As architects, many of us spend our lives in urban centers and turn our backs to the low-density landscape sprawling out around us. While the vitality of urban centers is increasing, one cannot ignore the extraordinary growth of suburban cities in North Texas and around the country. Frisco and McKinney are numbers two and three respectively on a list of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., based on the Census Bureau’s latest population estimates. It is a simple fact: The suburban growth in North Texas and many other places throughout the nation is outpacing the redevelopment of urban areas.
This was the subject of “The Urban Burbs – Corporate Campuses and Suburbia,” a panel discussion this May at the Dallas Architecture Forum. Moderated by Gensler Dallas Design Director Ian Zapata, AIA, and featuring Jim Tousignant, director of real estate at Verizon; Peter Braster, director of special projects at the City of Plano; and Steve Brown, real estate editor of the Dallas Morning News, the conversation focused on how large suburban corporate campuses are changing in the 21st century.
With Toyota, Liberty Mutual, State Farm, JP Morgan Chase, and Boeing, among others, setting up shop in the North Texas suburbs, the character of their campuses merits discussion. The corporate campus model has transformed over the years from closed, inwardly focused and isolated buildings to the open campuses we see today (à la BIG’s proposal for Google’s new HQ) that engage with their surroundings to varying degrees. As work trends moved from a sterile office-only environment to remote working, companies were forced to rethink their campus designs to lure talented employees who valued the variety and collaboration of being out in the community.
As Tousignant stated, for Verizon, the primary drivers for locating in North Texas are a low cost of living and the availability of a talented workforce. To attract this workforce, the new campuses are recognizing the value of the “urban” experience; that is, being close to entertainment, shopping, and cultural offerings. Corporate campuses are being located next to developments such as Plano’s new Legacy West, which offers numerous restaurant and shopping options. These developments, while automobile oriented, strive to create an “urbanism” for a few blocks that approximates streets in New York or San Francisco, bringing the appearance of a lively city block to the middle of suburbia. Often, they create islands of walkability amid seas of parking, but they do reflect a shift in thinking.
The panelists agreed that parking is a paramount issue — now, and in the future. With driverless cars as a potential mitigator of traffic, and Zipcar as a stepping stone, the act of driving and car ownership may look very different in the near future. Smart developers are thinking about how to reuse parking garages. It is concerning, noted Tousingant, when new developments all include new 1,000-car garages, as such structures will likely become unnecessary. However, Brown surmised that Dallas would be one of the last cities to see a drastic drop in car ownership. Working in tandem with the revolution in auto use is the increase of transit. Verizon is planning a massive development on Hidden Ridge, in Irving, near Las Colinas and across the street from its current regional headquarters. A new DART stop is integral to Verizon’s vision for the site. Transit was also noted by the panelists as the cause of the recent resurgence and development in Las Colinas, which was for many years an all-too-empty monument to 1980’s single-use planning.
A reduced role for automobiles will require housing to be made available adjacent to these new campuses. The young professionals that corporations hope to attract are more and more delaying home-buying, and seem to prefer to rent. However, in Plano, according to Braster, there has been “tremendous push-back” from residents regarding rental apartments. This underscores the tension many similar cities face between development and growth, and the desire of residents to preserve the character of their city.
As the landscape changes, one area of enormous opportunity will be, according to Tousignant, underperforming suburban strip retail centers. These ubiquitous developments will need to be creatively reimagined to be relevant in a 21st-century environment.
As the suburbs continue to grow at a breakneck pace, we can be assured that more dense nodes will spring up, often with office uses as a significant component. The development of the suburbs is a complex prospect, where competing concerns and priorities will continue to coexist; however, the overall trajectory of the suburbs, according to the panelists, suggests increased density and walkable nodes, supplemented by transit and supporting office use. It will be incumbent upon future developers and designers to thoughtfully create integrated and dense areas within the suburban context.
Andrew Barnes, AIA, is an architect in Dallas and recently launched his own practice, Agent Architecture.