North Texas’ Suburbs Are Becoming Towns Again

Older couple holding hands as they walk along a downtown street.
Dallas Suburbs

The small-town square is a classic American form that has stood the test of time. In Texas, these squares are usually centered on a 19th-century courthouse or park, scaled at two or three stories, with wide sidewalks for window shopping. In other towns, the main street parallel to the railroad played the same role. The square and main street are a pleasant if often time-worn reprieve for the senses, evocative of a simpler era when buildings were built to be enjoyed as much by the people outside them as the people inside them, and public spaces were given as much consideration as private ones.

Hastily abandoned in the postwar suburban land rush, these little mostly stone and wooden downtowns now have a chance at a second life as reinvented villages. A village is a place that offers interdependent opportunities for daily living regardless of one’s economic status. Walkability, connectivity, neighborhood businesses, and a variety of integrated housing make a village possible.

Suburban cities have taken note. With the exception of Coppell (incorporated in 1953), the places featured here were towns long before and, in some cases, for a longer period than they have been suburbs. Some were settled before Dallas was. With the demand for walkability from newcomers and relocating corporate employers, smart suburban planners have turned to their old downtowns to re-create the small-town feel for an increasingly urban age.

The bones are there. But old buildings are in themselves not enough. Quality growth comes from redesign, planning, and careful cultivation of retail. People will go only where there is activity, and seeding that activity with the right local restaurants and stores takes time and investment and, above all, patience. Five communities are featured here for their early leadership in reinventing their historic centers as urban villages. Eight others are highlighted for their emerging potential and what will come next.


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The Early Adopters

These suburbs started off as towns in their own right, long before we forgot what human scale meant.

Grapevine

Hit the Bricks: Grapevine has had a lot going for it: a great location, a long-serving mayor, and a design overlay since 1991.

Originally an agricultural center anchored by its historic rail depot, Grapevine today stands as a regional center of commerce, culture, and hospitality. The city seized on its adjacency to DFW Airport and positioned its historic downtown as the center of a citywide entertainment-hospitality platform that serves both regional and national markets.

Downtown Grapevine is a true destination. Popular annual events such as GrapeFest and Main Street Fest take advantage of its vibrant historic Main Street. With direct access off of State Highway 121, the area quickly transitions into an activity-filled eight-block stretch from the historic rail depot to City Hall. Myriad retail, restaurant, and winery storefronts encourage residents and visitors to stroll the street regardless of the day of the week. The coordinated merchandising of approximately 80 businesses and the intentional design of the street for walkability provides an authentic feel that brings people back.

Leadership has been the key to the meshing of historic design and modern business practices in downtown. It’s not a coincidence that the city has been led by a long-serving mayor, William D. Tate; city council; and city manager Bruno Rumbelow. Additionally, Main Street and its historic residential neighborhoods have been reinforced by a design overlay since 1991. The city’s leadership has continued to put downtown front and center in its citywide economic development strategy as demonstrated by Grapevine Main.

Grapevine Main is planned as a mixed-use, transit-oriented development next to the historic depot on the Cotton Belt Rail Line. It will be one of the stops on the TexRail commuter rail service connecting downtown Fort Worth and DFW Airport. An urban rail station with a boutique hotel and restaurants, Grapevine Main extends the reach of Grapevine’s downtown as a true multimodal destination via the 1,800-mile Regional Veloweb, highway access, and DFW Airport.

Downtown Grapevine is also intentionally connected to public art, urban wine, and craft brew trails. This connectivity and a convenient shuttle service provide the linkages from downtown to the extensive hospitality and entertainment uses throughout the rest of the city, including the Grapevine Mills Mall and the Gaylord Texan Resort on Lake Grapevine. The physical and programmatic connectivity emanating from downtown creates an opportunity for the continuity of sustainable growth policy citywide.

As an example, the city recently assessed its remaining significant undeveloped infill areas to determine the best path toward a sustainable full build-out of the city. In adopting a policy of quality development, the city determined that it should emulate the success of its historic center through the careful integration of uses, walkability, and connectivity for the scarce remaining areas subject to new development.

Plano

Plano with its walkable 15th Street, was recognized by the American Planning Association as one of the Great Places in America.

