It’s straight out of a big-screen thriller: On a Thursday in May 2001, a corporate jet carrying executives of the aerospace giant Boeing took off from Seattle, where the company had been founded in 1916, and headed for a “secret” destination. This was the climax of a months-long bidding war — the early-aughts equivalent of the Amazon HQ2 spectacle — to decide where Boeing would relocate its corporate headquarters.
Municipal and state officials from the three finalist cities already knew where the jet was headed, of course. The winner actually rolled out a red carpet on the tarmac to receive it. But it was stellar public drama. Had Twitter existed back then, one can imagine a maelstrom of tweets and retweets speculating about where the jet was going as it remained airborne somewhere over the Rockies and Great Plains.
The city where Boeing’s jet landed (both literally and metaphorically) was not Denver, and it was not Dallas. It was Chicago. Boeing took an offer of $41 million in tax incentives from the state of Illinois, plus additional incentives from the city, and on September 4 moved its 500 or so corporate employees to the Windy City. It instantaneously became the most valuable corporation in the state.
Dallas was, understandably, disappointed. “We asked why,” said Doug Prude, planning and development analyst at Downtown Dallas, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy organization that is the “champion and steward” of the Downtown Public Improvement District. Money clearly had to do with it, but, in addition, “they claimed it was because downtown was void of activity after 5 p.m., and, specifically, a lack of arts and culture. So Dallasites began planting seeds.”
The quest to fertilize the city’s downtown is embodied in the Dallas Arts District, a square mile of nearly 30 museums, performance halls, historic churches, and other arts institutions on downtown’s northwest side. The Boeing verdict was a wakeup call for the project, which began in the 1980s as a vision of a lively urban place but was undermined by the very recognition it sought, as expressed by its self-advertisement as “the largest contiguous arts district in the country.” Over the last 30 years, driven largely by big donations from Dallas’ wealthy philanthropic class, it has indeed amassed an unrivaled collection of five cultural edifices designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects. But this is largely all it is: a collection of big buildings by famous architects. It has not materialized as a vibrant neighborhood, that organic expression of culture that Chicago has in spades.
The District exemplifies the “Bilbao effect” gone haywire: a fundamental misconception about the ability of large cultural institutions to catalyze urban life. Today, city and neighborhood leaders are endeavoring to steer the District back towards the vision of a truly dynamic place, with a new master plan in the works. But its already-built legacy — and that legacy’s high-powered financial underpinnings, representing hundreds of millions of dollars of investment from public and private entities — may prove difficult to overcome.
Art for the People
I met Lily Cabatu Weiss, the executive director of the Dallas Arts District since 2016, at Musume, one of the District’s few restaurants. It’s an upscale Asian place at street level in the newest building to open: KPMG Plaza at Hall Arts, an 18-story glass-clad building with 500,000 sf of office space designed by HKS. This is the most street-defining, activated half block in the District, and at night, the insides of the two restaurants here glow — the fine dining habits of Dallas’ cultured elite on full view through transparent glass walls.
Weiss is an Army brat who attended Texas Women’s University in Denton and taught in and led the dance program at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts — the only school in or around the Arts District — for 35 years. On a sunny Friday afternoon in April, dressed in black with a silvery sequined blouse, she was busy preparing for a block party that the Arts District was hosting that evening. Over tempura green beans and fried shrimp, she told me about her vision to activate the District with programming like the block party.
“I named the event Changing Perspectives for the sole reason of presenting art that gives a sense of place,” she said. “So whether that’s tipping the stage to the side of a building or looking up at dancers in globes that are 20 feet high, or having a Dallas company present a site-specific performance using ‘Impulse’” — an installation comprised of seesaws wired with LED lights and speakers — “the objective is to make art accessible.”
This is an admirable goal, and indeed, the block party — centered around Sammons Park beneath the massive overhanging solar canopy of Norman Foster’s 2009 Margo and Bill Winspear Opera House — drew diverse visitors: kids playing on the teeter-totters, high schoolers skateboarding, groups of friends, families. But even with such intense programming as live music and food trucks, the large spaces, poorly defined by the architecture, barely felt lively. On a normal weekend evening — not to mention a weekday — the streets and open spaces in the Arts District are mostly empty, save for brief periods as generally well-heeled performance attendees arrive and depart, mostly by car, from enormous underground parking garages.
Real, organic accessibility can come only with a rich diversity of uses in an urban district. Jane Jacobs directly addresses the issue of cultural districts in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” criticizing the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on New York’s Upper West Side, which was being constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lincoln Center, like the Dallas Arts District, concentrated, in a single location, halls for symphony, ballet, opera, and theater: big, institutional urban players that Jacobs calls “chessmen.” These chessmen, she contends, should instead be scattered to “fortify and extend existing vitality, and … help balance up, in strategic places, existing time unbalances” in districts “with intensive daytime use that go ominously dead at night.” In the case of Carnegie Hall, at West 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, she observes a rich ecosystem of secondary uses — art and dance studios, restaurants, shops, hotels — that exist in the hall’s orbit and, in tandem with it, bring life to the area day and night.
