Profile: Angela Hunt, Hon. AIA Dallas

Profile: Angela Hunt, Hon. AIA Dallas

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James Adams
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Profile: Angela Hunt, Hon. AIA Dallas

Former City Councilmember Angela Hunt knows a thing or two about reconnecting cities. After eight years of representing District 14, which includes parts of downtown, Uptown, and East Dallas, she returned to practicing law in 2013. Recently, she joined the law firm of Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr where she has played an instrumental role in building their zoning and land use practice over the past year.

Elected to the Dallas City Council at 33, she is the youngest woman ever to have served as a Dallas councilmember. The Dallas Observer selected her as the city’s best councilmember for eight years, she was recognized as the “Best Council Person” by the Dallas Voice for three years and as The Dallas Morning News’ “Dallas City Hall” blog’s Most Effective Councilmember in 2008. In 2010, the League of Women Voters of Dallas honored her with the Virginia MacDonald Leadership Award, which is “given to a league member who exhibits courage in working for change and who inspires leadership in others.” In a recent interview, she shared some fascinating details about her work, her life, and her future.  

How did your early years influence your ultimate advocacy vision? 

I grew up in a blue-collar town—Pasadena, TX. My dad repaired lawn mowers. My mom was a teacher’s aide. I had been out of Texas maybe twice. I went to Pasadena High School right outside of Houston. I married my high school sweetheart, Paul. Upon graduation from Rice University, I got a Watson Scholarship to go anywhere in the world for a year. Paul went with me and it transformed both of our lives. We had never seen other cultures. We went to Budapest, then Prague, Berlin, and then Dénia, Spain. That was my first experience in a walkable town and it was a transformational point in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time because I wasn’t looking for it. I was just experiencing it on my travels, broadening my life. Later on, looking back I can see it very clearly. That was the time that I began starting to understand that you could create buildings and pull them to the street and not have massive parking lots everywhere. You could have parks in walking distance from where you live. These things create a livable space that is an environment where you want to live. … The sum of that is the way we approached Lower Greenville Avenue. 

You were instrumental in the dramatic changes in the Lower Greenville segment of the city. What was that like for you? 

I could see what Lower Greenville could be, and so could the neighbors, and so could the major property owners. It was a matter of us all pulling on the same rope, and having a plan that worked for everybody. 

What we have forgotten now is that there was a time when that vision wasn’t clear to everybody, and the perception was that we were going to kill it. 

Who were your biggest supporters in the community during that time? 

I met with key neighborhood leaders in 2008 like Patricia Carr, Darren Dattalo, Bruce Richardson, and others. We sat in Patricia’s living room and I said, “I will work my fingers to the bone, but I’m not going to do it unless you all are with me 100%.” That was for a couple of reasons. Practically speaking, it would be an uphill battle without them. Secondly, if this wasn’t the neighborhood’s vision then I was “barking up the wrong tree.” But they saw it! We could all pull together on the same rope and work together and make it happen. That was key. 

The businesses were not supportive. It’s one of those things where you keep going down different avenues until you find one that gets traction. So, OK, if the business owners aren’t seeing it, let’s focus on the neighbors who get it. They see the need for it because they live it. Let’s work with the property owners because they tend to have a longer-term vision and tend not to be as fearful as the business owners. 

Before Lower Greenville’s recreation, you were responsible for the M Streets conservation district.  How did you become involved in this effort?

My husband and I were pioneers living in the former Titches-Goettinger Company building in downtown for a few years during the late nineties, but we decided we wanted to buy a home. We would spend our pre-children weekends driving around looking for our first home. We drove every corner of North Texas possible, yet there was something missing in the far north suburbs where there were no trees, or character and nothing felt like home.

Then we stumbled upon East Dallas. We drove around the M Streets and it was like falling in love at first sight. There was something so beautiful in the tree canopies and their shade; little homes that were so adorable with their porches. As someone who knew nothing about architecture, I just had a visceral reaction. They were all so cute and so distinctive both in their and in their materials. 

What we saw though was that these houses were being torn down. Finally, one weekend I told my husband, “If we purchase a house here then I am going to find a way that we can protect these homes.  This isn’t right.”  You can tear down homes anywhere, and build a ‘mcmansion’, but you won’t ever be able to recreate the character of these existing homes.  You can’t ever have a neighborhood like this again. If Dallas loses this, it will be gone forever.

We moved in to the neighborhood on December 31st, 2001. We were moping the floors and celebrating the new year. In February, I started talking to the neighbors. Asking, “Do you care about this? Does it bother you?” The new homes were so large that they were filling their entire lots without leaving any open yard. The new builder homes were too tall and bore no resemblance to previously existed. Neighbors said they did not like it, but felt they had no power to stop it. Neighbors had previously tried to establish a Conservation district, something I was not familiar with at the time, but it had failed. Neighbors felt that if we tried again it would take close to five years, and it would be too late. I thought, “lets investigate this.”

