Early in my career, I made a number of trips to Southern California to support a retail client’s national expansion. The Los Angeles area represented an intense concentration of potential customers, and the expanding chain planned to build a number of stores there. I vividly remember flying west over the massive metropolitan area that surrounded LAX, beginning abruptly in the eastern desert and unfolding continuously in an uninterrupted tan and gray undulating field to the ocean. Coming from Texas, the L.A. landscape seemed exotic and incomprehensible, the presence of mountains and the ocean in close proximity to where people lived was a startling contrast to the flat prairies of North Texas. These site visits provided opportunities to see landmarks and iconic architecture, but it was obvious that the real experience of the region was not sun and surf, but rather, commuting, and time in one’s car. Getting around Southern California was a trial; crawling along the inadequate freeways between destinations was frustrating and inexplicably sad. Who would do this? Even more, who would do it by choice every day? In reality, the traffic and the time spent commuting were an unavoidable, endemic part of life in L.A. If you lived there, you just accepted it and did it.
As architects, we were taught to consider extended commuting in a personal vehicle as a cautionary tale, a flaw in the way Southern California had grown and how its population expansion had been allowed to indiscriminately cover the landscape. It was an easy example, long a topic of late-night jokes and humor. It was painful to consider that the locals dealt with it every day. What’s more, the same traffic issues and patterns were also present in the Eastern cities and becoming a way of life in the Sunbelt too. Land use norms or not, American cities expanded and grew into their surrounding available land, and what we consider to be sprawl became commonplace. Like it or not, this is the de facto model of American urban development, present (and still thriving) throughout Texas, where you can drive on crowded freeways out to the suburbs of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and even eco-friendly Austin.
Back in the 1980s, despite the oil boom and the real estate bonanza it spawned, the part of Dallas I lived in was somewhat simpler and the sprawl more contained. Perhaps it is a romanticized memory, but the freeway system seemed manageable; indeed, rarely did the traffic hamper my movement about. There were signs it was getting worse. More people were moving to Dallas-Fort Worth, and the region’s lack of viable public transport meant they were all driving everywhere they went. Forty years on, the Dallas area appears very much like that L.A. the 20-something me discovered, only with more trees. The suburbs are far flung; it takes a long time to get anywhere; and sitting in cars on choked and crowded roads is how you get about.
A lot of the ambitious development in Dallas is aimed to the North, and indeed, the growth in that direction seems to be aligned along the corridor defined by the Dallas North Tollway, an arterial that points a direct path from downtown to the most remote northern suburbs. The growth along this corridor also includes several of the most affluent residential neighborhoods, the toniest shopping, and the most complex multiuse and entertainment-oriented development. The toll road begins just north of downtown Dallas, near The Crescent, which, along with Old Parkland, provides offices for the plutocracy that midwifed much of North Texas as we know it. The American Airlines Center, the heart of the Victory Park development, also parallels the toll road, which then moves through the yuppie paradise that is Uptown and the Park Cities, where the real movers and shakers live. Continuing on, the tollway bisects Preston Hollow, with its verdant estates and significant residential architecture; then it skirts the city’s most elite private schools before reaching the cluster of consumption that surrounds the Galleria. Next, it passes the restaurant and entrainment enclave of Addison, then heads through West Plano, ground zero for the McMansion, and North Plano, with its corporate headquarters, home to companies seeking an escape from taxes and environmental obligations and paving over the prairie in the process. The Legacy West development promises faux urbanism, walkable streets accessed by acres of free parking. Next, the toll road heads up into Frisco, and beyond that, Prosper, the current northern border of the DFW Metroplex. It’s worth noting that the tollway is a private road. You pay to drive on it, and this route is not meaningfully served by any public transit.