It is therefore a significant missed opportunity that all of Dallas’ big arts chessmen were stuffed into a single place when they could have brought life to many neighborhoods. The Dallas Cultural Plan recently identified that black box theaters at neighborhood public library branches are under-equipped to serve community needs, while millions of dollars in public-private partnership money went toward high-profile Arts District venues concentrated downtown.
Weiss is making the most of the situation she has inherited, with initiatives to bring arts to the neighborhoods through outreach programs, events like Changing Perspectives, and summer and spring break camps in the District. “And not just a one-time event,” she added: “the goal is to build sustainable partnerships and programming year-round in our neighborhoods.” But, that such outreach efforts might never have been necessary had the original neighborhoods here been preserved and the cultural resources spread out in the first place.
Grove of Titans
On the flip side, since most of the real estate in the Arts District itself is now consumed by the cultural institutions, there’s not much land left on which to build housing, retail, and restaurants in order to encourage 24/7 use. The original master plan for the District, completed in 1982 and informally called the “Sasaki Plan” after the firm that created it, actually envisioned this abundant mix of uses. “It was really meant to be a neighborhood,” said Alan Mountjoy, a principal at NBBJ, the architecture and urban design firm hired in 2016 to develop the new master plan, currently under review by the City of Dallas.
“But it never was realized, because Dallas’ downtown was really not ready for it at the time,” Mountjoy said: Like most North American downtowns, it was devoid of housing, a place where people drove in to work and then drove home to the suburbs. “And so it became an arts enclave,” turning its back on the surrounding city and inwards to the main axis of pedestrian-oriented Flora Street.
In the ’80s and ’90s, before the New Urbanist movement had brought the vision of mixed-use downtowns back into the mainstream, developers weren’t willing to build housing in downtown Dallas. But wealthy donors were eager to contribute to the arts, said Doug Prude, with Downtown Dallas, Inc. “People who live here — people who made it here — love it here, and those people were falling over one another to donate money and become part of what’s now the Arts District.” The buildings, he noted, “have donors and contributing companies listed throughout them, and the walls read like a ‘who’s who’ in greater Dallas.”
Indeed, naming rights aside, supporting the “largest contiguous arts district in the nation” is surely an attractive philanthropic opportunity. Jane Jacobs acknowledges that “rich people will contribute much more readily and heavily for large, decontaminated islands of monuments than for single cultural buildings set in a city’s matrix.” And donors wanted their money to go toward big-name architects — the biggest, in fact. But given Dallas’ developer-driven politics, the Sasaki Plan didn’t have the teeth to enforce features such as ground-floor transparency or maximum-setback requirements — keystones of successful street design — with the likes of Renzo Piano or Rem Koolhaas. As a result, contrary to the Sasaki Plan’s illustrations of dense blocks with well-defined streets, tall housing and office towers, and shops and restaurants at street level, most of the built architecture does not engage with the street well.
For instance, the Nasher Sculpture Center, completed in 2002, was financed by the wealthy developer of the North Park Center shopping mall in North Dallas, Raymond Nasher, to house his and his wife’s personal sculpture collection. (Their name is also on an art museum at Duke University and a sculpture garden at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.) Designed by architect Renzo Piano and landscape architect Peter Walker, the elegant building features creative cast-aluminum sunscreens that cast diffused natural light on the sculptures, and human-scaled bays on its front facade, on Flora Street. But the other three sides, enclosing the sculpture garden, are dead stone or wooden walls, completely cutting the institution off from the street. Across the street at the Dallas Museum of Art, the first cultural building in the district — completed in 1983 and designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes with outdoor spaces by landscape architect Dan Kiley — the walls are similarly dead. In the vibrant heart of Manhattan, these block faces would include a dozen restaurants and bars, bodegas and shops, and hundreds of apartments.
At the other end of the District — the performing arts institutions are segregated from the visual arts across Pearl Street, a further detriment to round-the-clock street life — the buildings are more transparent but much less street-defining. Both I.M. Pei’s 1989 Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center and the Winspear Opera House feature large plazas in front that, lacking activity generators, are empty most of the time. Even before a symphony performance on a Friday night, a young man behind the cocktail bar in the Meyerson plaza’s grove of trees sat looking at his phone, having no customers to serve.
