Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson sits down to discuss development, direction and more – Dallas Business Journal – Dallas Business Journal

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Mayor Eric Johnson has spent more of his first term in a pandemic than outside of it – but that’s not going to define the leadership of his hometown.
Jake Dean
Eight months into his term, Mayor Eric Johnson came face-to-face with the global pandemic at the local level. Cases started to become numerous. Uncertainty — and a hint of fear — spread around the country, almost as fast as the coronavirus.
For executives across Dallas, it would prove to be a defining moment. There was no playbook for how to navigate the rapidly changing conditions caused by COVID, so a lot of audibles were required to ensure continuity of operations in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Johnson faced similarly vexing issues as the leader of the ninth-largest city in the United States: how to protect the city’s employees and its most vulnerable citizens while still providing necessary services. As the 60th mayor of Dallas, Johnson was in mostly uncharted territory. The last Dallas mayor to confront a pandemic was Joseph Lawther, the notable banker who served during the Spanish Flu outbreak more than a century ago — and he died 32 years before Johnson was born.
Additionally, the city faced other issues that required immediate attention — some that would dominate headlines in a non-pandemic environment: funding public safety and infrastructure, finding property tax relief, fighting homelessness and aggressively overhauling the city’s economic development policy. Johnson didn’t want these priorities to be permanently shelved while the city dealt with the pandemic, so he took them on simultaneously while also “getting back to the basics” of local government, such as streamlining the city’s permitting process.
COVID struck again, this time much closer to home. Though completely vaccinated, Johnson, who has since recovered, suffered a breakthrough case late last month and his State of the City Address was delayed until Nov. 17.
In all, it’s been a very fast-paced two years, and Johnson isn’t slowing down. The Business Journal sat down with the mayor to discuss his leadership style, diversity and the city’s complexity, along with key priorities for Dallas such as development, partnering with the private sector and more:
How important is it that the city finds the right mix of development while ensuring it doesn’t displace individuals in neighborhoods such as West Dallas, Fair Park, and Oak Cliff? How do you strike a balance between development and livability for some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens?
We must get that balance right for the future of our city. It’s not easy, but we have to figure out how to balance infill development to make our city denser.
Dallas has a large landmass, and we want to create the kind of city that is going to be what people are looking for: That means a more walkable city, a city with better public transportation that’s less reliant on the automobile, and a city that is doing its part to reduce its impact on the climate.
We have to balance trying to create that kind of city without pricing our people out of Dallas because of high taxes and the rapid uptick you can see in property valuations in some areas that are on the edge of being transformed.
I grew up in one of those areas: West Dallas. I’ve grown up with that specter of, “Someday, people are going to discover how great the view is of downtown is from here.” Once that happens, will we be able to be a part of that and enjoy the renaissance of our neighborhood? Or will we be asked to leave and be shown the door?
I know that the city council is keenly aware of how critical this is to get right. It’s the central challenge facing the city in terms of our future.
What are some of the things Dallas can continue to do to encourage positive development, particularly in terms of housing production that speaks to the middle class and workforce attraction?
We need to have more serious conversations in this city about exactly what government can do to be the most helpful in developing the housing stock. We also have to be realistic about that to let the private sector and other levels of government do what they do best.
So, what’s firmly within the city’s control that will contribute to this? Infrastructure investment. We can help the development community and folks who build housing by ensuring that they’re not already starting behind the eight ball because public infrastructure is so poor.
We need to focus on the parts of our city that are lagging in this area. Frankly, they need to compete with our suburbs, where a lot of the infrastructure is shiny and new — and more appealing. Homebuilders prefer to spend their money developing the housing product, not on water and sewer connections and things like that. We can be more aggressive and more thoughtful about how we do that.
Public safety is also within our control. We have to make sure that we are making the best case possible to housing developers about the safety of the people who will be buying their housing products can expect if they move into our city. We cannot ever lose sight of that we are in a competitive environment for development. We can’t ever be naïve about the fact that surrounding communities will market themselves relative to Dallas based on things such as crime rates. We have to be especially focused on ensuring that violent crime is not an issue in our city and that no one is competing against Dallas on that basis.
Here’s a unique take on the housing situation in our city, too: We’re not a builder. Government shouldn’t try to think of itself as a potential source of housing. We can do things to incentivize it – we have programs and financial tools that help assist people who want to build – and that’s great.
But there’s another area that’s been overlooked that the city can be more involved in that would help make housing more affordable. We can focus on making sure that our residents can afford higher-quality housing and that the demand for the product is there.