Frisco is an interesting case of how the North Texas environment is changing. At one time, the remote suburban city was the northern extremis of Dallas development. Statistics suggest it was home to 6,500 people in 1990; 30 years later, that number is closer to 180,000. There’s a lot of space yet to build out, so those numbers are likely to increase substantially by mid-century. Hard by the toll road is Frisco Square, home to Frisco City Hall and the axially planned central greenspace that organizes its presumption of urbanism. Denser development is intended to ring the greenspace, in the form of developer apartment “donuts,” where five-story residential buildings ring a parking garage. Retail and restaurants are provided on the ground floor. This aspirational town square hearkens back to the era of civic engagement, but it’s oddly juxtaposed with the FC Dallas soccer stadium to the north, empty and locked unless there’s a game or event there. It’s an interesting choice for a civic venue, and of course, it’s also surrounded by parking. Besides the gesture of this “square,” the rest of Frisco is a pattern book of mediocre suburban sprawl, silo zoning, and strip development. If you like chain restaurants, the selection is stupendous! Frisco also seems to have placed its bets on sports as a way to attract visitors and their discretionary dollars. The Dr Pepper Ballpark is home to the minor league Frisco RoughRiders. A more ambitious development is associated with the Ford Center, the Dallas Cowboys practice facility, and the adjacent offices where the team is headquartered. Collectively, the development is called The Star, and the 12,000-seat stadium is a partnership between the City of Frisco and the Dallas Cowboys. High school football is played in the stadium when it’s not being used for practice by the Cowboys. These sports venues are boosted heavily by Frisco, but one wonders if they really add to the average citizen’s experience of civic life.
The kind of idealized neighborhoods and communities that design professionals and urbanists like to point to as examples of model living exist in Texas and have for at least a century. Most of these predate the region’s explosive postwar growth, but they are home to many and still functioning well today. Indeed, they are some of the most desirable residential communities in the state. Large Texas cities have strong traditional urban neighborhoods that started out as suburbs with the kinds of institutions and services generally associated with vibrant urbanism. These places have thrived since their founding and include University Park in Dallas, Alamo Heights in San Antonio, and West University Place in Houston. The rapid increase in the state’s population coincided with the growth of less organic suburbs, primarily defined by large merchant housing developments and little institutional base. When people moved to the region, suburban areas around the core cities became home to many of these newcomers. These suburbs have been perceived to offer the amenities and attractions that folks moving to Texas seek: affordable, detached single-family houses on individual lots, good schools (though what constitutes “good” is fungible), and a uniformity of other residents (racial, economic, political). What these suburbs often lack are the kinds of infrastructure and institutions that make urban life so compelling and enjoyable. One example is the new schools built in these suburbs, which are large buildings that are poorly massed, clunky in their organization, and set on large parcels of land isolated within a complex system of drives and ring roads that primarily channel drop-off, pick-up, and parking, defying you to walk your children to school. Characteristically enough, the architects of many of these buildings tout them as being “designed from the inside out.”
We’d been led to believe the generation now coming into their own middle-class prosperity would have different values, but data suggests they too are choosing the suburbs, duplicating the lives they had as children. Significant numbers of people are still selecting this pattern of life for themselves, and, based on the demographics, they’re well educated, affluent, and presumably woke enough to know what’s potentially wrong with their choices. But, as with the three generations before them, including the parents of most of the readers of this magazine, it’s a life they’ve selected, despite a variety of urban housing options available in most of the large cities. We can’t categorically suggest that they don’t want this suburban life with its commitment to commuting, or that it’s their only alternative economically. Perhaps it’s still a powerful reflection of our collective vision of the American Dream.
As architects, it’s easy to despair over the pattern of sprawl and the seeming unsustainability of it all — the sheer ugliness of it. But then there’s Legacy West, with its intense collection of uses, retail stores, and restaurants arranged around a central street, overlooked by apartments and offices. There’s a remarkable multi-story food court, a beehive of activity with live music, and a variety of seating options. Everywhere in Legacy West is packed, filled with people on foot, strolling through throngs of fellow pedestrians who have self-selected to drive to a mixed-use development that peddles walkable urbanism and requires their participation. You can have the same experience elsewhere in suburban Texas, north of Houston at the Woodlands, in north Austin at the Domain, in the heart of San Antonio at the Pearl. These folks know they’re doing something fun and different and collective, and it has to suggest to at least some of them that this is how their lives could unfold every day, with the sorts of variety of experiences we associate with Europe. It’s sad they have to drive there to experience this, but then again, people travel great lengths to experience it in Europe and, closer to home, at Disneyland, too.
Michael Malone, FAIA, is a principal at Malone Maxwell Borson Architects in Dallas.