Monday, January 09, 2017

CAN THE VIBRANT NODES OF DOWNTOWN BE STITCHED TOGETHER?


Since the turn of the 21st century, Downtown Dallas has made great progress in becoming the epicenter of a 24-hour city. These days, progress depends upon stitching together the thriving nodes of Downtown by redeveloping pockets with surface parking lots, uneven sidewalks and no green space. 

“We had this trend in the ‘80s where we tore down the buildings that interacted with the ground. Then we built the tunnels,” Hamilton Properties CEO Larry Hamilton said. “We have too many voids in the urban fabric that prevent Downtown from being a walkable experience.” There are several thriving, but disconnected, areas of Downtown close to each other. 

It takes about 12 minutes to walk from the Westin to the Omni, but it’s a boring walk lacking retail and landscaping. The Meyerson Symphony Center and Main Street are less than a mile apart, yet the sidewalks and parking lots don’t make it an appealing walk. Crossing Harwood Street under I-30 is daunting without solid guardrails and bright lighting.

Downtown has made a lot of progress building successful nodes, Downtown Dallas Inc CEO Kourtny Garrett said. Now it’s a matter of connecting them.  By inviting pedestrians to interact with the world around them with sidewalk caf├ęs, retail shops and well-maintained streets, everyone benefits. Tourists and residents could have a contiguous experience if every building opened up the ground floor for public activity, Garrett said. Tenants have more to do during their non-work hours. Landlords can diversify revenue with retail tenants and pick up more foot traffic.

Most developers, leasing execs and Downtown experts agree that turning surface lots into parks or developments with stellar ground-floor interaction would improve foot traffic and Downtown's overall vibe. The sooner Downtown becomes a pedestrian haven, the sooner DDI and the city can focus on connecting adjacent neighborhoods. To achieve that vision, developers must think outside their own walls, Garrett said. “We want to focus on the interior of a building and the tenant experience. But giving employees an experience outside their office walls will allow them to add value to the neighborhood.” 

Hamilton has a similar rule for all his Downtown developments, including the $41M Lorenzo Hotel that will deliver on Jan. 29. “The idea that the spaces between the buildings are more important than the buildings themselves shapes all our projects,” he said. The 237-room Lorenzo will have a container village (made of old shipping containers, of course) on Griffin and Akard streets selling coffee and pastries.  Hall Group’s Hall Arts engaged the street with Stephen Pyles’ Flora Street Cafe and plans to continue with future restaurant phases.

These updates come with a set of challenges. Redeveloping surface lots won’t exactly help the parking issue, Hall Group leasing director Kim Butler said. And with the Downtown population growing by about 100,000 people during business hours, no one is under the misconception that Dallas will stop being a driving city. “As office tenants put more people in less space, parking becomes Downtown’s biggest challenge,” Butler said. (At least until driverless cars are thrown into the mix.)

Moonrise over Dallas Skyline
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Julia Bunch/Bisnow