Instant Urbanism

For the better part of a decade, Dallas has been aggressively remaking its downtown.

For a New Yorker, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Texas. I’ve visited Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Marfa several times; made brief stopovers in El Paso, Alpine, and Johnson City; and driven clear across the state twice. But, somehow, until a few months ago, I had never set foot in Dallas. Maybe it’s because Texas’s third-largest city doesn’t show up on anyone’s radar as a “good” city, a place where one might enjoy a walk. Instead, Dallas is generally cited as an example of all the things you don’t want a city to be. It’s automobile-centric and congenitally sprawly, covering nearly 342 square miles of land. True, that’s fewer than Los Angeles’s 469 square miles, but Dallas has only half of the density of L.A. In Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, Dallas is mentioned several times in passing, always in a list that includes Atlanta and Phoenix, boomtowns that grew with little or no regard for the niceties of urban form.

So I was surprised, one Saturday night in March, when I stepped into downtown Dallas’s Chesterfield, one of those artisanal bars where the cocktail list is the length of a phone book (remember phone books?). It felt like the entire twenty-something population of the fashionable Main Street district was stuffed into the upholstered booths or thronging the bar. Way too tired to deal with the drinks menu, let alone the crowd, I left without trying a house specialty called Oswald’s Corridor (Maker’s Mark, Cherry Heering, absinthe).

Sleepy by day, the neighborhood was pulsing with life after dark. I had the feeling that I’d drifted onto a movie set, a hastily assembled early-twenty-first-century nightlife scene. The Chesterfield had, in fact, opened only a few months earlier. And ornate old office towers like the Kirby (1913) and the Davis (1926) have just recently been converted into loft-style apartments with rooftop swimming pools and advertised in campaigns extolling the virtues of walking to work. An area where almost no one lived a decade ago now has upward of 2,300 residents.

The occasion for my visit to Dallas was the grand opening of the $117 million, Santiago Calatrava–designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, which is named for the daughter of Texas oilman H. L. Hunt, Jr., and was financed, in part, by a donation from the Hunt Oil Company. On a cool, windy night, politicians and members of the Hunt family stood on a platform and speechified. The architect was there, too. “This bridge is a monument to the love you all feel for your city,” he declared. For me, the best thing about the party was the opportunity to look up at the patterns formed by the 58 cables that meet a single white arch, something drivers on the span won’t be able to do. The new bridge crosses the Trinity River and links central Dallas with La Bajada, a largely Hispanic neighborhood where the locals fear, with good reason, that their modest homes will soon give way to commercial development. Arch-gazing pedestrians will be relegated to the next bridge north, on Continental Avenue, which will be converted to a landscaped pedestrian thoroughfare thanks to an eight-million-dollar private donation.

However it affects the future of La Bajada, the Calatrava bridge is the most visible symbol of a profound effort to unite the scattered neighborhoods of central Dallas. A plan called Downtown Dallas 360, which was approved last year, calls for increased residential development in the heart of the city, while emphasizing “multimodal” transportation—fewer cars, more bicycles and transit—and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. The plan reads like a testament to this country’s newfound passion for all things urban. The city already has DART, a light-rail system with four lines and 72 miles of track; work is underway on an airport connection. The rail system is more than twice as big as the system in Austin, the state capital, which is generally regarded as the more progressive city.

In Dallas, enlightened urban planners have to wrestle with impediments such as the network of tunnels and sky bridges that link the slew of banal towers that went up during the 1970s and 1980s. “The multi-level separation of pedestrians from downtown streets has had perhaps the most damaging impact on street activity,” according to Downtown Dallas 360. “Retail and service life effectively vanished from streets. As more and more buildings were built to tie into the multi-level circulation scheme, streets became relegated to automobiles and the less fortunate.” Use of the tunnel network, however, has begun to decline. The other insurmountable obstacle to high-quality urban life is the freeway loop that encircles downtown Dallas. The highway system presents “a significant barrier to surrounding neighborhoods,” the plan says. “Forming a complete loop and defining the edge of every corner of the Central Business District, the freeways sever streets, block views, interrupt connectivity and create noise and undesirable ‘voids’ in the urban fabric.”

When I took an early morning run from the Joule, a boutique hotel in a Main Street bank building that was lavishly restored by the billionaire oilman Tim Headington, to the Katy Trail, a gently rolling three-and-a-half mile recreational path that runs north of downtown, I had to dash underneath the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, and across its on- and off-ramps, to get there. The planners offer few strategies for dealing with the constraints posed by the elevated freeways. Apparently, there’s no local appetite for removing the highways, even in the interest of an improved urban experience. Indeed, at the same time that the city is talking about surrounding the Trinity River with parkland, it’s planning to run a new toll road within the river’s levees. Despite the enlightened philosophy of the 360 plan, and the bottomless capacity of local philanthropists to fund architecturally exciting institutions (the latest is a Morphosis-designed science museum named for the Perot family), Dallas may find it hard to change its spots.

Which is why the thing I found most impressive in Dallas (aside from Renzo Piano’s lovely Nasher Sculpture Center) is Klyde Warren Park, scheduled to open in October. Named—oddly, but somehow predictably—for the nine-year-old son of the billionaire oil-pipeline magnate Kelcy Warren, a major donor to the project, the park sits on a 1,045-foot-long, 5.2-acre deck over the sunken portion of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway that cleaves the much ballyhooed Arts District (opera house by Norman Foster, theater by OMA) from uptown. Linda Owen, the park’s president, explained that, like most things in Dallas, the venture is a public-private partnership. About half of the $110 million needed to design and build it came from city bonds and state and federal highway money; the rest came from private donations. It will be privately managed and “self-sustaining,” raising money through a lease on an ultra-minimalist, Thomas Phifer–designed restaurant pavilion, and various use fees and sponsorships. The park’s relatively formal design (by the Office of James Burnett) is a nod to Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s Bryant and Madison Square Parks. The idea is to intensively program the plot and keep it buzzing with a menu of concerts, exhibitions, and activities.

If the park is successful in “reknitting the fabric,” as Owens puts it, it will demonstrate the power of the 360 plan. Envisioning a pedestrian renaissance, Owens hopes that the Katy Trail might grow a spur that links it to the new park, or that “people on bikes and foot will create their own trail.” Of course, as is typical for this city, the endeavor’s name is a reminder that the oil industry picked up the tab. Dallas’s reach for urbanity reminds me of Abu Dhabi’s use of oil wealth to finance the eco-fabulous Masdar City. The effort is inherently oxymoronic. While the attempt to make central Dallas walkable is something of a long shot, the desire seems genuine. And the fact that this is happening in a state not known for progressive thinking, and in a city built largely by and for the oil industry, suggests that this country’s newfound passion for the communal pleasures of urban life runs deep, representing a generational shift that has the power to transcend political and geographic boundaries.

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