The light rail system operated by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is a hub-and-spoke model, designed to bring riders from the periphery of the city to its urban core. All lines converge downtown in single alignment at the system’s weakest point: the transit mall. Formerly San Jacinto Street, the mall is dedicated to light rail and is devoid of private vehicles. Even so, this segment of the system is particularly susceptible to closures caused by collisions with automobiles and pedestrians, weather events, or any number of unpredictable occurrences that take place in a dynamic urban environment. Incidents occurring here can create massive delays throughout the light rail system.
To address this issue, in 2007 DART commissioned the Downtown Dallas Transit Study, known as the D2 Study, that explored the possibility of a second light rail line through downtown. Surface alignments were initially proposed for this second line, cutting across the south side of Downtown Dallas, but after community objections, an underground subway option is now being pursued. The primary aim of the project is to “add long-term passenger carrying capacity to the DART light rail system and provide operational flexibility and added reliability.”
In September of 2017, DART released a refined LPA (Locally Preferred Alternative). The western portion of the alignment, which branches off at Victory Station, continues down to the new Metro Center Station at the West End, and turns to run east under Commerce Street, has been relatively uncontroversial. This was not the case for the eastern portion. How the D2 met up with the existing DART light rail tracks on the east side of downtown proved to be a contentious issue, with the Deep Ellum Foundation and local landowners voicing considerable opposition to the proposed “wye” junction near the existing Deep Ellum Station. The Dallas City Council, in a unanimous vote, approved a resolution on March 24, 2021, that supported the D2 project and gave its blessing to the western segment, but included a commitment to continue working to address concerns about the east end of the route.
In the face of the uncertainty and the multitude of comments it was receiving regarding the eastern portion of D2, DART, for the first time in its history, reached out to an external organization to seek additional input. DART contacted the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and requested an independent review of the existing designs, an assessment of the achievement of urban design goals, help in framing the overall goals and objectives of the final design, and additional design recommendations and feedback. AIA Dallas responded by convening a task force consisting of chair Peter Darby, AIA, Kate Aoki, AIA, Norman Alston, FAIA, Ben Reavis, AIA, and AIA Dallas Executive Director Zaida Basora, FAIA.
The preliminary design imagery released by DART showed meticulously rendered stations, but the head houses featured little to no articulation, materiality, or uniqueness. AIA Dallas used these images as its starting point for communicating the opportunity for placemaking that exists in undertaking a project of this magnitude. The task force divided its tasks into four areas of focus: system-wide feedback; station design (with the five proposed stations individually analyzed); east end alignment evaluation; and recommendations for design team procurement processes.
As part of the effort on the eastern alignment, AIA Dallas hosted a charrette inviting teams to reimagine the controversial “wye” junction. The proposed at-grade junction near the current Deep Ellum Station eliminated several existing buildings and resulted in awkward “leftover” areas that could not be redeveloped. This would have effectively de-urbanized a significant chunk of one of Dallas’ most dense and active neighborhoods. All three participating charrette teams proposed burying the junction, favoring a continuation of the subway over a messy at-grade interface. AIA Dallas presented these three design studies to DART, who responded by pursuing further alternatives for the eastern portion of the D2 alignment, including the options presented in the charrette. A preferred alternative, dubbed “Option 3-7a,” has now been identified by DART through an internal evaluation and community feedback. This approach shifts the eastern portion of the alignment to include a station at the existing East Transfer Center (a current hub for DART buses) and then continues northeast to meet up with the existing tracks heading into the tunnel under I-75. Local downtown area stakeholders broadly support Option 3-7a. However, DART noted that this option raises equity concerns as it will increase the number of transfers required for individuals traveling from the predominantly minority southern sector.
Though local downtown area stakeholders broadly support Option 3-7a, there has been minimal input from the southern sector residents on the D2 effort. While DART has indicated that further revisions to the operating plan and bus network can address equity concerns, the impacts on all those affected by D2 must be acknowledged and addressed as part of the process. Such is the difficulty of balancing the multitude of priorities in a regional system.
The AIA Dallas task force continues to be involved with DART staff and is preparing to deliver its final report. DART is anxiously awaiting the delivery of this document and will incorporate the recommendations provided by the AIA as they create the next overall update of the D2 project.
This collaboration with AIA, which was initiated by DART, suggests the agency is increasingly open and willing to create more design-oriented spaces and engage with urban design best practices. If quality design and place-making have truly become DART priorities, one can hope the resultant urban environment will be one attuned to the needs of all its users.
Andrew Barnes, AIA, is a partner and co-founder at Agent Architecture in Dallas.