Rebuilt after the fire of 1881, the historic center of Plano has become one of the best national examples of a reinvented downtown in a suburb. Recognized as one of the Great Places in America by the American Planning Association, it has restaurants, urban residential, and unique local and national retailers, including the vintage-styled Shinola.

A walkable brick street with diagonal parking, 15th Street reminds us that Plano has a history. Better known for The Shops at Legacy and its corporate headquarters on the west side, Plano shares a legacy with other North Texas towns founded parallel to freight rail lines. From the beginning, a key decision to tie downtown Plano to DART’s light rail made all the difference. Credited by city manager Bruce Glasscock “in playing a vital role in creating the quality of life Plano citizens enjoy,” retired deputy city manager Frank Turner understood his mission to oversee downtown’s rebirth would be successful only if urbanism and regional transit became synonymous.

Today, downtown has become the core of Mayor Harry LaRosiliere’s New Frontier strategy. The mayor’s strategy is simple: to redefine the boundaries of downtown Plano across U.S. Highway 75 toward Alma and south toward the President George Bush Turnpike. Spawning along U.S. Highway 75, Plano was one of the original coveted “bedroom” suburbs of Dallas. Whether for the great schools or for other reasons such as racial conflicts in Dallas in the 1960s and 1970s, Plano became well-known for its new neighborhoods around Collin Creek Mall. Albeit gracefully, those neighborhoods and the mall today are aging as the gravity of new investment has migrated to the west side of Plano, along the Dallas North Tollway.

Nevertheless, downtown Plano’s success represents some reinvestment back into the original side of Plano. Mayor LaRosiliere wants to use that success and the modern-day diversity of the city to facilitate a broader redevelopment renaissance along U.S. Highway 75 through the influence of a “greater” downtown. He sees the reinvented fabric of downtown as a walkable, mixed-use entertainment destination stretching across the highway to meet the redevelopment of Collin Creek Mall by Sam Ware and Jeff Blakeley. A reinvented Collin Creek Mall will in turn connect to the new live-work-play urban neighborhood by Rosewood, Heritage Creekside. Similarly, he imagines the entire area to be a walkable, mixed-use pattern of development connecting south down K Avenue to CityLine in North Richardson, across U.S. Highway 75 toward Alma, and southward to PGBT.

McKinney

Hip to Be Square:
McKinney has office space that rents for more than that in downtown Dallas.

In the 1970s, one would travel to downtown McKinney for two reasons: to buy a winter coat at Doug & Lynda’s Ski Shop or to meet Grandmother at a tearoom. In the 1990s, one would venture to one of the many art galleries speckled among the resale shops. Today, one goes to the reinvented downtown square to dine at one of the many great restaurants, such as Harvest, or to simply go to work in an office. Yes, to go to work.

Offering one of the best preserved historic downtown squares and adjacent neighborhoods of Victorian homes in Texas, McKinney sought to differentiate itself from its other Collin County neighbors by initiating redevelopment of its downtown as the center of community life again—a true reinvention for substantial infill residential, entertainment, and jobs.

The strategy worked. If one can find office space in downtown, it could be leasing for as much as $30 per square foot—a rate higher than some Class A space in downtown Dallas. With downtown’s success attracting national attention, Money magazine named McKinney the No. 1 Best Place to Live in America, citing its downtown as one of its selling points.

Success was not just an accident. In the 1990s, several pioneer investors and developers began to purchase and redevelop downtown buildings. One of those pioneers was Don Day, who would later become a city councilman. He and others knew that a new building-scale master plan, as well as a city-initiated rezoning and revised capital program for infrastructure, would provide the public-private momentum needed to sustain a downtown renaissance. That initiative was undertaken and included planning for a future rail station and transit-oriented development east of the historic downtown, across State Highway 5.

Today, a visit downtown on any afternoon will tell you it worked. The square is vital with people. The restaurants are full. Millennial-driven businesses are moving in and around downtown—when they can find space. Meeting that growing demand, downtown has attracted some of the best developers in the region, including the likes of Robert Shaw.

Roanoke

Roanoke is capturing the spending power of southern Denton County.

