Skip to the content

Rethinking the Future of North Texas Development: Part Three

Rethinking the future of North Texas development- how to control the chaotic urban sprawl.

Published February 6, 2012 By JESSICA MEYERS and OTHERS


PORTLAND — An invisible marker divides the pre-fabricated houses from grassy vineyards and cascading farmland just west of downtown Portland. This line — rooted in values, politics and planning — captures both the essence and extremes of managed growth.

Development stays limited to areas inside this urban growth boundary. An elected council determines the lines every five years. No city slows growth without consequences. The boundary boosts real estate prices and causes controversy. But Oregonians have come to embrace the preservation it allows.

Preservation is not a word much connected with Texas, a place rooted in expansionist pride and individual freedoms. Growth produces a robust economy that drives additional jobs, quality schools and the appealing security of a less urban environment.

But the state’s suburbs keep spreading as infrastructure erodes, water supplies dwindle and pastures disappear. Texas has no plan to combat the sprawl, although several North Texas communities have taken tentative steps to address it.

Portland’s metropolitan area showcases how state controls, regional collaboration and conservationist philosophy help lessen sprawl’s toll on the economic and physical landscape. And it reinforces how North Texas, with only minimal restrictions on development, will need to accept some constraints.

“Texans have not really been good at dense living,” said Steve Murdock, a professor of sociology at Rice University and the former U.S. census director. “We are victims of our own success.”

Regional Government

Bicyclists and brew pubs define the landscape here alongside transit tracks and food trucks. Distinctiveness is prized in a region recognized as a pillar of land conservation as much as a stereotype of quirky living.

Oregon lawmakers determined its land policies more than three decades ago when they set up urban growth boundaries to preserve fading farmland. The laws required cities to craft long-term land-use plans that included transportation routes and the protection of natural resources. The Portland region went even further by creating Metro, an authoritative planning council and still the country’s only directly elected regional government.

The metropolitan area’s urban boundary has raised land costs, but it’s also made possible the bales of blueberries and the bottles of wine that appear at Portland farmers markets. These drawn-up lines are the reason hiking, off-road biking and drives through horse-filled pastures remain an accessible 15 minutes from downtown. They’ve redefined how people think about land.

“The urban growth boundaries are almost mythical,” said John Fregonese, a Portland planner who has worked in Dallas, Denton and Waco. “In terms of benefits, it helps cities understand new land and emphasizes recycling land because it makes it more valuable. Have you found an abandoned mall? A vacant main street?”

Looking Inwards

Washington County, the Portland region’s economic powerhouse, resembles the ever-expanding realm of Collin County. Both hold major high-tech employment centers, cater largely to a white-collar crowd, boast well-regarded schools and have mushrooming populations. Planners expect the population of the entire Portland area to double in the next few decades, just like North Texas. But Portland’s growth will accompany only an 11 percent increase in land.

Here, space is prized more as a tool for redevelopment than a vehicle for expansion. The high-tech giant Intel houses its Hillsboro campus in a former industrial field. A Chevron gas station in nearby Beaverton also functions as an electrical power plant. And permanently stationed food trucks fill vacant Portland parking lots with everything from poached Thai chicken to pork schnitzel.

The urban growth boundary prevents cities from spreading outward, so they’re forced to look inward. “It has led to a realization that everything is related to everything else,” said Ethan Seltzer, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. “This notion that you’re all in it together, it leads to a willingness to cooperate.”

Metro, which guides decisions affecting the boundaries, has helped cement the area’s interdependence. The planning agency sets the agenda for 25 cities and three counties on issues that range from treating sewage to maintaining the zoo. Its 50-year regional plan includes provisions for affordable housing and urban greenery.

Cities can thank Metro for the light rail that snakes from the far western reaches of Hillsboro to eastern Gresham and the international airport. The council recently decided to create “rural reserves,” or places that will remain untouched for the next 50 years.

Cities must cede some authority. They do so, said Metro president and former Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes, because of the results.

Genentech comes to mind. The Portland region found itself in competition with Dallas six years ago for one of the biotechnology company’s manufacturing hubs. North Texas offered more. It came to Hillsboro.

“We don’t have tax abatements,” Hughes said. “But we do offer a quality of life and a lifestyle, and it has allowed us to attract a large number of educated young people.”

Regulation is a Virtue

The philosophy that underscores Metro’s role — a belief that regulations can enhance rather than thwart — also seeps into development. Cities must obey housing caps and build to minimum density requirements. A newly zoned 543-acre area southwest of Portland, for example, must have a minimum of 4,651 housing units. State law requires communities designate a certain portion for rentals.

Rather than limit development options, these constraints have spurred creativity. And city leaders have shown flexibility in altering zoning codes to carve community and character onto aging main streets and newer corridors. Take Washington County’s Orenco Station, considered one of the first successful mixed-use communities in the country.

Leafy streets serve as the backdrop for almost 2,000 townhouses, two-story homes and balcony apartments in the growing region west of downtown Portland. A knitting club meets at the locally run grocery store. It sits cattycorner to a wine bar with earthy pinots from nearby Willamette Valley. Residents can walk to work at the Intel campus down the street or take the light rail next door. Its popularity has boosted the lowest home prices from $79,000 to $200,000 for a one-bedroom loft.“The bottom line is the market really likes this kind of project,” said Michael Mehaffy, Orenco Station’s project manager, who got city backing in the 1990s to change the zoning code and build. “But it’s critical that the jurisdiction works to make it easier.”

