Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is connected to Dallas by a light-rail line. A rail link to Fort Worth is in the works. (© DFW international Airport)

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is connected to Dallas by a light-rail line. A rail link to Fort Worth is in the works. (© DFW international Airport)

It lies halfway between—17 miles (27 km) in each direction—the two Texas cities from which it takes its name. But in many ways, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) is virtually a city unto itself.

In addition to its terminals and runways, DFW—which sprawls over a nearly 30-square-mile (78 sq km) expanse that is larger than Manhattan—is home to warehouses, factories, three hotels, office space, a golf course, and the world’s largest Infiniti car dealership. And while it lacks residential neighborhoods, its periphery has attracted scores of major companies to locate their headquarters nearby and has spawned upscale suburbs that are home to corporate executives and entrepreneurs willing to pay for the convenience of being minutes away from a flight to just about anywhere in the United States or the world. According to a 2013 University of North Texas study, DFW is responsible for having created 148,000 jobs and $31.6 billion in annual economic activity in the region—more than the gross domestic product of nearly half of the world’s nations.

“We’re more than just a great airport,” explains John Terrell, the airport’s vice president for commercial development. “We’re an economic driver.”

And while some airports have grown on the edge of cities, the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area has grown up around DFW. Since the airport opened in 1974, the region’s population has surged from 2.5 million to about 6.7 million today.

© DFW international Airport

© DFW International Airport

That all has made Dallas/Fort Worth the first American example—and by far the most successful one—of an aerotropolis, a metropolis whose core is an airport that stimulates real estate development and creates business growth around it, in the way that a high-density downtown full of ­skyscrapers might in some other place. It is a trend that has emerged around the world, in places ranging from Amsterdam to Songdo International Business District in South Korea, where a master-planned metropolis was being developed from scratch with an airport at its core.

“DFW is a magnet,” says John D. Kasarda, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and coauthor, with business journalist Greg Lindsay, of the 2011 book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. “It doesn’t compete with the downtowns of Dallas and Fort Worth, but it complements them,” Kasarda says. “Many corporations and businesses wouldn’t have located in the area, except for the airport’s presence.”

Southlake Town Square, a mixed-use development, sprang up close to DFW International Airport. (© Cooper & Stebbins)

Southlake Town Square, a mixed-use development, sprang up close to DFW International Airport. (© Cooper & Stebbins)

The airport itself has become a place where people conduct business at the strategic level. The Grand Hyatt DFW hotel, which opened in 2005, has become what the Dallas Morning News calls “a virtual corporate headquarters,” with company boards meeting in its conference rooms and job candidates meeting with executives for interviews in its restaurants. “People fly in from Miami or Chicago, meet at the hotel, and then head home without ever going outside the airport,” Kasarda says.

And while other U.S. cities—Denver, Atlanta, and Detroit, among others—are striving to emulate its example, DFW is already well on its way to the next stage of evolutionary development. From the 1970s through the early 2000s, much of the growth that it stimulated was organic, with developers and companies moving in to take advantage of an unanticipated opportunity. But in recent years, that has given way to deliberate, carefully planned growth, with a focus on developing 6,000 acres (2,400 ha) of unused land within the airport’s borders, which DFW turned out not to need for aviation. The airport is in the process of filling those spaces with imaginative uses, ranging from industrial and mixed-use commercial and hospitality, to recreation. At the same time, DFW has been integrating itself into multimodal transportation networks that move people and cargo in and out with increasing efficiency and reach. The ultimate result may be to expand the concept of what an aerotropolis can be.

How an Aerotropolis Sprouted

Back in 2000, Kasarda wrote a seminal article in Urban Land describing his vision of a coming global shift in the relationship between cities and the airports that serve them. In a broadband-speed world in which jet travel was ubiquitous, businesses and supply chains expanded rapidly around the globe, and overnight shipping had become a necessity, airports no longer would be just transportation links on the periphery of a metropolis. Instead, Kasarda saw them becoming the cores around which urban areas and their economies would develop.

It is a concept that has taken hold all over the world, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, where Dubai International Airport has helped turn the city around it into a major international crossroads for commerce. But the aerotropolis concept has taken off more slowly in the United States, where many cities already have legacy airports whose locations were chosen in the era before jet aircraft, and which today have only limited acreage around them or within their borders for development.

“Places like LaGuardia in New York City or Logan [in Boston] just don’t have the land,” Kasarda explains.

Southlake Town Square, which includes a walkable core with green space, retail, dining, and a movie theater, offers an updated version of a traditional American town. (© Cooper & Stebbins)

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Southlake Town Square, which includes a walkable core with green space, retail, dining, and a movie theater, offers an updated version of a traditional American town. (© Cooper & Stebbins)

But DFW—which was sited and erected decades before Kasarda spotted the trend—had the space, by virtue of being built in the middle of what was once an expanse of prairie scrubland. It was a location dictated not by development potential, but by political expediency. According to newspaper accounts, in the mid-1960s, Dallas wanted its own separate international airport from Fort Worth, but officials at the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the siting and development of airports, thought that was a waste, and decreed that the two cities would have to share one. Leaders from the two cities eventually agreed upon a location that was equidistant between them.