From sleepy little town in the shadow of Hillwood’s Alliance to regional entertainment destination, downtown Roanoke has become a model for how to capture regional spending through place-making. With a population of less than 8,000, Roanoke is landlocked north of Fort Worth on U.S. Highway 377. Fifteen years ago, its linear downtown anchored by Oak Street was facing a false decision. Does the city eliminate residential along Oak Street to encourage more commercial redevelopment? Roanoke realized that the real question was how to take advantage of the traffic patronizing the original Babe’s Chicken Dinner House.

The problem was that Oak Street was a mess. One did not know where to park, walk, or even drive. Knowing that downtown Roanoke enjoys a tremendous location on the I-35W corridor, the decision was made to reconstruct the Oak Street corridor, making it a true “Main Street.”

The market understood that the spending power of southern Denton County and northern Tarrant County was leaking into downtown Fort Worth and Southlake. So businesses like Twisted Root Burger Co. opened up even before the reconstruction of Oak Street was completed, in anticipation of a great destination. That momentum has created a cluster of restaurants and shops in a walkable downtown with about $15 million in annual sales.

Those retail sales and parallel property value increases have facilitated an accelerated “payback” from the resulting increase in tax base of the $8 million the City Council committed to the reinvention of Oak Street. That leadership, led by Mayor Scooter Gierisch and Councilwoman Holly McPherson, took the bold step of authorizing the sale of certificates of obligation, a form of a bond, to fund the infrastructure improvements.

Today, values and rents have continued to rise, supporting vertical mixed-use buildings. Accordingly, City Hall is being relocated to the end of Oak Street, surrounded by urban residential with structured parking and a new Peabody Hotel and conference center. Looking for a truly authentic context, the Peabody brand chose to enter the Texas market in this little town, which not too long ago was simply conflicted about whether to allow more residential on Oak Street.

Denton

Denton’s historic courthouse anchors its downtown square.

The Denton square and its surrounding downtown serve as the cultural and political center of life in the city. Like many historic downtowns in Texas, the beautifully renovated courthouse in the square in the mid-’90s spurred substantial new investment and adaptive reuse of historic commercial buildings. Downtown Denton offered even more opportunities for growth because of its special juxtaposition of higher education and culture.

Distinguished by its adjacency to Texas Woman’s University on one side and the University of North Texas on the other, downtown Denton continues to reinvent itself as it draws from those institutions and their scholars and students. The youthful student population also means a vibrant music scene. The greater downtown area offers several live music venues, paralleling the nationally recognized music program at the University of North Texas.

Downtown Denton offered even more opportunities for growth because of its special juxtaposition of higher education and culture.

Even with the cultural beacon of downtown, Denton was still considered a bit disconnected from the rest of the region. Accordingly, a decision was made by the leadership in Denton County to join the transit future of North Texas by creating the Denton County Transportation Authority, also known as DCTA. DCTA moved aggressively to link Denton to the rest of the region through its A-train commuter rail line, which connects downtown Denton with DART’s Green Line in Carrollton. That link will eventually provide a rail connection via the future Cotton Belt Rail Line to DFW Airport.

The A-train station east of downtown is surrounded by an underutilized Union Pacific rail yard and multiple industrial properties, many no longer in use. As the other sides of downtown consist of stable lower-density university neighborhoods and commercial areas, the A-train station area provides an opportunity for substantial mixed-use densification in the historic core. Some urban residential has already sprung up there on former vacant parcels. But the substantial potential for an extension of walkable, mixed use from the heart of downtown has yet to be realized. As the leadership of NCTCOG, DCTA, Denton County, the city of Denton, the universities, and the private sector continues to come together, that potential surely will be realized.

The Next Wave

These historic downtowns are poised for greatness.

Duncanville

Monte Anderson saw the potential of downtown Duncanville and developed Main Station, a vertical mixed-use project with residential, restaurants, and office across from the future rail transit station on Main Street. That set in motion the adaptive reuse of several adjacent downtown buildings, providing opportunity for new businesses. Anderson appreciated the ethnic and economic diversity of this southern Dallas County community, seeking to preserve and advance its promise.

With this private development setting the stage, the city initiated a downtown master plan, rezoning and partnering with NCTCOG to support a multiblock redesign and reconstruction of Main Street into a true urban thoroughfare. Although redevelopment has been incremental, downtown Duncanville is ready for the extension of rail transit from Dallas and its significant share of the county’s growth.

