Archive for October, 2009

Learning from the Big D Experiment

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

History is a wonderful teacher.

I remember living in Dallas in the go-go 1980s, a time when anything and everything was possible. After the Penn Square Bank collapse in July 1982, the city, like much of America, took a few years to recover its footing.

When it did, growth was the order of the day. For the better part of the decade, the city was in a near-constant state of building boom. Every Thursday night was a ground-breaking or broker party, and the sky was the limit when it came to office towers and marketing budgets to wine and dine the city’s business elite.

MeyersonBy 1989, the bloom was definitely coming off the rose in Big D, but that year marked the opening of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. Designed by starchitect I.M. Pei, it broke new ground in what was possible for Dallas’ downtown Arts District. Its striking architecture was widely praised, even by East and West Coast newspapers.

The literati openly marveled at how such an edifice could be plunked down in the middle of America, in the South no less, and seemingly in the middle of an urban fabric that seemed unraveled at best, so dislocated and isolated from the towering skyscrapers just to the South and the growing Uptown district to the north.

Still, the Meyerson, along with its newish neighbor the Dallas Museum of Art, became the de facto cultural center for the city, even though their timing seemed oddly wrong as the city and the nation plunged into a deep recession as the decade of the 1990s dawned.

Today marks another milestone of an opening for Dallas and its Arts District. October 12 is the official debut of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, also known as APAC for short – which includes the Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theatre. Their debut draws striking parallels to the Meyerson more than 10 years ago, as it comes at another inconvenient time, economically speaking anyway.

dcpa_splashDesigned by world-class architects Sir Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas, respectively, the contemporary buildings have been roundly praised individually but criticized for a “more of the same” attitude of being alone and even “standoffish.” Just like the Meyerson.

Despite the cultural criticisms, the new buildings add a distinctive touch and pedestrian-friendly magnet for the district, and perhaps most importantly, provide another reason for Metroplexers to brave a trip to downtown Dallas.

Already, there are far more permanent residents living downtown – some 6,000 versus only 200 in the early 1990s. Construction has also begun on a new urban park straddling the Woodall Rogers Freeway which bounds the northern edge of the Arts District. Even a new soaring bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava to span the nearby Trinity River is awaiting funding. Downtown streetcars, which have been considered for nearly a decade, might become a near-term reality.

Recently construction stated on a convention center hotel downtown, much to the chagrin of members of the Crow family, who fought tooth and nail to shelve the deal since it would compete with Crow-owned hotels in the market. Interestingly much of the Arts District sits on land formerly and presently owned by the Crows.

All of which draws several striking comparisons to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and their individual plans to achieve workable urban oases. It seems to me that the urban planning dialogue unfolding in Big D right now warrants continued examination. Will locals embrace famed urban planner Kevin Lynch’s vision – first posited way back in 1977 – for a walkable urban district, or will isolation reign supreme?

Local opinion has been decidedly mixed and divided. Even local media, like D Magazine, have weighed in on the foibles of creating major civic projects in a vacuum. The feeling among local city leaders, which has not changed much in 30+ years, is that if you throw enough world-class architects and urban planners at something, then you might just get, um, something world class. Might.

I’ll be watching, and we’ll all be learning.