One of the crown jewels of Denton is the ideas and enthusiasm which comes from students at our Universities graduating and choosing to stay in Denton to invest in its future. This valuable influx of ideas and participation in our local government means that long-range strategic city plans often feel stale or even unknown as short as a few years after they are written. Recent questions into the efficacy and wisdom of the Downtown Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District funding mechanism has made it clear that a refresher on the city’s long-term plans for our beloved downtown is necessary so that we can work together toward common goals without conflating fiducial responsibility with desired development trajectories. Read on to learn the history and summary of these plans.
Development Plan Origins
In 2002, the city of Denton released the Downtown Master Plan. This plan ambitiously saw Denton’s Downtown core becoming a more walkable urban environment, providing for environmentally and economically sustainable urban growth that does not have a tendency to decay as suburban developments have been shown to. Organizations such as the Denton Economic Development Partnership Board through the Downtown Task Force, in partnership with private non-profits like the Main Street Association, worked to bring this plan to fruition.
By 2010, it became apparent that more detailed plans and funding were required. The plan was expanded upon with several public hearings and input, and became the Denton Downtown Implementation Plan (DTIP). Seven years later, only two council members remain: the now-mayor Chris Watts was the district 4 councilman, and Dalton Gregory who now holds the at large place 5 seat, was the district 2 councilman in 2010. The plan makes recommendations for land use, infrastructure development, and an implementation roadmap to bring the plan to fruition.
Zoning is one of the most fundamental tools municipalities have to ensure private investment aligns with common community goals. The DTIP makes several recommendations for our land use:
Formally adopt a Form Base Code
Establish a new Zoning District in Denton Development Code titled “Downtown District”
Create a series of Urban Spaces (pocket parks, wide pedestrian sidewalks)
Increase available parking
Work toward a public/private partnership for a parking structure
Create Music and Fine Art Venues
Screen all trash containers in the Square District
Perhaps the most ambitious suggestion is the inclusion of a Transit Oriented Development Zone in the vicinity of the downtown DCTA A-train station. Some development has already occurred in this region, but the plan envisions an area transforming unused property and old light industrial land into mixed-use commercial and residential properties to extend the walkable nature of downtown across Bell Street.
Only a few of these have started obvious implementation: The urban space on Industrial Street, and increased parking in public lots. At the same time, there has been more renovation reinvestment of existing buildings than predicted, and more growth has occurred along the Elm and Locust corridor south of the square than predicted. As anyone who walked downtown ten years ago will attest to, it feels much more alive now.
There is hope for the form-base code and zoning districts, as the city is now in the process of revising its development code. Have something you’d like to see included? Participate in the public hearings and let your councilmember know your thoughts.
Our infrastructure ties together private investment to complete the walkable environment. The DTIP recommends several initiatives:
Adopt DTIP Street Standards for Downtown
Screen all trash containers in the Square District
Implement Hickory Street “Grand Street” project
Implement ‘Mews Streets’ program for parking, safety, and waste removal
Adopt DTIP standards for bicycle mobility into the Denton Mobility Plan and add key bike lanes and signage
Bike lanes are just starting to make it downtown, but a few improvements like the bicycle pedestrian crossing at McKinney and Oakland have already been completed. Improvement of the ‘mews’ streets has been slower than requested, with Pecan, Walnut, and Austin street delayed partially to fund the Hickory Street improvements. Everyone with a nose and eyes likes to bemoan the ugly, smelly dumpsters which are costly to downtown residents. But as anyone can attest to, Hickory street has transformed.
There is still a lot of work to do. Many of these goals were requested within a five year time-frame and have yet to see visible progress, and completing these goals will take continued funding. At recent city council meetings, Mayor Watts has voiced his concern that the DTIP and the TIF funding vehicle has not worked, and that he views the TIF as unnecessary as the city can just as easily invest in downtown from the general fund without special funding vehicles like the TIF which put limits on where that money can be spent. The DTIP summarizes about the TIF:
“One of the most important of the above catalyst recommendations is to create the TIF district as this tool will provide the funding to build new downtown infrastructure and give the private sector incentives to invest in downtown. A TIF assigns future taxes from proposed development, which would not accrue but for that development, to infrastructure, land costs, and related improvements needed to accomplish the development. TIF is locally initiated and administered, does not count against a municipality’s debt limit, and does not raise residents taxes.”
But in the shadow of increasing property valuations and the passage of the senior tax freeze, sequestering tax revenue for specific downtown improvements under additional layers of bureaucracy has been met with reticence by some.
Is this still the vision for our downtown that we would like to see? Let’s unite behind a common plan, and update the DTIP if necessary as Mayor Watts and Councilmember Gregory suggested. Whatever the plan, we will need our council to implement some sort of long-term funding structure that gives developers confidence in the future of downtown Denton. Do you like what you see in the plan? Do you have some ideas for improvements? Let us know in the comments, and let’s continue developing into a city we all love.