- Sharon Grigsby, DMN City Columnist


It’s another of the too-frequent “oops” moments at Dallas City Hall — shorthand for “Oops, we forgot to ask those pesky taxpayers for their point of view.” This time the culprit is the public works department, which is trying to fast-track fancy digital kiosks onto our sidewalks.

Digging into this mess gave me whiplash back to 2006. That was the year buyer’s remorse flooded the City Council for its purchase of what then was the latest and greatest in oversized public kiosks.

“I think we’ve created something we didn’t mean to create,” then-Mayor Laura Miller said after listening to angry residents and business owners. “You don’t want a giant spaceship in the middle of your public sidewalk.”

She was talking about the 100 barrel-shaped advertising kiosks approved the year before by council members high on the revenue they supposedly would generate for the city.

Miller and the council members who joined her in opposing the plan had warned of unintended consequences. They were right. The barrels should never have been installed. Quickly outdated and often vandalized, they became little more than sidewalk clutter the city is stuck with until the contract expires in 2026.

What did Dallas learn from this unforced error? Nothing. Public works staff apparently fell in love with the latest iteration of information kiosks and felt the several letters of concern they received about their plan amounted to sufficient community engagement.

At the last minute, several council members told staff to hit the brakes and, before any vote takes place, schedule public meetings. The one-hour sessions will be April 22 and 29. (You’ll find more details of the meetings at the end of this column.)

I’m not convinced City Hall isn’t just going through the motions. Far more meetings than this took place over regulating neighborhood book-sharing boxes.

The proposed interactive digital kiosks would provide directions, emergency assistance, Wi-Fi and information about city attractions and events. That could make them useful for visitors — folks in town for a convention or the 2026 World Cup. Wouldn’t you figure those guests to our city have a smartphone and data plan?

At 8½ feet tall, 3 feet wide and 1 foot deep, they take up less sidewalk space than the barrel kiosks. Like the old ones, they cost the city nothing. The vendor’s profit comes from advertising, with Dallas getting a cut.

City Hall needs innovative revenue streams — but not at a cost to residents. With so many efforts underway to make our city more walkable and to address growing concerns about pedestrian safety, installing kiosks requires more serious vetting.

Given how narrow and poorly maintained so many of our sidewalks are, including in downtown and Uptown, I’d just as soon recommend public works focus on those problems.

In recent months, IKE (Interactive Kiosk Experience) Smart City, which has installed the devices from Berkeley to Baltimore, has shown its wares to several large stakeholders, including Downtown Dallas Inc.

IKE recommends deploying up to 150 kiosks, 25 at a time, throughout the city. It pledges to install 20% of them in ZIP codes with the highest economic and social inequality.

The selected vendor would pick locations based on what’s best for advertiser dollars. The city would have final say. Unsurprisingly, its stated priority, like the vendor’s, is to make the most money possible.

The IKE presentation I reviewed noted its desire to locate the kiosks in densely populated intersections and neighborhoods, on the city’s most commercial streets and near cultural institutions, parks and event venues. IKE says its kiosks are ADA-compliant and will maintain a 4-foot unobstructed walkway.

At a recent council committee meeting, Ali Hatefi, director of the public works department, couldn’t provide an estimate of potential city revenue from the digital kiosks. Nor could he say how much money the current ones have generated.

I followed up to request answers to those two questions and to get an interview with Hatefi. A City Hall communications staffer said Hatefi was unavailable, and she was unable to get the revenue questions answered.

The Real Estate Council of Dallas is one of many stakeholders newly awakened to what the city is up to on its sidewalks — and troubled it didn’t already take the proper steps to gauge community feedback.

Linda McMahon, the group’s president and CEO, detailed concerns in a letter to council members: “We believe that the initial proposal was not in the best interests of our community,” she wrote, “and would have had negative impacts on our city’s sidewalks, safety, right of way and overall urban environment.”

Jamee Jolly, the head of Uptown Dallas Inc., told me she’s baffled this plan was kept under the radar for so long, given sidewalks are the lifeblood of neighborhoods, especially the one she represents. “This is going against everything we’ve worked so hard to create in a pedestrian-friendly environment,” Jolly said.

She worries not just about the additional obstacles the kiosks would create but the potential distraction they would cause for drivers. “This would only further endanger pedestrians,” she said.

Jennifer Scripps, who leads Downtown Dallas Inc., said her group has tried to listen with an open mind, but increasingly she’s come to the realization “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

Scripps believes a high bar must be set before approving anything that creates more sidewalk clutter. “Who is clamoring for what might just turn into another graffiti attractor?” she asked. “We felt this was rammed down our throats a little bit.”

Maybe the upside of digital kiosks will win the day, but putting out a formal request for proposals before a robust public discussion is a bad look. Sidewalks are a critical quality-of-life asset, not a mundane commodity to be put up for sale.

The public right of way belongs not to Dallas City Hall or its elected officials but to all of us. As citywide conversations begin, let’s think hard before doing something that might not be in the best interest of the people who actually live and work here.