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A New Arts District Plan? Let’s Think Through What Went Wrong With The First One 15
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The Arts District looking out from the ‘Graveyard of Restaurants.’ Photo: Jerome Weeks

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 rather rushed 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 the rush?

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 plot that’ll now be a 23-story office tower and the Trammell Crow colossus going up next to Klyde Warren Park), there’s a now-or-never urgency to figure out how to ‘fix’ this thing and making 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a lengthy and accurate list of the district’s failings — some of which happen with any 32-year-old urban plan going out of date, some of which were intrinsic to the Sasaki layout: lack of retail, lack of affordable housing, cypress trees that don’t fare well in the Dallas climate,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 large sections of the population, etc.

But a central weakness with the Sasaki Plan wasn’t so much with the plan and its 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 plaza 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 most of them.

The essential purpose of the district was to transform a rusting, 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 unplanned 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 is the part of the plan designed to boost the 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 in the areas are office towers (and the occasional luxury hotel or condo complex). Office towers provide the highest, most reliable return on commercial investment. Restaurants, apartments, electronics stores, drug stores — all those things have high turnover or unreliable profit margins.

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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 over what to build, how to afford it, what this arts building 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. Even now, you can drive on Ross and not realize the Nasher Sculpture Center is just over there, behind that skyscraper, or, during the way, 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. 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, elsewhere. This is what happens when an urban area’s many purposes — dining, shopping, drinking, concert-going, etc — are all segmented into different parts of a city or even 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 have to 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, over there, 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 even happened. These are district-wide events that involve diverse arts groups, mingling crowds and a sense of electric urban energy, however brief, however localized.

Kinda like why the Arts District was set up in the first place.