Irving

With a false start just before the 2008 recession, Irving sought to reinvent its aging downtown through a public-private partnership. That failed initiative resulted in a silver lining, as multiple properties were purchased by the city and have been repositioned for quality urban infill.

Irving offers the region a special location. Its downtown Trinity Railway Express rail station not only links to downtown Dallas and Fort Worth, but it also has the potential to link Carrollton, Plano, and Frisco by rail service along the BNSF line. However, the station is disconnected from the heart of downtown across Irving Boulevard.

The city and its consulting team worked with TxDOT and NCTCOG to take Irving Boulevard off the state system to conceptually redesign it as a walkable thoroughfare with a bikeway to secure funding from the Regional Transportation Council for its reconstruction under that walkable design. Along with the recent city-initiated form-based rezoning, downtown Irving is now positioned to flourish along a soon-to-be-reinvented Irving Boulevard and a conveniently connected commuter rail station linking the rest of the region.

Burleson

Burleson positioned its downtown, known as Old Town, as the cultural and business center of a community facing growth and sprawl pressures. It is now reaping the rewards of its leadership.

Mayor Ken Shetter observes that “the revitalization of Old Town Burleson has been tremendously important to the overall economic vitality of the city. Not only is Old Town home to some of our most successful local businesses, it also attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.” He believes, however, that “the most important impact Old Town’s revitalization has had on our community is that it has become a physical place that all our citizens identify with.”

Developer Rocky Bransom built a mixed-use professional center at the edge of downtown. That infill project created a walkable gateway into the heart of Old Town. Today, acting as a bookend on the other side of downtown, the city is developing a mixed-use building and civic plaza anchoring City Hall through a public-private partnership with Realty Capital.

Waxahachie

A county seat, Waxahachie has one of the most beautiful courthouse squares in Texas. Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the Most Romantic Main Streets in the country.

Somewhat disconnected from the benefits of the early part of the economic cycle, Waxahachie today has positioned its downtown for balanced redevelopment of office, residential, and restaurants. The city, and Ellis County at large, aims to be one of the truly authentic places to live and work within this fast-paced global region. The approach is working.

Director of downtown development for the city Anita Brown says that a recent townhome project was commanding unit prices exceeding $350,000. That price level is $100,000 higher than the median home price in the city as a whole. She believes the higher price reflects that when a person buys a home in downtown, they are buying a downtown neighborhood and not just a home. The fact that 26 businesses have opened in the past two years reinforces that downtown has become a true urban neighborhood again.

Richardson

Both challenged and blessed by its direct adjacency to U.S. Highway 75, downtown Richardson is poised to become an infill entertainment destination. Like McKinney, Roanoke, Irving, and Duncanville, Richardson initiated a downtown master plan and rezoning to attract developers. The Durkin-Greenway partnership has responded to the opportunity, acquiring several properties in downtown. That development partnership understands the potential of downtown, as it is so well-located east of U.S. Highway 75 on Main Street, where Belt Line Road transitions from the west.

Manasseh Durkin of Durkin Properties says that he fell in love with Richardson and relocated his business there. At the same time, the city was rezoning its original downtown in the Main Street area. The initiative caught his attention because he thought it was unusual for a city to undergo the rezoning process without a private development project in the pipeline.

Three years later, Durkin has partnered with Greenway Investment Co. to revitalize the fabric of downtown under the new zoning. One of the keys for the partnership and its investment is that the city has committed to the redesign and reconstruction of Main Street as a walkable corridor to anchor the anticipated place-making in downtown and the potential for that reinvention to radiate to the adjacent aging suburban neighborhoods. Durkin says, “In 10 years, when you examine the success of the Main Street District, no one will point to a developer. They’ll point to the forward-thinking steps the city took.”

Frisco

Today, across the railroad tracks to the east in the shadow of Frisco Square and Toyota Stadium, historic downtown Frisco offers the promise of becoming one of the more significant anchors for one of the fastest-growing suburbs in the region. Downtown already offers several great local restaurants and coffee shops, such as Eight11 Place, 5th Street Patio Cafe, Manny’s Tex Mex Grill, Randy’s Steakhouse, and a Babe’s. They and many others create a strong base of business in this fairly unknown destination. The eventual implementation of commuter rail along the BNSF rail line linking downtown with Legacy in Plano, downtown Carrollton, and downtown Irving makes that potential even more opportune.