From an economic standpoint, a household should be indifferent to whether we can subsidize their mortgage or rent … and reduce their rent by $500 a month or whether we can increase their income by a comparable amount every month. I think one might be better and more sustainable than the other for a family and our city.
I’m passionate about workforce development, possibly being an affordable housing policy in disguise.
Do you feel the suburbs benefit from Dallas in general but take advantage of their ability to compete on infrastructure and other issues?
Our suburbs, to a certain extent, benefit from Dallas being the primary draw nationally and globally. Then, once they have folks paying attention to North Texas because of Dallas’ influence, they can pick and choose the issue where they can compete with us successfully. Dallas has realities that they don’t have to face: It’s a 1.4-million-person city with diversity and complexity. We have the challenges that come with that, and they don’t yet. They’re not there yet in terms of their size and diversity – socio-economic, racial or ethnic.
From their perspective, there is a competition for the location of assets and residents because that equals tax base. And that equals the ability to provide greater services to your residents for less taxation per resident so that you can lower your tax rate and you can lower the burden on people in your city. It becomes a virtuous cycle: If you can get more people to come and more businesses to relocate, you can charge people less and give them more, which is exactly where you want to be. I can’t blame them for it, and they compete on that basis.
How do you feel the city’s employees have held up in a world impacted by the pandemic, and what does it take to make the public sector a more attractive possibility in a competitive hiring environment?
The people who are on the frontlines delivering the services are, by and large, amazingly hardworking, dedicated folks.
In many cases, they’re doing a job that they could do something comparable in the private sector where they’d be paid more money. We have to offset that with enhanced benefits and quality of life and things like that, and I’m more than happy to make that trade.
If we’re going to be very blunt about it, I think there’s a big difference between the way the private sector – which is where I come from – versus in the public sector with respect to that middle and top level of bureaucracy.
I think there is inefficiency in city government that we could do a much better job of getting at – and not for the sake of being harsh, but for the simple fact that it’s not our money. We’re stewards of the taxpayers’ money. If we can deliver services more efficiently and for less, we have an obligation to do it. That’s not the nice thing to do; it’s incumbent upon us as fiduciary of their money to do it.
Is there anything the private sector can do to ensure that a family looking to level up has that opportunity to start creating generational wealth? What can executives and investors do to help the city make this a more realistic vision in the short term?
I’m not confused about what the private sector is here for. It’s not here to do charity or to step in and do the city’s job, but there is a role that they can play. There’s something they can do that’s not charity – it’s in their long-term best interest.
Here’s the first thing I’d say: It’s not beneficial to anyone for us to allow Dallas, the engine that drives the region, to fall into disrepair or to become so unsafe that it becomes a national story. That’s not in anybody’s best interest.
This is still where the action is for North Texas. No one is in a position to replace Dallas as the core of this region. Some of our suburbs might think there’s some marginal benefit by being able to market themselves relative to that, but you don’t want that. You don’t want it to be a place where people feel unsafe, the schools are underperforming, or the infrastructure is poor. The entire region will eventually suffer the consequences of that.
We need our business community to not be as indifferent to where the development lands when it comes to the entire region. Yes, it’s better for a corporate relocation to occur in North Texas than for it to happen in California or Chicago or New York, but Dallas has to win its fair share of those battles.
Encouraging employees to look at Dallas to put down roots — and to have their families make the city their home — is beneficial. Dallas can’t merely be the place where folks come in on the weekends to enjoy the opera. That’s why I’ve been so focused on the quality-of-life aspect of things. We want to attract the residents who come along with those relocations.
We don’t want them to locate the assets in Plano, and then the families are in Collin County. We want the people here, as well, not just the corporate headquarters. That’s good for us and certainly benefits the entire region.
Just like there’s a virtuous cycle, there’s a death spiral aspect of this, too, if it starts going in reverse with respect to the taxation.
If we don’t have the tax base, the opposite side of that coin is that it becomes more expensive for the people who are here with their property taxes … the city would need to raise the rates to offset the loss in the tax base. That becomes a death spiral where we’re losing people because of the high tax rate and the diminishment in delivering services.
Our business community needs to understand that as well: The bigger burden is going to fall on them as Dallas-based businesses if we continue to bleed companies and residents to our suburbs. I need businesses to jump on the Dallas bandwagon.
That’s another reason why we prioritized creating our economic development corporation at the city because we can’t rely on a regional approach to economic development at this point.
