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A New Arts District Plan? Let’s Think Through What Went Wrong With The First One

by Jerome Weeks 19 Jun 2015 12:11 PM

On Monday, submissions were due for an update to the Sasaki Plan, the original outline for the Arts District that, after 32 years, has had its problems. One major problem? It didn’t go far enough.


Robert Wilonsky in the DMN‘s City Hall blog reports that, some thirty years after the Sasaki Plan outlined the future for the Arts District, there’s now a request for a whole new revised plan (“At the end of May, Arts District leadership put out the word that it was looking for firms to sock it to the Sasaki plan” — and entries were due four days ago.) The eleven submissions include ideas from Rem Koolhaas’ OMA (co-designers of the Wyly Theatre), Sasaki Associates (again) and SHoP Architects, a Boston firm that was one of the three finalists for the Connected City Design Challenge (remember that? It wanted to find ways to link Dallas’ urban core with its riverfront — somehow overcoming I-35 and the Trinity Tollway).

Catherine Cueller, head of the Dallas Arts District — who, Wilonsky reports, is leaving to direct Entrepreneurs for North Texas — says a selection committee will go through the submissions and get them down to a handful by July 13, when the firms will be asked for proposals.

Why all this now?

Well, with city bond projects being planned and with the sales of the last plots of land in the immediate area (the next-door-to-the-Meyerson half-acre that’ll now be a 23-story office tower and the Trammell Crow colossus going up next to Klyde Warren Park), there’s a need to figure out how to ‘fix’ this thing and make it somehow both a round-the-clock, cultural destination but also, you know, an actual urban neighborhood with ordinary Dallasites using it, not just millionaires.

Wilonsky runs through a lengthy and accurate list of the district’s failings — some of which happen with any 32-year-old urban plan going out of date, some of which were intrinsic to the Sasaki layout: a lack of retail, lack of affordable housing, cypress trees that don’t fare well in the Dallas climate, cobblestone paving that makes ‘walkability’ a bad joke for many people, etc.

But a central weakness with the Sasaki Plan wasn’t so much with the plan and its supposedly ill-thought-out or supposedly onerous demands. It’s that the city basically took a free-market, hands-off approach to much of what would happen, especially with everything ‘around’ the plan. Which is why we got such additions to the area like One Arts Plaza and its entrance outfront (aka, the Graveyard of Restaurants). And it didn’t help that DART went its own way also — sticking its Pearl Street station off in a corner with no line-of-sight view of any of the arts facilities and a nice, hot walk over to them.

The essential purpose of the district was to transform a rusting, generally neglected, empty-warehouse section of downtown into a valuable, livable area by packing all (or most) of the city’s pressing cultural needs into it, thereby also creating something of a ‘critical mass’ for the arts organizations. They’d all prosper by having the city’s arts-engaged citizens wandering around, picking and choosing. You know, kinda like what Fair Park had more or less become in a thoroughly haphazard fashion over the decades — but this one would be newer, classier, whiter and without the State Fair getting in the way.

But everything outside the arts centers was to be determined by the real estate market. So land values in the immediate vicinity skyrocketed — which was part of the plan designed to boost commercial interests — and that soon priced out just about all ordinary, daily retail (dry cleaners, office supply shops, newstands, etc.). That’s why all we’ve been getting are office towers (and the occasional luxury hotel or condo complex). They provide the highest, most reliable return on commercial investment. Restaurants, apartments, electronics stores, drug stores: All those things have high turnover or erratic profit margins. Some of them actually need weekday plus weekend business to make money, and when all you have inhabiting the area are cubicle serfs, things get empty during daylight on Saturday and Sunday and during the evenings on Mondays through Wednesdays, when many cultural outfits aren’t open.

DMN garageedit

Your entrance to the Arts District. The DMA parking garage. Photo: Jerome Weeks

At the same time, the city essentially said to the organizations: Here’s the land. You’re on your own. Every man for himself.  The individual arts organization came to realize they each had their own fight to win concerning what needed to be built, how to afford it, what this arts facility should do and how it should relate to (or much more often, ignore) its surroundings. It’s why, for instance, signs in the area have been so few and far between. For years, you could get off at the Pearl Street DART station and have no idea where any of the major arts facilities were. Or that there was, in fact, an entire Arts District right over there. Even now, you can drive on Ross and not realize the Nasher Sculpture Center is just behind that skyscraper. Or, during the day when their neon signs aren’t lit up, you might not know which building is the Wyly and which is the Winspear.

Without restaurants and bars in the area, arts organizations also learned that, more or less, they had to bring their own party — provide food and beverage and pre- and after-show events. And concession business isn’t exactly their business. The result: There were (and still are) plenty of reasons to visit the Arts District. There were (and still are) very few reasons to stick around. That’s what the McKinney Avenue Trolley and all those glorified golf carts zipping around are for: getting you to the party, which always seems to be elsewhere. This is what happens when an urban area’s many purposes — dining, shopping, drinking, living, working, concert-going, etc — are all segmented into different parts of a city or even divvied up in a single neighborhood.

The second result: Every major arts facility in the district is essentially designed to encourage suburbanite car traffic to come and go, quickly. The Arts District functions like a temporary rest stop along a freeway. This may be a fact of transportation life in  post-war American cities, but it means that at the Meyerson, the Winspear, the DMA and the Wyly, visitors are guided to underground parking garages where they proceed to enter the arts palace — and never actually set foot in the rest of downtown. You can go to the opera — and never learn where anything else is downtown or even if there is anything else of interest.

The widespread popularity of Klyde Warren Park showed how incredibly closed-minded all of this thinking and building has been. Boom — instant crowds, 24/7, cheap eats and drinks easily available (once the food-truck problems with the district were worked out), crowds spilling over into different events, all the things the district was supposed to help effect and it’s happening — across the street.

And that’s because, rather than creating an interconnected ‘arts community,’ many of the features of the Arts District that I’ve mentioned here essentially “silo-ed” the arts organizations. This abiding series of obstacles is confirmed by the fact that only in recent years has anything like Aurora or Soluna or the Elevator Project even happened. These are events that involve diverse arts groups, mingling crowds with a sense of electric urban energy and discovery (however brief and however localized those crowds or energy might be).

Which sounds sorta like why the Arts District was set up in the first place.