The title I chose for this article is intentionally misleading. The Dallas suburb of Grapevine, Texas, is not in immediate need of rebuilding. Most folks would say it’s doing just fine–it’s been named one of the region’s best suburbs quite frequently. Moreover, while there are plans to add to it, there are no plans to rebuild it as such. Still, in the ten years we’ve been publishing The New Colonist, the paradigm has shifted somewhat from rebuilding center cities to remaking suburbs. Eventually this idea of remaking will be coming to a suburb near you.
Before the 1980s, Grapevine was a small Texas town with a population of less than 10,000. The homes here, many built around the turn of the 20thCentury, were sited between even earlier farm houses. Grapevine’s Main Street was a cluster of buildings that likely served a larger geographic area than it does today. Remnants of that era still exist and can be seen, for example, in the feed store that sits directly across from the old railroad depot (#21 on map).
In the 1980s, construction of the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport would change the town dramatically. Farmland was filled with suburban homes, commercial centers sprung up, the population quadrupled, and downtown Grapevine had lost its role as a center for commerce.
Later there was a move to preserve and reuse the buildings on Main Street. In a move to add place to the space, nearby suburbs such as Southlake began what we may later see as the beginnings of a rebuilding process, building town centers from scratch. While the majority of the homes in Grapevine and surrounding communities were suburban in nature, in Southlake there’s a section of Boston-styled row houses surrounding a park that if you blink may resemble San Francisco’s Alta Plaza.
A few years ago a block of apartment buildings sprang up in Grapevine, apparently the result of a zoning loophole. They sit very close to the historic railroad depot, which offers occasional service, mostly geared for tourists, to Fort Worth. Plans are in the works to run regular commuter service on the line by 2013 to both Dallas and Fort Worth. That will be a big step in a town not currently served by public transit.
There’s been some debate recently over whether densification of the downtown will be good for Grapevine. On bit of positive news, the argument as of late has debated not whether, but where, to allow high-density, mixed-use development.
One place suggested has been the Main Street business district. Grapevine’s history however has made this usually sensible suggestion unpalatable. Historic preservation has brought this district back from the dead, and though these may be largely one-story commercial buildings, they are important to the town and its history and should be saved. High-density zoning may result in the undoing of the original downtown, and the creation of a new one. From a planning standpoint that may seem sensible, but given the town’s history, other solutions should be sought.
The other option, as suggested by Mayor William Tate, is to zone the area south of the train depot and rail line high-density mixed-use. (A new station will be built to serve commuters.) This seems to make some sense because if the commuter train runs with any frequency, it will bring demand for housing near the station. But that also moves the population center away from the historic town center.
Another alternative, or perhaps, would be to create higher-density areas behind the historic buildings on either side of Main Street. There are a few wooden homes, mostly used for commercial purposes, this could threaten, but those could be moved to other locations, creating a clustering of historic residences. The apartment buildings behind Main Street would further serve to support businesses in the existing district rather than create a new retail district that may be in competition. Moreover, businesses focused on serving the residential district in addition to tourists could be bolstered. This map will show where higher-density buildings could be added between historic structures.
Today the town of Grapevine is well aware of the need to maintain a high level of quality for residents and for tourists. A heightened need for aesthetic considerations has brought construction of an attractive building at the southern end of Main Street that will include a clock tower. When completed, each end of the business district will have a tower as a point of reference. (The other is the long-standing city hall.)
Unlike many buildings to the south of the rail line, the new structure, home to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, will meet the sidewalks and complement century-old neighbors nicely, although it will be on a larger scale. There are also several areas on the Main Street where present buildings could be replaced with larger, more appropriate structures. These include a tire store and several small buildings at the north end of the district. It would also be a nice touch to see a streetcar installed that would connect downtown with Grapevine Mall and perhaps even Southlake Town Center.
Looking farther into the future, it’s hard to predict what demands may be made on Grapevine. Will increasing fuel costs and less air travel bring a lessened demand for housing this far from Dallas and Fort Worth, or will a healthy city center and a new rail connection keep the town in good health? Will the new high-density areas of downtown bring demand for additional mixed-use developments? Will existing suburban-style neighborhoods that sprung up in the 1980s begin to be replaced with higher-density housing?
These are not easy things to predict. In any case, a town with a commercial center, rail connection and walkable business district will have a better chance of meeting the needs of tomorrow than suburbs with only far-flung strip malls and without a business district or transit connection.
In the near future, we’re sure to hear more about remaking and rebuilding the suburbs. Looking back, we will also realize the process actually started some time before?and the time is now.