Dallas has enjoyed some huge wins in the corporate relocation space recently, including CBRE. How hopeful are you over the next few years that you’re going to continue to see some of those victories not only for downtown but maybe also smaller expansions in areas like Pleasant Grove or South Dallas, where there’s plenty of space to build?
It is, and I’m very confident that’s going to happen. If you think about the successes we’ve enjoyed up to now, we’ve been able to achieve a lot of it in some ways with one arm tied behind our back. We have gotten very comfortable up to now with a regional approach to economic development. Regionalism is good, especially in areas where duplication doesn’t make any sense. We don’t need duplication in things like aviation and travel, which is a big driver, or health care.
For things like that, regional approaches are good. Still, for economic development purposes, I think we got a little too comfortable with the idea that, by selling the region, Dallas was going to get its fair share.
We have done reasonably well, but we could do better, and we’re going to now that we have this economic development corporation being put together. Its sole focus will be on selling the areas of Dallas where we have a great business case to make, but it wasn’t being promoted ahead of Frisco, Plano or even North Dallas to some extent.
With the southern part of our city, we’re talking about an area that presents an incredible opportunity for someone who wants a build-to-suit or for smaller companies that want to be closer to their workforce.
What do we have to do to take advantage of the opportunity? One thing is the economic development corporation promoting it. But the other thing goes back to the idea of what cities can do that no one’s going to do for you if you don’t do it for yourself.
That’s something that the economic development corporation is going to focus squarely on. They’re going to do something for us that’s needed to be done for a while: promote Dallas first.
Businesses can’t get a crime report every month that says that they’re in the most dangerous part of town and think that employees will want to move there. Since companies aren’t in the business of doing charity, why would they – for the same amount of investment – be in a place where the infrastructure is going to be shoddy when they can go someplace where it’s newer? As a city government, we have to do our part there.
And even though we’re not responsible for it at the city level, I would be lying if I didn’t say that we didn’t hear about the quality of schools all the time as a primary factor in companies’ decisions to locate outside the city in the suburbs.
Where do parks and trails fall in your livability plans? Over the past decade, the city has been proactive about adding parks and partnering with other agencies such as TxDOT on community amenities such as deck parks.
I’m beyond excited about the quality of life that we offer and that we’re going to be able to offer some of these incredible strides that we’re making with our park system and our trail system.
I’ll tell you about a couple of those we recently broke ground on, but I also want to talk about how emblematic of Dallas and its ethos that those deck parts, in particular, are.
We broke ground recently on Harwood Park, which is the last series of parks that we’ve built downtown from nothing and, in many cases, have converted surface parking lots and things like that to green space. That’s cutting-edge stuff. I don’t know many cities that are converting parts of their central business district into green space. That’s one that we have been aggressive about. I lived downtown over a decade ago, and it has come a long way.
We did the Harwood Park groundbreaking, and then a couple of days later, we broke ground on The Loop, which will be the connector between all the trails in the city. Pretty much from anywhere in Dallas, within a mile or two, you’ll be able to jump on a trail, and that trail will take you anywhere in the city you want to go. You’ll be able to walk, bike and get around the entire city and enjoy being outdoors in the city’s natural beauty, such as the Trinity Forest and White Rock Lake. That’s the kind of thing that Dallas isn’t known for but should be.
When you think about the deck park, that is a very Dallas thing to me in this sense. You talk about solving a long-standing problem of disconnected neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were severed through federal transportation policy decades ago. Now, there’s a way to solve that problem that’s a pretty pedestrian approach.
These parks are reconnecting the neighborhoods that were severed and creating a world-class asset with these elevated parks that traverse a highway, where you can have all kinds of mixed-use development surrounding the parks. It’s an economic development tool, which is great because those communities have needed that shot in the arm from an economic development standpoint.
It’s going to be amazing for that community. Still, to me, it’s a very Dallas solution to a problem that many cities around the country have: highways separate neighborhoods. We’re going to reconnect the neighborhood, but not only by pouring concrete or tearing some out but reconnecting them in a creative way that will yield even greater benefits beyond the reconnection itself.
It’s an infrastructure project inside an economic development project inside the quality-of-life project, and it’s incredible.
Dallas has a very diverse, powerful and secure economy. What are some of the gems the city could focus on that are hidden opportunities?
I’ve lived in the city my entire life, so I’m very familiar with many things that make Dallas great, but as mayor, it’s becoming more evident that the city has been a victim of its success. It almost suffers from being too good at too many things, so it’s hard for us to establish a reputation for some of the things that we are truly good at because we’re good at so many of them. It’s not “the one thing” that we’re known for.
