Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dear Dallas, Can You Please Stop Being So Dallas? Your Future Depends on It

Dallas before skyscrapers. Looks good enough to me.

Dear Dallas, Can You Please Stop Being So Dallas? Your Future Depends on It

As downtown struggles to crawl out from the long shadow of its overbuilt past, a familiar name wants to build a new skyscraper in the city center

If you ask someone what’s wrong with downtown Dallas, depending on who you talk to, you will usually hear two seemingly contradictory answers:
  1. Too much parking
  2. Too little parking
The first answer usually comes from people who go to downtown, walk around downtown, try to figure out why downtown Dallas doesn’t feel like the vibrant city centers they may have experienced elsewhere, and realize that whenever they walk a few blocks they are surrounded by seas of parking lots.
The second answer comes from anyone who is familiar with how downtown real estate works. Even though there appears to be an overabundance of parking lots and garages — so much so that it breaks up the cohesiveness of the center city — there is not nearly enough parking to compete with the parking that suburban commercial real estate buildings offer. And so, in order to lure new tenants downtown, real estate brokers are constantly trying to figure out ways to offer their clients more parking.

The result is that while downtown is experiencing a unprecedented renaissance, for every redo and rehab, there’s a fight for another parking garage. Two steps forward, one step back.

How did it all get all out of whack? The short answer is simply that cars take up more space than people and Dallas has systematically made policy decisions that ensured that cars are the only reliable way to move people around in the region. But specifically with regards to downtown, something else happened.
In the 1970s and 1980s, booming Dallas was riding high in its boots and feeling all bullish and cocky about its promise as a new and important American city. Dallas wanted new buildings for its orchestra and museum; it wanted to build transit and expand highways and develop suburbs; it wanted to grow and to make sure that everyone know that Dallas was pulling its bar stool up to the big-boy table.

And what do all big-boy American cities have? Skyscrapers.
The new skyscraping Dallas: shinier, emptier
The new skyscraping Dallas: shinier, emptier
Thanks in part to Savings & Loans that couldn’t give away enough money to big real estate projects, the skyscrapers rose up in downtown Dallas, helping to brand this city’s image and give it its glistening, Oz-ian postcard facade. And if you look at aerial photos of downtown taken before and after the skyscrapers, you will see how the millions and millions of new square feet — and the corresponding need for parking — changed the look and feel of urban Dallas. As the skyscrapers went up, the buildings around them came down. The result: a silo city that turned into a virtual ghost town after business hours. That continued for decades until the post-millennium urban-chic fad reached mainstream consciousness and helped kick-start downtown’s urban resurgence. Now, the premium of luxury in-town lifestyle living is helping downtown crawl back one building redo at a time.

And generally speaking, that revitalization project is going well. At the recent Downtown Dallas Inc. annual luncheon, we were regaled of all the hotels that are moving in to downtown, and the parks that were being built on old parking lots, and the vacant office buildings that were finding new life as residential apartments. It would almost seem like Dallas has learned the lessons of the 1970s and 1980s — that success of urban spaces is about building to the street not up to the sky, and that the dynamics of a city like Dallas in the year 2017 requires careful attention to how buildings fit into the existing urban ecology, rather than putting up flashy, status-driven, plaything attention grabbers that shout for attention and pine for remade reputation.

Well, you would think. But this is Dallas. And Dallas is still Dallas.
Enter the latest planned addition to downtown Dallas: a new 70-story, million-plus-square-foot skyscraping behemoth that is being developed for the north side of downtown by H. Ross Perot Jr.’s Hillwood firm. The building is designed by British starchitect Sir Norman Foster’s Foster + Partner’s firm — the same architect of the Winspear Opera House. If constructed, the new skyscraper would be two-stories shy of the tallest building in Dallas’ skyline, the 72-story Bank of America Plaza

As real estate reporter Steve Brown accurately reports in the Dallas Morning News, the building is pretty. It would certainly transform the skyline. And it is true that, “For decades Texas developers have turned to rock star architectural firms to help their projects break out of the box.”