Most egregious is the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, completed in 2009 and the new primary home of the Dallas Theater Center, which decamped from the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Yes, Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus’ design is inventive in upending traditional notions of theater architecture, with its below-ground entry and radically transformable performance space. But it is still a gray cube plopped in the middle of a block, taking up barely a fourth of the area and abandoning the critical duty of architecture to define public space. The large sloping space leading down to the lobby also sits empty, even on performance evenings, and diminishes the possibility for interaction between the building and Flora Street. In conjunction with the Winspear’s large, open park across the street, this section of the District lacks the intimacy of scale that is necessary for comfortable urban public life.
Back to the Future
The new Connect master plan and recent developments in the District are attempting to rectify these problems and fulfill the Sasaki Plan’s vision of a mixed-use neighborhood. Weiss was “a breath of fresh air for the Arts District,” NBBJ’s Mountjoy said, in that “her attitude was very similar to ours, which is to tear down the walls and open up art and make it much more accessible to a broader population. I think the plan really speaks to that.”
The NBBJ plan stipulates new, more pedestrian-friendly street typologies with narrower driving lanes and expanded sidewalks; it includes new guidelines for expanding the presence of signage and public art to more clearly demarcate the District; and it calls for a makeover of Flora Street, where some of the drawbacks of the Sasaki Plan’s details are evident. The square pavers, for instance, are no longer ADA-compliant and pose a safety hazard when they come loose and cars speed over them. And, as Weiss told me, “Three rows of cypress trees do not work in an urban environment, so the proposed plan suggests two rows of trees of varying species, leaving more room for pedestrians.” The designers of Hall Arts, anticipating the new plan but still needing to comply with the old one, cleverly placed their third row of trees atop the second-floor patio, which opens up the sidewalk while still providing plenty of shade at both levels.
At a larger scale, Mountjoy said that the plan identifies opportunities that can still be capitalized on: enhancing connections to the DART light-rail to the south and now-vibrant Uptown and Klyde Warren Park to the north; expanding the District’s urban design guidelines to encompass both sides of Ross Street, where several new mixed-use blocks are going up; and cultivating new housing projects, including the Stantec-designed Atelier on Flora, a $150 million, 41-story residential project that also includes 43 affordable lofts for artists. “That project is probably the best manifestation of the Sasaki idea,” he said. “You have retail on the ground floor, artists’ residences on the floor above that, and then a tower set back from Flora Street.” He said the hope is that future projects continue to follow that model and that a new, stricter design review process, called for in the plan, will make for a greater continuity in the urban landscape.
By now, of course, the market has come around: Downtown revitalization is all the rage, and developers are jumping at the chance to build mixed-use housing and retail in downtown Dallas. In 1997, there was only one residential building in downtown; now, according to Prude, there are 9,000 residential units, with 10,000 more announced or under construction. He doesn’t see the trend stopping any time soon. “Every year, we’ve got more dirt turning on more projects, more great parks, more great buildings, more great retail,” he says.
Developers like Craig Hall, of Hall Arts — the second phase of which is a $250 million project with 183 hotel rooms, 50 luxury condominiums, and more ground-floor retail — are now interested in the vision of a mixed-use neighborhood. “What we’re trying to do is bring people and street life to the District,” Hall said, “and I think that’ll help make a tipping point where the whole area will be more activated.”
With the high cost of land and construction in downtown Dallas, though, it’s hard to see the Arts District ever really becoming the kind of mixed-income neighborhood Jane Jacobs wrote about. Hall himself admitted his $2 million condominiums were “not an affordable option for many people.” So unless more concerted efforts are made to incorporate affordable housing, the District will likely continue to primarily be an enclave of the wealthy, even if more of them are able to “live, work, and play” — as the trendy phrase goes — all in one place.
Indeed the Dallas Arts District is a cautionary tale about the very idea of arts districts and their neoliberal appropriation of culture for the wealthy at the expense of the poor. C. S. Lewis gets to the heart of the problem in his essay “Lilies That Fester,” writing that “to be constantly engaged with the idea of culture … as something enviable, or meritorious, or something that confers prestige, seems to me to endanger those very ‘enjoyments’ for whose sake we chiefly value it.” In other words, by trying so hard to stimulate “culture,” we undermine it — “for the true enjoyments must be spontaneous and compulsive and look to no remoter end.” It’s an argument on which Jane Jacobs, with her sidewalk ballet, would likely agree wholeheartedly.
But there’s no turning back for Dallas, and Weiss, ever the optimist, is adamant about taking incremental steps toward a more democratic, organic vision, one not tied to a sense of competition with other cities: “We continue to create ways to be accessible — making it the city’s arts district — offering free Wi-Fi at the parks, exploring apps for wayfinding, developing partnership for events, awarding grants to organizations to produce work, and offering affordable places to eat.” Even on a recent cold, windy day — by Dallas’ standards, not Chicago’s — she said, “people were still walking. So, in my opinion, it’s getting there.”
Gabe Colombo works at Black + Vernooy in Austin and will soon be an M.Arch
candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.