Credit: Roy Aguilar

How did you use your passion and your professional knowledge to move forward?

Working in commercial litigation, I was grossly ignorant about anything related to architecture or zoning.  I engaged city staff to learn more about the Conservation District process. I met with Preservation Dallas, and I spoke with the lead preservationist on the city council, Veletta Lill, who was remarkably helpful. At the time, the neighborhood was not part of her district yet.  Prior to redistricting, Mary Poss represented the neighborhood. Other great resources at the time were Kevin Sloan, Virginia McAlester, and the late plan commissioner, Neil Emmons.

What I learned is that our city staff is overworked and underpaid. I realized is that it would not take us five years to get a conservation district completed if we took as much of the load off of city staff as possible.  We pulled this off in a few ways. 

We were really trying to objectively document the difference between the Tudors and the mcmansions.

None of that had happened in the previous effort to create the conservation district. It was a goal to look at this objectively as possible.

First, we personally photographed and documented all of the houses. Ted Thompson, a neighborhood leader, was very helpful in this.  I learned that the floor started about sixteen inches above grade, and the eaves were between nine and eleven feet.  We recognized that there were between two to four front facing gables and they all had the same angle.  We measured everything.

Second, local neighborhood architect and Landmark Commissioner, Daron Tapscott, identified the architectural style of all the homes. 

Third, we drafted the ordinance with City staff collaboration. Within it, we created a menu where every home must have a front porch at least six feet deep; homes may have complex design on the required chimneys; homes must have leaded or stained glass. 

The process worked. If you drive through the M Streets now, the only way you (the non-architect) can tell which homes were built since the conservation district was established is due to the lack of a patina on the bricks. We made it so that homes could be huge. You can hide a 3,500 square foot home behind a tall gabled roof. This creates the amount of space that people want today without compromising the fabric that makes the neighborhood special.

This success is what spurred you to think about running for City Council?

I have always been interested in politics. I remember watching the Ford and Carter debate with my family when I must have been five years old. I just remember politics was always a discussion point in our household.  It was always interesting, but I had never considered a future in local politics. I didn’t know who our councilmember was when we started the conservation district effort.  I just wasn’t engaged. 

We got the conservation district approved by City Council eighteen months after we first started talking to our neighbors. That was the biggest conservation district at the time. It was a huge undertaking with so many volunteers. I knew from the political side that we proved we had held meetings, posted flyers, and truly informed people.

I heard that someone thought the only reason I took on the effort was because I wanted to use the project as a stepping stone to run for council. My husband and I laughed at the absurdity of it, and because it was so far out from anything I was considering. Then I started thinking about it. 

When our neighborhood was redistricted to Veletta Lill’s district, I was so impressed with her values and the issues for which she fought that I asked to meet with her. I asked her what the pathway to council would look like for me. She pointed me to some city boards and commissions.  I started working more with some neighborhood groups and I got involved with the Dallas Homeowners League. The process came about very organic.

When I was on city council I was usually the lone voice on a lot of 14-1 votes. Eventually, I was joined by similarly-minded Scott Griggs and Sandy Greyson. I cannot express what it was like to gain friends on the council whom I trusted and shared the same vision and values. Today, it has shifted even more.

What needs to change in Dallas? 

I have been thinking about the things that can be transformational for Dallas. I think there are three things. First, our public school system. Our two children are in Dallas Independent School District (DISD). They are in the Spanish-American program. DISD is improving vastly and I believe we are on the right track, but we have to keep moving. The city could better partner with DISD on safe school pathways so that there is connectivity between neighborhoods and schools.  

Education is related to another piece, which is housing. We need to deliver affordable housing in the heart of our city. The other part is smart transportation policies.  

We have the opportunity to be leaders in transforming our city in positive ways. Being the exemplar for other sunbelt cities. I think we can also learn from other cities. Indianapolis has this fantastic intercity trail that they have created that connects all sorts of venues and schools and universities and business centers. It’s been fantastic for Indianapolis. I can absolutely see us doing something like that.  

I think we are a nimble city. It may not seem that way, but I think we can pivot quickly and transform ourselves very rapidly. However, it’s the matter of having the political will to do it. 

Your efforts to stop the Trinity Toll Road project for the betterment of our city are well known.  Why is this so important and how do we build on this success?

The fundamental flaw in the concept of the Trinity Toll Road was that it was proposing a high-speed highway in the middle of central Dallas. At a fundamental level, when you take the park out of it, the idea that we would propose in the 21st century a highway essentially in downtown is absurd. It goes against what we understand about modern transportation planning. Highways divide cities. Highways damage cities in the way they tear apart neighborhoods and they encourage sprawl. 

