as the Texas Doughnut. It’s an entire city block of multi-storied parking garages wrapped in a skin of apartments. Sometimes they’re rentals, sometimes they’re condos for sale. If your goal is to recreate the fine grained individually owned mom and pop buildings of a previous century that’s just not going to happen. Again, it’s not impossible. It’s just highly unlikely to pan out for a dozen reasons having to do with the fact that the society that build Main Street no longer exists.
So let’s go back to the smaller older existing buildings in Deep Ellum. These are at a scale an average family can wrap its mind around. Lots of people dream of owning an independent business and living upstairs. It’s a great arrangement that’s been used successfully for eons all around the world. But there are complications here. The most pragmatic way to purchase and renovate buildings like these is with cash. Some people have it. Most don’t. Private equity (A.K.A. asking your father-in-law or a collection of dentists and chiropractors from the country club for money) works if you have that kind of personal situation and charisma…
Don’t expect to go to just any random bank and get a thirty year mortgage for one of these places. Almost all banks see such properties as “non-conforming.” They’re used to writing loans for four bedroom two bath homes on cul-de-sacs and then bundling them off at the end of the month to pension funds that require consistency in the product profile. If these were ten thousand square foot strip malls with fifty seven parking spaces on a road with forty thousand cars driving by each weekday there’d be an institutional bundle for that. Same with a two hundred unit garden apartment complex. But a fifteen hundred square foot bakery or barber shop with an apartment upstairs? What kind of freaky platypus is that?
Some people will sit you down and calmly explain that the guidelines for plain vanilla federally insured mortgages technically include buildings with up to four units and up to 25% commercial space in an otherwise residential building. On paper it’s no different than a single family home. That’s absolutely true. But many older buildings are closer to fifty/fifty residential/commercial. Even if you find a building that does conform you still need to find a banker who will grant that loan in this neighborhood. Again, it’s absolutely possible. But it’s not easy. And if a building is too cheap – generally under $50,000 – no bank will write a mortgage either.
A commercial loan with a short term – typically eight years – and a significantly higher interest rate might be offered instead of a standard thirty year mortgage. Maybe. As part of the due diligence process the right bank will make you prove that the building is structurally sound, conforms to modern codes, and has a pro forma that can cash flow properly. And then there’s the cost of renovations, complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the fire code, and existing zoning regulations… It can be done. But something as basic as installing fire sprinklers or an elevator can easily kill a proposed project. It’s just too expensive in a building with too little value. Sorting out all this stuff takes real skill and experience. I know several seasoned mid-size property developers who lost everything to bankruptcy because their high quality projects came on line just in time for a big market correction and they couldn’t service their debts. And these folks were light years ahead of an ordinary person looking to invest in a modest property.
The scenario I see all over the country is formulaic. Older buildings in formerly derelict neighborhoods are bought and renovated by well funded and skilled firms who specialize in this kind of development. Shops and apartments are then rented to individuals. These legacy districts become amenity centers that add value to new large scale infill development of the Texas Doughnut variety. There are exceptions, but that’s mostly what I see. It’s neither good nor bad. People sometimes complain about gentrification, but the alternative is for these neighborhoods to continue to decline until they can’t be saved at all. It might be nice if every aspect of society changed to allow other options, but I’m not holding my breath. At the end of the day we live in the world we live in. We have the rules and procedures we have. Shrug. Mom and Pop need to find a new gig.
John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at granolashotgun.com. He’s a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for faircompanies.com, and is a regular contributor to Strongtowns.org. He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.