We’re a growing and incredibly vibrant area economically, but sometimes – because we’re so balanced – people are like, “Well, what’s Dallas really about from a business standpoint?” Certainly finance, we’re about many things from a private equity and venture capital standpoint that’s extraordinary, particularly as it relates to middle-market VC and PE.
Austin, Houston and San Antonio are known more for their entertainment districts, but the reality is Dallas put Texas blues music on the map. Dallas has music history that goes back to the pioneers of the blues and then up to the modern era. We have a great story to tell regarding music, but we let Austin corner it from a marketing standpoint.
I want to change that, so I’ve worked very hard to talk more about our music scene. It’s garnered the attention of the governor’s office. They have a Texas Music Office in the governor’s office, and Dallas has now been certified as a music-friendly community. Houston has not, but we have. It’s always important for me to point out when we beat Houston.
It’s a partnership between the city and state to improve our relationship with the music industry to get more economic development rooted in that sector in Dallas. That’s a great example of another area where we’ve been strong, but we’ve not tooted our own horn on that very well.
Dallas has this reputation among the other major cities in Texas as the one for the mature crowd. I guess that’s code for saying the “boring” city. We’re not. We’re quite hip, and we need to talk more about that.
What are some of the key takeaways from the city budget and your annual State of the City Address that’s coming up?
This year’s budget is a night-and-day improvement over last fiscal year’s budget for one main reason: It reestablishes our priorities. More than anything else for a government, a budget tells the people you’re taking the money from to fund that budget what you think are the most important obligations.
Last fiscal year, when I voted against the budget, I voted against it because I didn’t feel like that budget reflected what our residents were saying they wanted and what we should do in my professional judgment. I wasn’t hearing our residents saying, “spend less on public safety in the middle of a violent crime spike.” I wasn’t hearing our residents saying, “under-invest in our streets and sidewalks and find new areas for government to get into that we are not experts in.”
Instead, I heard them saying, “Would you guys mind – in the middle of a pandemic and a violent crime spike – getting back to the basics of city government? And while you’re at it, would you try to make a good faith effort to lower our taxes?”
I didn’t feel like we had done those things, and I would have taken just doing one of them. If we weren’t going to spend what we wanted to spend on the police overtime budget and their compensation to retain officers, could we at least give some significant tax relief? And the budget didn’t do any of those things. It was minimal tax relief with an under-investment in infrastructure and a completely gratuitous cut to the police budget. I couldn’t support it.
Well, fast forward a year later, and I won’t say that I couldn’t be happier – because you know we could have done more in the area of tax relief. We will, and we should, and I’m going to continue to push for us to take a much more sober approach to the city’s budget and look at where there are inefficiencies that we can cut.
Aside from what we could have done better in terms of tax relief, we made the appropriate investments in public safety and infrastructure. We made the appropriate investments in doing things in the quality-of-life space with parks, libraries and reducing the unhoused and homeless in our central business district and our surrounding communities.
That will translate into folks believing that the value proposition of being in Dallas is what it should be. I started this conversation by saying there are things that only the city government can do, and if it doesn’t do those things, no one else is going to do it for them.
When you suffer from disinvestment in certain areas, this current budget reflects an appreciation by this council and the city manager that these investments are not optional, and Dallas wants to build for its future. That’s what we’ve done in this budget. I’m very happy with it – it could have been better on tax relief, but it was a good budget.
What’s your top priority as mayor?
At this point, it has to be the violent crime situation and wanting to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to support our police department and our new police chief. I’m grateful that we now have a violent-crime reduction plan, a data-driven, criminologist-developed plan that I want to see succeed. I want Dallas to be a truly safe city. Public safety is foundational to a city’s success. Everything else we’re talking about doing doesn’t work if people feel like it’s not safe.
I look at the crime stats every month. I see them broken out every kind of way you want to break them down, and I see the lives, and I see the numbers. I think about the lives affected and the families affected. It’s something that, as the mayor and as someone who grew up here and loves the city, bothers me that there are communities where they live with the daily reality of serious violent crime.
I want to see that turned around – and not just because it’s good for our reputation or because it’s good for business – but because we’re talking about people’s sense of security, the thing that’s most fundamental to a human being … the feeling that where you live is a place where you and your family are going to be safe.
We have to do better. We are moving in the right direction under our new police chief, but that has to be the top priority. Everything else can happen and will be easier to accomplish if we take care of our business in that area.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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