We have allowed the region to dictate our transportation policies. It’s not only encouraged sprawl, but it has encouraged the loss of economic development from our core by pushing people further and further from the center.  We are not enhancing our city by making it easier to travel throughout the region. We are just improving opportunities in the region which damages our city. It is not a win-win situation. 

I think there is an extremely argument to be made that I-30, I-35 and US 75 should move outside the city at some point in the future. Regarding the I-345 tear down, extremely good arguments have been made that the traffic will find a way. We are not going to create a traffic problem that destroys our city. What will happen is that we will free up a lot of developable land and reconnect east Dallas to downtown. It has been torn asunder by decades of this highway system. Let’s focus on boulevards on the interior. The opportunity to knit our city back together is enormous, and it is exciting.

On general transportation issues, we are never going to reduce our dependence on cars until we start designing for people. Creating sidewalks that work for people is critical. Developers do not want to build massive parking lots, but they are required to by city zoning. These are a blight on walkability. Philip Kingston has been a proponent to allow the market to dictate what the parking requirement is going to be with a maximum count rather than a minimum. 

What is your favorite public space in Dallas?

Having seen similar botanical gardens around the world, I have never seen anything more beautiful than the Arboretum. It is amazing; a gem that we probably do not fully appreciate because it’s in our own backyard here in Dallas.

Of course, there is always Klyde Warren Park. I teared up the first few times I went there.  I’m not a very sentimental person, but you don’t often see people from different backgrounds in Dallas coming together for something. It was beautiful. It wasn’t like the state fair or the mall where people are there for some commercial endeavor. It was just this beautiful coming together of our city. It almost brings tears to my eyes even now.

What is your favorite room in your house?

The kitchen. There is something cathartic to me about cooking. I’m not a gourmand, rather I just cook normal things and it makes me happy to feel like I’m doing something for my family. I like it when the girls help me. We make cakes together. I like to try and perfect things in the kitchen. The way we know is if my husband, who is very honest, tells us. 

What else do you like to do with your free time?

I like reading science fiction. I like older classics and new writings including John Barley, Charles Stross, and Ted Chiang. I also am trying to read more science book on the way the world works. I don’t profess to have any understanding of it, but quantum particles are fascinating.

My family and I went to see the eclipse last year. We traveled to Hilton Head Island just outside the Path of Totality. We traveled to just outside of Charleston to be in the path of totality, but it was cloudy.  Literally four minutes before totality it became a downpour with lighting and thunder. I have this picture of us all standing there soaking wet.

I also like to go on bike rides a lot and have picnics. This is how our involvement with the Trinity River Toll Road project started. We rode our bikes down there. 

Can you elaborate on your relationship and past experiences in working with the AIA Dallas chapter?  

AIA Dallas is an amazing organization. I knew next to nothing about architecture, urban planning, or placemaking before I was elected to the Dallas City Council in 2005. Over the course of eight years, I was very fortunate to work with some amazing architects who educated me about great design and building cities around people. In addition to creating beautiful buildings, AIA Dallas and its members have been critical champions of pedestrianism, smart streets, urban parks and expanded greenspace. 

One of my first experiences with the expertise and generosity of the Dallas’ architecture community occurred when I was a freshman councilmember. The city had a plan underway to re-route and widen Central Expressway through downtown, but the plan was just lanes and lanes of concrete—very anti-pedestrian. I reached out to (former AIA Dallas president) Larry Good, FAIA, who I’d gotten to know through recent zoning cases, and asked him if he could take a look and let me know how we might improve the project. Larry went beyond just giving me his thoughts—he and his team donated their time and expertise to a comprehensive redesign that significantly improved the look and walkability of the street. Larry and I presented his redesign to city staff and the city ended up incorporating much of it into the final project. 

AIA Dallas was also critical in killing the Trinity Toll Road. I had gotten to know former AIA Dallas president Bob Meckfessel, FAIA, when he and I were on opposite sides debating the merits of the toll road back in 2007. By 2013, the toll road design was a far cry from the AIA Dallas-backed Balanced Vision Plan, so Bob and I began working together to kill the road. Bob persuaded 10 past presidents of AIA Dallas [often called the “Ten Presidents”] to publicly oppose the toll road a couple of years ago. This was huge. By taking a public position against the road, AIA Dallas showed the larger Dallas business community that it wasn’t just environmentalists concerned about the Trinity Toll Road, and that it was OK to speak out against this poorly designed boondoggle. AIA Dallas’ involvement was key to finally killing the road last August. 


Interview conducted by James Adams, AIA, RIBA, a senior associate with Corgan.