Dallas Arts District – Time for a Remix?

Dallas Arts District – Time for a Remix?

by Joe Self, AIA

Trendy food trucks have arrived in the heart of the Dallas Arts District at lunchtime to populate an otherwise quiet section of downtown. The trucks with their eager vendors serve as a kind of non-architectural redevelopment force and a reminder of the original vision for the district — a vibrant mix of pedestrian-friendly uses. Why that didn’t happen is rooted in a culture of commercial development not uncommon in 20th Century American cities, and in the dearth of architects active in community and governmental organizations.

“The Sasaki Plan is what we follow,” said Veletta Forsythe Lill, executive director of the Dallas Arts District (who announced her resignation effective November 1). That plan by Sasaki Associates, promising “a lively, attractive downtown pedestrian environment” was adopted by the City of Dallas in 1982. It established an axis along Flora Street following on the heels of the Carr-Lynch Plan from 1978 wherein the idea of an arts district was sanctioned. Dallas is committed to its district, but perhaps it is time to question the merits of an arts zone segregated from the remainder of a city. The late Dallas architecture critic David Dillon once remarked, “There’s too much art in the arts district.”

A whole tribe of enthusiastic people has worked very hard and $1 billion has been spent. Yet, for large parts of the day, the arts district is not a fun place to be. Or even a useful part of the city in the everyday sense. Can you drop your dry-cleaning off, and buy some post-it notes for the office, after grabbing a bite during your lunch hour? Not in the Dallas Arts District. The list of uses allowed by zoning code in the district reads like the description of essential city elements: hotel, motel, bus station, day-care center, post office, community center, medical clinic, optical shop, bars, restaurants, a wax museum, art gallery, library, etc. Even carnivals are allowed if they are temporary. But few of the allowable amenities occur in the arts district in any significant way, and this explains why it doesn’t feel like a city when you walk through there during the day. It may be true that night-time events bring people in from all parts of the city, but the district should be evaluated on a 24-hour cycle and against a broader set of needs.

It’s true that One Arts Plaza, beautifully designed by Lionel Morrison for the Billingsley Company, has mixed uses with restaurants at the ground floor. But it’s at the far end of the district and features an imposing plaza several steps above street level. The 7-11 corporation is a tenant in the building and also has a retail presence there.

There are a handful of new projects that have the opportunity to put some mix back into the original mixed-use plan. Hall Financial Group hired HKS more than a decade ago to prepare a master plan and design for five acres in the heart of the district. More recently, HKS was commissioned to design a tower on one of the last significant parcels facing Flora Street for Hall Financial — between Leonard and Crockett. The building designs include office, retail, a hotel, and two separate condominium towers. The first building is 450,000 square feet of office on Ross Avenue. Construction is anticipated to begin mid next year on that project. 2121 Flora, located between the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Meyerson Symphony Hall, is programmed as a phased mixed-use project with ground-floor retail, mixed-income residential, and hotel uses. Mixed uses are essential for a vibrant city, but unintended consequences of close proximity must be anticipated — the solar reflection of the Museum Tower by Johnson Fain onto Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center is a case in point.

Another mixed-use project in the planning stages is a large development by Spire Realty south of Ross between Routh and Leonard. The first phase is an office tower with retail at the ground level though multiple buildings with mixed-uses including residential are planned to follow, providing easy access to DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) and parking. Spire Realty seems to have embraced the spirit of the Sasaki Plan like no other development team, with a mix of uses and a conscious desire to create pedestrian-friendly environments. Spire’s Jon Ruff says, “We want families to be comfortable in our development,” and to “. . . feel comfortable all day long, for a meal, a show and then maybe a coffee.” Spire has generally planned their towers to be set back from the edge of six-story “podium” structures, thereby scaling the urban experience to the street.

Buildings in the district have been favorably reviewed in this magazine (see Sharpe, TA 3/4  – 2008, Winters TA 9/10 – 2009, and Malone TA 3/4 – 2010) including some attention to the experience at the street (Sloan, TA 3/4 – 2010). The urban experience, formed by buildings and activated by mixed uses, is where the vision for the district has not been realized. The question seems to be, “Who worries about all of the stuff in between?” In the Dallas Arts District that job has been taken up only in the last few years by Ms. Lill. As a former city councilperson she has a long history with downtown Dallas and an understanding of the mechanics of governance that have served the district well. She has spearheaded efforts to make parking more accessible and to create events for all citizens of Dallas. The Dallas Arts District website is a thorough and informative resource.

The City of Dallas works closely with developers, but with a light touch. “Dallas has a laissez-faire relationship with developers, especially downtown where architects are brought in to create signature buildings,” explains Theresa O’Donnell, Director of Sustainable Development and Construction for the City of Dallas. O’Donnell confirmed that there are no incentives offered by the City of Dallas for residential development in the arts district, but mechanisms to encourage housing are being explored. The City of Dallas invited Artspace Projects, Inc., a nonprofit developer of affordable spaces for artists and creative workers, to conduct a feasibility study for artists’ housing needs with a focus on the Dallas Arts District.

Across the country, the limitations of governing bodies in the public realm have given rise to guerilla-type activism by those who care about the urban experience but who are not part of the traditional development team. Examples of these types of urban interventions are highlighted in the August 2012 issue of Architect magazine. The special issue is co-edited by the curators of “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good” in the U.S. Pavilion of the 2012 Venice Biennale. (One Dallas organization, Better Block, is featured at the Biennale and in Architect.) Pop-up events, urban squatting, and occupy-inspired happenings featured at the Biennale are a clue that the 20th Century planning models are not meeting the needs of our 21st Century population. Regardless of whether one approves of or likes the projects at the current Biennale, the interventions are the result of a deep dissatisfaction with our cities. Architects, planners, and developers would do well to study these movements.

Architects have a chance to help shape the city but they have to make the argument to developers and to city officials that a mixed-use building with retail on the ground floor, offices for a few floors, and affordable residential units above is a model that is flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the city and its citizens for this century and the next one. The issue is completely outside of style. “We don’t want a hamburger stand jammed into the front of the Myerson,” said Lill. And who would disagree? Well, plenty of people might disagree, judging from the interventions displayed in Venice.

At lunchtime, many parts of downtown Dallas are bustling with activity. But the quest for this kind of urban vitality does not end with benches, sign ordinances, lighting requirements, and street trees. A thoughtful set of guidelines is, of course, essential for these urban elements. But, a vibrant city also requires a mix of uses, especially at the sidewalk level, and if the need for that mix is not explicitly required, then maybe the conversation needs to be revived. This is not a question of art versus commerce where the answer to a lifeless city is an either-or proposition, but is instead the bounteous both-and proposition.

Are there good examples where art and commerce interlock? One comes to mind — the Yale Center for British Arts by Louis Kahn. This first-rate museum was planned within a fairly dense part of New Haven. The museum is combined, at the ground level, with shops. The building design accommodates the complex uses of a museum along with amenities at the street. Neither of the programmatic uses nor the architectural experience is compromised, and each use benefits the other. In this case, something like a hamburger stand is inserted into a cultural icon and it works very well. Good building form is not diluted by a good streetscape.

Very few architects get the chance to be part of the discussion for major buildings. What are the other 99% to do? They can seek involvement in planning commissions, zoning boards, design review boards, homeowners associations, and other community organizations that are at the table when discussions are had and decisions are made. Without architects involved in community organizations, the city suffers.

Joe Self, AIA, is the principal of FIRM817 in Fort Worth.

Originally published in Texas Architect, November/December 2012.