One of the key strategies that has emerged in the recent initiation of a downtown master plan is to seek ways to keep Main Street walkable. The neighborhood to the north offers fabulous historic homes. The neighborhood to the south has realized an emerging eclectic mix of uses. Nevertheless, the strategy of maintaining a walkable functionality of Main Street was initially seen as a challenge as the street transitions across the historic rail line, through Town Square, to the Dallas North Tollway.

Downtown’s village character and culture can be translated into a regional destination of authentic small businesses in design services, high-end furniture, and the arts. The spending power leaking out of Frisco and that of the commuters passing through on the Dallas North Tollway is simply there for the taking, as downtown emerges as an authentic center differentiated from the rest of the city. Now called the Rail District, downtown Frisco is poised for a bright future.

Grand Prairie

Grand Prairie has been rocking it the past several years, even recently landing the region’s second Ikea. Its downtown, however, has not benefited from the rest of the city’s recent reinvestment. But Grand Prairie’s downtown is poised to take off in a very different way than most of the region’s other reinvented historic centers.

Located on State Highway 180, downtown is anchored by a Main Street that offers a lot of potential due to its regional location and historic roadway charm. Mayor Ron Jensen says, “From a refreshed look to improved infrastructure, a farmers market to the reinvented Uptown Theater, events for foodies, public spaces to private places, we are working with our downtown merchants to build toward a reinvested future.”

The city has focused on activation for the repositioning of its downtown. Rik Adamski, principal of downtown neighborhood planning firm Ash+Lime, has been advising the city on how to reach its goals. The city is using an approach known as “tactical urbanism”—the use of short-term, low-cost materials to activate unused spaces such as empty lots and vacant storefronts—to make it cost-effective for start-up entertainment businesses to flourish. Although now becoming the norm, a comprehensive pop-up strategy is also being employed to provide other types of businesses a low-cost entry into the downtown market. For April’s Main Street Fest, 321 W. Main St. was animated with a downtown pop-up park presented by the new Downtown Redevelopment Task Force. The event featured yard games, music, and craft cocktails.

Grand Prairie is seeking to differentiate itself as an alternative downtown reinvention. The mayor, the city, and the downtown merchants will be having some fun making downtown once again the place to be.

Garland

There are many ways to kill a downtown. You can change its zoning to single use. You can build a bypass around it, choking it off from nearby neighborhoods. You can make street traffic one-way, encouraging cars to drive through more quickly. “We did them all,” says Doug Athas, the outgoing mayor of Garland. “Downtown was just more resilient.”

That resiliency shows in the walkable, redesigned streetscapes extending south from the DART rail stop toward the library and performing arts center, the scattering of new apartment buildings that city officials say have a more than 90 percent occupancy rate, and in the ultimate bellwether of the kind of urban redevelopment that attracts young professionals: a coffee shop with a brick-walled interior and lots of avocado on the menu. Not a block away, Intrinsic Smokehouse & Brewery sits in a 100-year-old building that originally housed the city’s Harness and Tin Shop.

The city has invested $20 million in redevelopment and instituted a TIF investment zone for downtown. The NCTCOG chipped in $1.85 million for walkable infrastructure near the new apartments-and-retail Oaks 5th Street development.

Robert A. Smith, a Garland native, saw opportunity at a time when few others did. He bought what is now Rosalind Coffee on the city’s square, a move that has been credited for jump-starting the current revival. He also owns the building that houses Intrinsic Smokehouse & Brewery, which is run by another local. As far as Smith and others are concerned, though, they’re just getting started.


CREDIT: Scott Polikov is president of Gateway Planning, a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and an infrastructure developer. He and his firm provided planning, design, and consulting services for a number of the downtowns described in this article, including ones in Denton, Duncanville, Frisco, Grapevine, Irving, McKinney, and Roanoke. Alex Macon, online managing editor for D Magazine, contributed the piece on Garland. Population numbers are from United States Census Bureau estimates for 2016 at factfinder.census.gov.