As Kasarda notes in his book, DFW’s planners were among the first to have to design an airport to accommodate the bulk of a Boeing 747 and the hundreds of passengers who would cram into them. For that reason, they acquired a vast amount of land—far more than the airport would turn out to ever need for runways and terminals. They did not know it, but decades later, that cautious move would give the airport’s management room to develop nonaviation land uses.

DFW experienced another stroke of good fortune during the early 1980s, when American Airlines, in an effort to control costs in the narrow-margin era of deregulation, decided to create a hub-and-spoke system that routed its domestic passengers through a central airport and then had them catch connecting flights to their destinations. DFW’s central location—often described as “four hours from anyplace”—made it the logical choice for American Airlines’ initial hub. American Airlines eventually became the Dallas/Fort Worth area’s biggest employer, Kasarda notes.

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Southlake Town Square, which includes a walkable core with green space, retail, dining, and a movie theater, offers an updated version of a traditional American town. (© Cooper & Stebbins)

As DFW traffic grew, companies started seeing the advantages of being located close to the airport. Nearby Las Colinas, a suburb of the city of Irving, turned into a magnet for corporate headquarters, with eight of the Fortune 1000 companies moving there to take advantage of the convenience. Real estate developers saw the opportunities as well. Not far from DFW’s runways, the upscale suburb of Southlake sprang up and became home to legions of corporate managers and executives—including some who commuted by air to jobs in other cities, according to Kasarda’s book.

“When DFW started, it was largely a connector airport,” says Frank Bliss, president of Cooper & Stebbins, a local subsidiary of the international real estate investment firm Cooper and Company. “You were on your way to Los Angeles or New York. But then, more and more, people were stopping here, going to Dallas or Fort Worth. Development sprang up around the airport, taking advantage of easy access to air travel. And then, gradually, the airport itself is becoming a destination. If you think of the area around the airport as a mixed-use development, you really understand the initial phase of what an aerotropolis is like.”

During the mid-1990s, Bliss and his firm were among those who saw the real estate potential in DFW’s rise as an international gateway. “We became intrigued by the transformational role that airports were playing in global commerce,” he explains. “There were more opportunities to travel nonstop to places such as Asia and the Middle East. So we found a site, 3.1 miles [5 km] west of a runway at DFW, and less than ten miles [16 km] east of the evolving Alliance Texas industrial airport and global logistics complex near Fort Worth. We decided to establish a mixed-use development that would evolve over decades, between these twin airport development anchors.”
The result was Southlake Town Square, a mixed-use complex that includes 1.4 million square feet (130,000 sq m) of retail, office, and restaurant space, plus a hotel, a movie theater, and a neighborhood of luxury brownstone residences. Its buildings are linked by public squares, plazas, and parks to create the walking-scale atmosphere of a traditional American town. And the developer continues to add to the project, thanks to the continued demand that DFW creates.

The 60-acre (24 ha) mixed-use Founders’ Plaza complex allows visitors to watch aircraft landing and taking off, and listen to radio communications from the airport’s control tower.

The 60-acre (24 ha) mixed-use Founders’ Plaza complex allows visitors to watch aircraft landing and taking off, and listen to radio communications from the airport’s control tower.

“If you’ve got property within a 15-minute drive time of the airport, you’re going to have a lot of eyeballs on it, from corporate to residential,” Bliss says. “You’ve got a full complement of uses that want to be there. Whether it’s retail or restaurant, office or entertainment, a home or a hotel, all those uses benefit from being close to DFW.”

Planning a Next-Wave Airport City

In the 2000s, as the airline industry struggled through a travel slump, DFW’s leadership began to see that organic development was not enough. To remain competitive, airports needed to find more nonaviation revenue to finance their operations, in order to take the pressure off carriers to cover those expenses with usage fees.

The Grand Hyatt, located inside the airport’s International Terminal D, has become a virtual headquarters for corporate executives, with 34,000 square feet (3,200 sq m) of meeting space. (© DFW Airport)

The Grand Hyatt, located inside the airport’s International Terminal D, has become a virtual headquarters for corporate executives, with 34,000 square feet (3,200 sq m) of meeting space. (© DFW Airport)

A template already existed in Europe’s mostly privatized airports, which typically depend on aviation to cover about 30 percent of their expenses, according to Brian Carroll, a vice president of the public institutions group at the Chicago office of business services firm JLL, which advises management teams at numerous airports. The other 70 percent, he says, comes from a variety of sources, including concessions, industrial and commercial real estate leases, and developing office buildings on unused airport land. “America is roughly the inverse, though we’re getting better,” he says.

DFW, which had thousands of available acres upon which to build, was well positioned to follow that model. But as some U.S. airports have learned to their dismay, such visions can be stymied by political disputes among stakeholders or a lack of business acumen. DFW avoided such problems by creating a separate department for commercial development in 2005, and hiring a team of real estate experts with private sector experience. Among them was John Terrell, whose real estate experience included being an executive at Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads and 17 years as a private developer.

