Craig Blackmon, FAIA
Credit: Craig Blackmon, FAIA
Jessica Boldt
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Jessica Boldt

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The Question of Morality in Development: Bringing Columns to Life

Vacancy suggests the future of occupancy, but who or what moves into a vulnerable community often provokes contention. The panel, Bringing Columns to life, organized by AD EX and the AIA Dallas Communities by Design Committee, is a prime example of these dissenting voices. A developer, a public interest designer working for a nonprofit, and a pastor shared their ideas on vacancy and the current reality of South Dallas.

Maggie Parker of the Real Estate Council Community Fund wrote the article, “Vacancy as a Decision,” for the most recent issue of Columns and was the moderator for the discussion. She opened the evening expressing a desire for everyone to feel as if they were sitting around a dinner table to invite open dialogue. A neighborhood does not become a series of empty lots, like an empty stomach, out of choice, and Parker wanted the audience and the panelists to profoundly consider why someone may be persuaded to leave an area that they once thought of as home.

As Zad Rouyama of Buzzworks spoke, he wanted to emphasis that not all development has to be bad, there are ways to be a conscientious developer. He used the word, “gentle-fication,” to express the work he strives to do, taking the time and care that is necessary for incremental development and minimal disruption in the neighborhood. The fear surrounding development is not misguided; however, looking at development as inherently evil is only seeing half of the picture. Zad is aware of the “sociopath developers” who raze all that once was there to build the world that they imagine will turn the most profit, but he also emphasized that not all development is like that.

Pastor Vincent Parker of Golden SEEDS Foundation lives in the daily reality of a South Dallas that is vulnerable to future development –development that might veer in a direction that does not serve the community that lives there. The church that Vincent Parker has been a pastor at for the past sixteen years formed a non-profit to work with developers that continuously approach him about building on the land that the church owns. After several years in conversation with the community, Pastor Parker put together a masterplan, the Bottom Urban Structure and Guidelines, in the hopes that the long-term residents’ vision for the future will be respected and realized.

Lizzie MacWillie of bcWorkshop also spoke on her experiences working with vulnerable communities, expressing that people don’t want development if that means that they cannot afford to stay in their homes. Agreeing with her, Pastor Parker chimed in after she spoke, that if you cannot afford to stay in your home because of development “you don’t get the benefit of the change.” Lizzie’s work at bcWorkshop is meant to help give people agency over their life and it is a collaborative process.

Afterwards, during the Q and A, one woman in the back raised her hand and very seriously asked how to be a “good gentrifier.” She recognizes the role that she plays in the development of Oak Cliff, –a transplant from San Francisco, a white woman, an architect –but she wants to positively influence the neighborhood without alienating the community that has lived there much longer than she has. There is no clear answer, but it is a fair question to be asked when trying to support development that is not at the cost of others. A man from the audience rang out that there is a “moral aspect [involved], not just financial,” when deciding what one should do. But morals and values seem to be forgotten so often.

How can we best work with neighborhoods to revive them then without displacing an entire community? The panel opened the discussion, but the conversation was just beginning.