Fregonese, the planner, used his neighborhood coffee shop to highlight the gulf between state mentalities. On any given day, the Cadillac Cafe houses hibernating students and overcaffeinated professionals. The streetside shop can exist, he said, because it doesn’t face the kind of parking regulations seen in driving-ruled suburbs like Frisco or Plano.

“The approach here is to help,” said Fregonese, who considers Texas zoning geared toward prohibiting change. “In Texas, it’s very different. There’s a planning commission meeting, and then the neighbors show up and you can’t do it.”


No region — not even Portland, the popularized saint of sustainable living — has harnessed growth without the repercussions of skyrocketing home prices or costs to economic development.

Oregon’s minimum wage is less than half the amount needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in metropolitan Portland, according to Greater Portland Pulse, a public-private partnership dedicated to improving the region’s well-being. Median home prices in 2010 teetered near $240,000.

Portland averages almost 1,000 more people per square mile than Dallas.

Some residents attack the urban growth boundary for boosting housing costs, pricing out families and taking away property rights. Voters periodically place initiatives on the ballot to chop it.

“I have a problem telling somebody what they can do with their land,” said Ed Bartholemy, who struggled to sell his bison farm because it sat just outside the urban growth boundary.

Maryland, which has created financial incentives instead of regulations, lacks the funds to cover many of those economic development costs. Florida nixed its smart growth plan last year after its land-use policies had blistering effects on housing prices. And places like North Las Vegas have become victims of developers’ empty promises. Land meant for retail sits empty in this Vegas suburb, where builders abandoned their mixed-use agreement and built only apartments. In all these places, traffic still clogs highways.

Competing Cities

Other states still have made greater progress than Texas tackling the kind of growth that destroys air quality and ravages roads. Maryland, which helped coin the “smart growth” phrase, pushes for development in more populated areas and makes efforts to preserve agricultural land. Florida and a number of other states require regions to map out their futures. Maryland, Colorado and New Jersey have created smart growth offices.

Texas has no comprehensive growth plan. The state lacks both the political will and the regional sensibility even to address it, according to a 2009 report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass. The study said Texas “has failed to take adequate actions to manage the consequences.” That same year, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill that would have initiated a smart growth policy group.

Even small amounts of change will require a shift in thinking. Land use experts say a lack of cohesion among North Texas’ various municipalities, counties and political subdivisions has helped feed the region’s patchwork sprawl, as well as fruitless feuding between cities.

“You have numerous government units, each of which is competing for the same tax base,” said Geoffrey Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Smart Growth of America, a group that advocates alternatives to sprawl. “And you’re in a system where you can benefit if your neighbor is losing. … But when one city gains and another one loses, there’s no real net increase in business or jobs for the region. It’s hard to come up with a cohesive plan in” that environment.

Vision North Texas, the region’s first public-private partnership dedicated to examining growth, has come closest to a regional strategy. But the group lacks the teeth to implement it.

“This is not going to happen from the top-down in Texas,” said Karen Walz, Vision North Texas’ project manager. “It’s going to have to happen from the bottom-up.”

A Different Future

Pockets of North Texas have made inroads. Flower Mound enacted its own smart growth plan more than a decade ago that amended the building code and set controls on development. Plano’s Legacy Town Center takes credit as the first place in the country to create a livable community in the middle of an office park. Southlake reinvigorated the notion of town square. Richardson voters have passed a $66 million bond dedicated to neighborhood revitalization. And the North Dallas area that includes dilapidated Valley View Center is slated to become a mixed-use neighborhood filled with offices, hotels and a park.

Some change will happen out of necessity. Planners see rising gas prices and the desires of a younger generation reshaping market options. A whopping 86 percent of people said they want a future with sustainable environments, according to a recent regional survey by the University of Texas at Arlington’s Center for Metropolitan Density. Almost as many said the region needed more high-density designs.

“The strip mall is retail for the last century,” said Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute. “The future belongs to town centers and main streets and mixed use.”

The challenge lies not just in recognizing a need to act but breeding a culture willing to do it, Walz said. This will mean a recasting of priorities by civic leaders, thoughtfulness on the part of builders and a consciousness on behalf of residents.

“The kind of North Texas people will want in 2030 or 2050 will not be the kind of region that was successful in 2000,” she said. “Business as usual is just not sustainable.”

Staff writer Theodore Kim contributed to this report.

ABOUT THE SERIES: Suburban Growth

Last summer, a Dallas Morning News team of editors and reporters began scrutinizing the North Texas growth wave. The team convened a roundtable of public officials, business leaders, planners and educators to discuss sprawl and its ramifications. Reporters interviewed dozens of experts and traveled from Plano to North Las Vegas, Nev., to Portland, Ore., to explore suburban growth, its causes and downsides.

This three-part series — reported by Theodore Kim, Jessica Meyers and Michael E. Young and edited by Eric Nelson — explores these forces, the consequences and what the region can do to foster better growth. Other key contributors include Emily Fox, who aided our reporting and coordinated this package’s graphics; photographer Louis DeLuca, photo editor Michael Hamtil and graphic artist Tom Setzer; and former staff members Clay Zeigler, Ian McCann and Arnessa Garrett, who helped conceive the project.


The basic ingredients for growth can be found in any suburb: open space, decent schools, access to work. Yet in North Texas, and particularly Collin County, those forces are amplified. We decided to take a closer look at the forces causing supercharged growth, the high cost of sprawl on communities and ways to better control expansion.

SUNDAY: No end in sight
MONDAY: Sprawl at what cost?
TODAY: Controlling the tide

About the author

Staff writers Ms. Meyers, Ms. Fox and Mr. Young contributed to a report on urban sprawl in Dallas, Texas.

Do your trees need help?

We're ready to grow a relationship.