Instead of merely soliciting proposals from developers, Terrell says that DFW officials took “a much more proactive and directed approach.” That included traveling to Asia to study aerotropolises in Shanghai and Singapore. They also did market studies of the communities that surrounded DFW, which helped them find land uses that would form a synergy with existing development, rather than compete with it. As the master plan took shape, DFW also worked hard to market its vision with websites and a newsletter. Terrell and the team also sought to form partnerships with outside developers—some of whom were initially resistant, he recalls.

“The developers took the approach that we shouldn’t develop the airport, because it would compete with them,” Terrell recalls. “We had to explain to them that we were simply making land available that we could develop.” Eventually, though, DFW attracted Texas brand names including Trammell Crow and Hillwood, the development company established by Ross Perot Jr.

While DFW continues to refine its master plan, the basic concept includes more than a half-dozen different districts along the airport’s edges, safely out of the way of aviation activity. They are earmarked for a range of uses. At the airport’s northeastern border, for example, lies International Commerce Park, whose 400 acres (162 ha) are now fully developed. It is home to both the headquarters of and distribution center for Aviall, a Boeing subsidiary that is the world’s largest provider of new airplane parts and related aftermarket services. Another facility handles all of the Dallas Cowboys’ merchandise—screening team logos on hats and shirts that are manufactured in South and Central America, and then shipping them to football fans across the United States. Yet another northern area, Coppell Industrial, has become the base for Fresenius, a maker of kidney dialysis equipment. The company’s airport location makes it easy to fly doctors and nurses in for training.

A nighttime view of one of the restaurants in Southlake Town Square. (© Cooper & Stebbins)

A nighttime view of one of the restaurants in Southlake Town Square. (© Cooper & Stebbins)

Along the airport’s southern tip, DFW’s planners are planning an 1,800-acre (729 ha) office park and two mixed-use developments. The 600-acre (243 ha) Passport Park is envisioned primarily as a shopping district, featuring both big-box stores and specialty shops. To the west, the partially completed 32-acre (13 ha) Southgate Plaza project is already home to DFW’s headquarters building and eventually will include a 137-room hotel, a post office, and retail and restaurant space.

Those areas point toward a future DFW where much of the economic activity comes from the sort of uses that might be seen in an urban downtown. “I think inside the border is a prime location, but not necessarily for industrial uses,” says Bruce M. Carlson, the founder and chief executive of Dallas-based architecture firm CMA. “They can obtain higher revenues from stacking up offices, hotels, and retail, and letting the other stuff happen across the highway, in what are pretty mature industrial areas.”

Looking for Sustainability

DFW also continues to court new businesses by leveraging the proximity to its terminals and runways. One imaginative example: Construction is set to begin on a 75,000-square-foot (7,000 sq m) combination sports training and arena facility being developed by former National Basketball Association star Jermaine O’Neal. “He’ll host regional and national [competitions] in basketball, baseball, and football there,” Terrell says.

DFW is also looking to modify some of its cargo facilities to “cold chain” operations, in which products ranging from fresh fish to pharmaceuticals are maintained at low temperature throughout the logistics chain. “It’s been around for a while, but the demand is growing,” Terrell says. “We want to be a big player.”

DFW’s International Commerce Park is a center for industrial/warehouse and logistics businesses, with convenient access to both rail and highways. (© DFW International Airport)

DFW’s International Commerce Park is a center for industrial/warehouse and logistics businesses, with convenient access to both rail and highways. (© DFW International Airport)

Some have questioned whether the aerotropolis concept will be constrained by a future in which climate change is a pressing issue, given airports’ heavy carbon output and resource-intensive operations. But DFW is already adjusting to that reality, and striving to create a blueprint for a more sustainable version of the airport city. It was recently recognized by the Airport Carbon Accreditation program, an international environmental body, as the first U.S. airport—and one of only 23 worldwide—whose nonaviation operations are carbon-neutral. That was achieved, in part, by making efficiency improvements in the heating and cooling systems in terminals, but DFW also used its leverage as a massive utility customer to negotiate affordable deals to buy all of its energy from renewable sources such as wind farms and solar installations.

Robert Horton, DFW’s vice president for environmental affairs, says that the airport reduced its carbon footprint by 29 percent between 2010 and 2015, and is saving $22 million annually in energy costs. Eventually, DFW may achieve greater sustainability by generating its own energy from solar and geothermal sources, he adds.

Another facet of sustainability is reducing automobile traffic into the airport. To that end, DFW is integrating mass transit. Since 2014, the airport has been connected to downtown Dallas via light rail, and a rail line to and from downtown Fort Worth is scheduled to open in 2018. Those links will make it easier for people who live in walkable urban neighborhoods in both cities to get to the airport.

But even as other cities strive to emulate its development model, the DFW aerotropolis has set its sights higher. Terrell explains: “We’re no longer completing with domestic airports, but competing internationally. We’re looking at everything we do with that raised bar in mind.”

Patrick J. Kiger is a Washington, D.C.–area journalist, blogger, and author.