Carpenter Park injects new life into a forgotten corner of downtown Dallas.
Clients City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department and Parks for Downtown Dallas
Landscape Architect Hargreaves Jones
Architect Shipley Architects
Artist Robert Irwin
Contractor The Beck Group
Civil Engineer Pacheco Koch
Structural Engineer Charles Gojer & Associates
Mechanical, Structural, and Plumbing Engineer BEI Engineering
Landscape Support GFF Landscape
Surveying Lim & Associates
Irrigation Design Sweeney & Associates
Water Feature Greenscape Pump Services
Lighting Oldner Lighting Design
Soil Specialist Olsson Associates
Carpenter Park, Dallas’ newest public space, opened on Tuesday, May 3. Located at the eastern edge of the city’s downtown, the 5.25-acre park contains generous green space, fountains, a basketball court, a dog park, walking paths, a hill, and a redesigned artwork by world-renowned artist Robert Irwin.
The project heralds a rebirth of Carpenter Plaza, which, along with the original installation of Irwin’s sculpture, entitled “Portal Park Piece (Slice),” was initially conceived as an entrance to downtown for automobiles exiting from Interstate 345. In a quintessentially Texan manner, Carpenter Plaza made little accommodation for pedestrians when it was unveiled in 1981, reinforcing the idea that the plaza was meant to be viewed from a vehicle rather than on foot. Carpenter Plaza’s surroundings — the highway, surface parking lots, and the DART East Transfer Center — were equally unaccommodating to pedestrian traffic. The space existed firmly in a no man’s land of concrete and cars, a condition common along the peripheries of every major Texas downtown.
It is within this context that Parks for Downtown Dallas (PfDD) and the 2013 update to the Downtown Dallas Parks Master Plan identified Carpenter Plaza as one of four priority parks (along with Pacific Plaza, West End Square, and Harwood Park) for redevelopment. PfDD has spearheaded the design, construction, and funding of multiple downtown parks over the last decade under the leadership of Robert Decherd, Hon. TxA, president and CEO of the DallasNews Corporation. The group engaged landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Jones, who was responsible for the first Downtown Dallas Parks Master Plan as well as its update, to design the new park.
The original design of Carpenter Plaza was based entirely on its function as a vehicular gateway to downtown. With the highway exit removed in 2013, the plaza became little more than an unused work zone of uneven pavement, traffic cones, and raw dirt. The condition was so problematic that when Robert Irwin was informed of TxDOT’s plans to demolish the exit and the roadway framed by his work, he insisted that the piece should be demolished, citing the contextual nature of his work. He felt that if the context had changed, the artwork was no longer relevant and should be removed; no big deal. While the cultural significance of the Corten slice and its creator has been lost on most passersby over the years, a few voices rose up in support of preserving the work. Willis Winters, FAIA, the former director of the Dallas Park and Recreation department, summed up advocates’ sentiments best when he said, “We can’t be the city that tears down a Bob Irwin!”
Thankfully, the landscape architects at Hargreaves Jones already had a relationship with Irwin. The firm’s president and CEO, Mary Margaret Jones, reached out to him to discuss reimagining the work. While initially hesitant, Irwin eventually sent Jones a Chanel No. 5 box with the words “+1 REPO” written on the front and some rolled up papers inside. When she unrolled them, she found a hand-sketched elevation depicting the sculpture, integrated within a new hill, rotated 90 degrees to run east-west and with a new break in the steel along its eastern end. The finished product has remained true to that original sketch. The sculpture was uninstalled, shipped to a Houston steel fabrication company for reworking, then shipped back to Dallas for reinstallation. Jones says that this repositioning of the sculpture allowed a redesign of the entire park, starting with the configuration of the new hill and flowing into walks, open lawns, gardens, and plazas.
The hill is a delight: In a city like Dallas with precious little terrain and few prospect points, gaining even a little elevation provides significant reward. It’s an undeniable draw to visitors. The summit beckons with the opportunity to observe the park and its surroundings from an unfamiliar and satisfying vantage. It also successfully gathers the park’s various guests together into closer proximity, facilitating impromptu meetings and interactions.
In contrast to Klyde Warren Park, whose tightly packed 3.2 acres are filled with highly programmed spaces, Carpenter Park favors a more Olmstedian approach, with looser organization and more open space. A “Walk of Discovery” weaves through the different sections of the park, serving as a unifying element that reveals the underlying planning ethos through its meandering form. The park’s generous lawn is largely unprogrammed but has been planted with trees, which will likely become an immensely pleasant shaded grove in a few short years. Even the way in which the park accommodates spontaneous, unprescribed play is subtle and integrated, contrasting again with Klyde Warren Park’s very successful but more formal children’s play area.
The fountain located at the southwest corner fulfills the Downtown Parks Master Plan requirement for an iconic element along Pacific Avenue and has two main components: a network of randomly arranged low fountains, referred to as a “bird’s nest,” and a primary fountain on a 19-minute cycle that can shoot water up to 25 feet high. This, together with the elliptical perforated steel pavilion by HKS at neighboring Pacific Park Plaza, is intended to activate Pacific Avenue by encouraging movement between the two parks.
The ambitions for Carpenter Park extend beyond the boundaries of the project itself. With the runaway success of Klyde Warren Park fresh on the minds of all those involved, stakeholders hope that Carpenter Park will inspire a similar development boom in this long-empty, overlooked corner of downtown. With many surface lots adjacent to the park, the surroundings are well poised to make this hope a reality. Time will tell whether the park and renewed focus on this area, along with the continued growth of Deep Ellum and the nearby East Quarter, will be enough to overcome the inertia of neglect and disuse long ago created in this part of downtown by the elevated freeway.
With Carpenter Park’s opening, 23 acres of new park space has now been created in Downtown Dallas over the past 20 years, a statistic often touted by Parks for Downtown Dallas. (Construction has just begun on nearby Harwood Park, the final park to be completed under the current master plan.) Carpenter Park frames familiar views in a new and exciting way. For those of us who have been in and around downtown Dallas for years, the ability to look at the Dallas skyline from a generous, vegetated public green space is not one to be taken for granted. In a city dominated by corporate interests, we should be grateful that priorities aligned to provide a public space such as this. Carpenter Park is a welcome addition to Downtown Dallas, one that will undoubtedly improve the quality of life for downtown workers, residents, and visitors for years to come.
Andrew Barnes, AIA, is the founder of Agent Architecture in Dallas.