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Texas Sprawl Goes Out With a Bang, Development Sprouts on Irving Transit Line

Texas Stadium implosion

With 2,715 pounds of dynamite Sunday, 40-year-old Texas Stadium — the one with the hole in its roof, "so God can watch his favorite team play" — was reduced to 2 million pounds of steel scrap and 4 million pounds of (recyclable) concrete rubble. Thousands of die-hard Dallas Cowboys fans and former players showed up to tailgate once last time and cheer the early morning implosion.

One entity that isn’t sad to see it go is its host city of Irving, Texas, which lost the new $1.3 billion Cowboys Stadium (the one with the high-def screen the size of a city block, so owner Jerry Jones can watch his team play) to nearby Arlington. A decade after sports economists such as Smith College’s Andrew Zimbalist debunked the notion that stadium investments drive economic development, Irving is earning more from leasing the site to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) than it ever did from the Cowboys. Having learned their lesson, leaders of the city that Exxon Mobil calls home are casting their lot in with light rail.

Once the last traces of Texas Stadium are cleared away this summer, Irving intends to dust off plans drafted 10 years ago to transform the Cowboys’ former home and the surrounding acreage into the densest, most walkable neighborhood in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex outside of downtown Dallas. An extension of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Orange line is slated to run through the stadium footprint on its way from downtown to Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW) International Airport. The city is already building a $130 million convention center and $255 million entertainment center along its path, and expects another $4 billion in private investment to follow. The stadium site is the next piece in its urban puzzle.

That piece has three owners — Irving, the neighboring University of Dallas, and Southwest Premier Properties, a private developer — whose holdings comprise 468 acres. The plans the three chipped in for 10 years ago (and resulting zoning) call for things like four- or five-story apartment blocks with ground floor retail rather than single-family homes. (The Greater Irving Las Colinas Chamber of Commerce tossed some renderings up on its Web site Monday. "’Urban-suburban,’ is a phrase we’ve been using a lot lately, says Maura Gast, the executive director of Irving’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, referring to the notion of urban densities in a suburban setting. "Everywhere the DART is going is driving more density. The market will support it; developers have started jockeying along that path." Where the stadium once stood, Gast would like to see something like Chicago’s Millennium Park — at least she has the acreage.

What makes Irving’s plans so interesting and potentially so important is the broader urban context. Fifty years ago, this onetime city of 50,000 was once on the fringes of Dallas. Today, it sits in the center of DFW Metroplex with 200,000 residents – and expects to add as many as 50,000 more over the next 30 years. The Metroplex avoided the worst excesses of the housing boom, and thus sidestepped the crash. No metropolitan area has added more new residents during the housing bust than Dallas – 88,000 in just the last two years. But by and large, they haven’t settled in Irving, which prides itself on being the office park of the Metroplex – businesses are responsible for 73% of its tax base, which has a Double AAA rating despite one of the lowest tax rates in the region. The reason for that is Las Colinas.

The glittering towers featured in the opening credits of Dallas — one pair seemingly clad in gold leaf, another as black and viscous as an oil slick — lie not in Dallas proper, but in the remnants of El Ranchito de las Colinas, the 12,000-acre "Little Ranch of the Hills." The same year DFW opened just west of it in 1973, owner Ben Carpenter unveiled his master plan for a wholly-owned-and-operated city carved from those mesquite-shrouded hills — the largest urban development in the country. Before a single plot of land was sold, he ordered the dredging of lakes and canals, stocked them with gondolas, and ran a monorail overhead. "It is Disney World for the affluent," Texas Monthly reported in the 1980s. "In fact, when executives from Disney World visited the development a few years ago, one of them commented that it was a shame ol’ Walt couldn’t have lived to see the real thing."

Las Colinas is what you get when you let CEOs and their site selection committees design a city. The upside for Irving is that it also attracts a lot of CEOs — Fluor, Kimberly Clark, Commercial Metals and the aforementioned Exxon Mobil all keep their headquarters there, and their executives live in gated communities studded throughout.

What’s most interesting about Irving’s plans to added density in its last undeveloped corner is the tacit admission that Las Colinas’s gold-plated office parks and single-family homes are no longer enough. "The piece that has always been missing from Las Colinas is the human density that’s missing on weekends and at nights," says Gast. The reason for adding that piece is an eminently practical one — it’s what those corporate tenants, their workers and developers all want. Irving is embracing transit-oriented development because it thinks it can make money doing it.

And therein lies the complications. What will actually get built on those 468 acres depends almost entirely on what private developer are willing to pay for. As Gast tells it, each of the three owners is eager to make the first move, as the early deals will likely set the pattern for the entire project. Not helping is the possibility of major funding cutbacks at DART, including the possibility the Orange line won’t run all the way to the airport anytime soon. And the final bit of potentially wishful thinking is the notion that a stadium site at the convergence of three freeways – the so-called "Diamond Interchange" – can ever be converted into a Millennium Park, especially when TxDOT is leasing the site for 10 years to carry out freeway expansion.