Andrew Keatts | @andy_keatts | September 8, 2016
Things are going well for downtown Plano.
Almost 15 years ago, Dallas-area regional planners put a light-rail station in historic downtown Plano. Since then, city leaders watched the area thrive with the types of developments – mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented, public-private partnerships – that win a game of urban planning buzzword bingo.
Developers flocked to the area, with the assistance of incentives from the city’s planning department, and there are now more than 1,000 homes within a quarter mile of its downtown transit station. And there’s more development in store, along with yet another transit station coming to town, too, as part of a new commuter line through Dallas’s northern suburbs.
“We want quality, but we are open for business,” said Plano’s director of planning, Christina Day.
The revival of the historic city center in recent years was enough to grab some national attention. The American Planning Association recently named downtown Plano one of its Great Places in America.
The city, the APA wrote, “was once the sleepy, nearly forgotten heart of a farming community swept away by Dallas’s suburban expansion,” it wrote. Today, the organization calls historic downtown Plano and intersting mix of the past and future.
“Their downtown is experiencing a real shift, and it’s primarily through infill development,” said Emil Malizia, a professor of regional planning at UNC Chapel Hill and the author of an APA-published book on Sustainable Development Projects.
But turning Plano into a planning success story began decades earlier, Day said.
“You can’t know the good if you don’t know the bad,” she said.
In the 1980s, downtown Plano — like many downtown areas — saw widespread disinvestment as suburbanization took hold. Few people lived there, and what stores were left weren’t very useful – hobby businesses based on what was most convenient for the business owners, with little attention to consumer needs.
That was the relic of what had been the core of a mercantile farming community 20 miles north of Dallas since the late 1800s. Plano’s population was only a few thousand people into the 1960s, when the region’s growth subsumed the community and turned it instead into a bedroom community for Dallas.
But in 1992, city leaders passed their first downtown plan. It built of the municipal buildings that were there and sought to reverse the flow of money out of the downtown and into new pop-up communities.
DART, Dallas’s regional light rail line, was on the horizon, though the first station in Plano wouldn’t open until 2002. But that first downtown plan had already tried to align development incentives with the sort of dense, walkable and mixed-use projects that would make that coming station a success.
“That seems obvious now, but in 1992 it was not obvious,” Day said.
A shift in development
The first major project that was part of the new vision, East Village, was planned for the area right next to the first transit station. The city owned the 3.2 acres, addressed environmental contamination on the site and made the infrastructure improvements that would otherwise fall to the developer. Moreover, the city waived the fee it normally charges developers to help build new parks, and it heavily discounted the 70-year lease in inked with the developer in initial years. The project will contain more than 200 homes of varying sizes in three- and four-story buildings.
The project opened before the transit station, giving the new line a built-in user base before it even opened. A few years later, the city teamed with the same developer again on a neighboring 3-acre site, again waiving certain costs to make that project — and its 229 units — financially feasible.
“The city owned the land, so we were poised to act when we saw opportunities,” Day said.
Then the downtown area had momentum. Restaurants started opening – with already-accomplished area businesses opening a second location downtown to get in on the goods.
There was a brief hiatus from the growth during the recession. Now, many of the projects that had been paused are finally reaching completion, such as Lexington Park, the city’s old football field that was developed into 70 homes.
At the same time downtown Plano was reinventing itself, the city also experienced continued, booming growth of a completely different kind. Where downtown Plano saw infill and redevelopment projects, the city also built the Legacy Business Park, a greenfield project of more than 2,500 acres in the Northwest portion of the city. It’s home to corporate headquarters like Frito-Lay and J.C. Penney, and it’s home to 60,000 people, about 30 percent of the whole city’s population.
Between the two areas, growth in Plano at the moment is largely coming via multi-family homes. In 2015, 80 percent of the 2,416 new homes approved were for multi-family units, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
And while that’s just a reality of the current market in many cities, it’s also a long-term trend in Plano, where 95 percent of the city’s land, excluding flood plains, is already developed, Day said.
That’s why she said the planning department is now turning its attention to the area surrounding the new station planned for DART’s promised commuter line, known as the Cotton Belt Line.
That project is being fast-tracked. Originally scheduled for completion in 2035, officials now hope to finish it by 2025.
Repeating the model
Plano acted fast, already agreeing to re-zone a property that was the longtime home of a boat dealership in order to facilitate a 300-home, transit-oriented development at the site of the station. The city aims to have the project complete by the time the transit station — the 12th Street Station, part of DART’s new Cotton Belt Line, is up and running.
Day said that sort of thinking is typical of the city’s planning department, which prides itself on being efficient. It has a streamlined regulatory code that enforces what’s important, she said. A complicated process can be reviewed and approved in six months, she said; more simple projects can be done in just a couple months.
Moreover, the APA explains, it the city has clear rules that lead to the type of development the community wants. “Downtown Plano has a minimum housing density of 40 units per acre — you literally cannot build less dense projects there,” the APA writes. “Likewise, it has maximum building setbacks — so you have to build projects close to the property line, creating more of a downtown and walkable feel. They’re also putting in place ordinances to make life easier for food trucks.”
It’s all relatively straightforward. And that simplicity, says Malizia, the UNC professor, is fundamental to the success of a city like Plano. Cities want infill development, but they need to find ways to convince developers to pursue those projects.
“The conventional wisdom is, greenfield or suburban development is preferred to urban infill because it’s easier,” he said. “So to convince people, you need to limit the brain damage they’ll experience going through the process. And eventually, you need a good group of reliable private sector developers.”
Plano has done both – reducing obstacles for the developers who come, then building long-term relationships with them.
And he said it’s essential for large American metropolitan areas to foster the sort of growth that’s occurred in Plano in other secondary job or housing centers. He calls them “vibrant centers.”
Plano, he said, is a suburban area with substantial employment. And suburbs tend to come in two types: those that are reviving themselves and competing for economic growth with the metro area’s traditional downtown center, and others that are still fundamentally traditional suburban office parks.
“If you compare the recent performance of traditional suburban offices to vibrant centers, the vibrant centers have been significantly outperforming them since at least the year 2000,” he said. “Something is going on here.”
The opportunity, he said, is for places just like Plano that are enjoying a back-to-the-future moment. Many suburbs like Plano were themselves standalone cities 100 years ago – giving them the traditional urban design pattern that made it possible for them to redevelop successfully. And as the metro areas have grown around them, they’ve ceased to be standalone cities.
“If you’re a city manager of one of these cities like Plano, from an economic development standpoint it makes a lot of sense to seek infill development to strengthen a small downtown,” he said.