Concept and Design

Originally published in , May 1998, Page 18-24

Downtowns and close-in neighborhoods were once the real hearts of our cities-places where people lived, worked, shopped, and gathered for civic events. They contained the very broadest cross section of our population. They were home to schools, churches, industry, recreation, entertainment – all cheek-to-jowl beside each other and reveling in the messy vitality that makes urban life compelling and attractive. They embodied a distinctly different social structure and way of life than the sanitized isolation characteristic of the suburbs.

Slowly, tentatively, several Texas cities are creeping back toward a genuine urbanism in their downtowns. Fort Worth and San Antonio have led the way. Sundance Square, revived retail, new residential options, and the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth add up to a lively downtown scene that stands in stark contrast to the tired, dull Cowtown Downtown of just two decades ago. San Antonio’s River Walk has long been viewed as a great suction machine that pulled what urban life might have existed in downtown San Antonio below street level, creating an outstanding, single-use entertainment district but not a vital, multifaceted urban core. Over the last decade, that seems to be turning around. New civic and recreational venues, expanded housing, a new public library, and a large retail center, as well as a comprehensive street and sidewalks improvements program in the 1800s have given downtown San Antonio a shot in the arm. It, like downtown Fort Worth, is beginning to feel like a real city- diverse, lively, authentic, and full of character. Downtown in these two cities has become a destination again-a place to plug into the life and identity of the city and a source of great civic pride.

The kind of transformation Fort Worth and San Antonio have initiated makes good fiscal sense. In an increasingly mobile society where individuals and corporations have many choices about where they will call home, identity and quality of life become important economic factors in a city’s future. Generic metropolitan sprawls with no heart and limited lifestyle possibilities are losing out to savvy cities which tend their identities better. The urban virtues long evident in Boston and San Francisco have become economic calling cards for Seattle, Portland, San Diego, and dozens of other American cities (including Fort Worth and San Antonio), which have noted that revived downtowns are an essential feature for the desirable city of the 21st century.

Austin, Houston, and Dallas are taking steps in the right direction. Austin’s now got an upscale, well-stocked grocery store downtown, and a big multi-cinema complex is in final planning stages. Houston will build its new baseball stadium downtown, and a very broad range of housing – from SROs to lavish apartments – are springing up in heretofore unthinkable places. On a Thursday afternoon a few weeks ago, I sat in a 10th-floor office in downtown Houston and watched construction on the Rice Hotel across the street, which is being converted to residences. The next day I sat in a 10th-floor office in downtown Dallas and looked across the street at lofts in the old Titche-Goettinger department store building. This is mixed use. This is new for Houston and Dallas.

It was recently reported that-whereas five years ago only 250 brave residents lived in downtown Dallas nearly 10,000 new units have sprung up since then or are about to materialize within a 1-mile radius of Main and Akard streets. Dallas now boasts three lively entertainment concentrations within roughly that same radius-Deep Ellum , West End, and McKinney Avenue. DART’s light rail is a rousing hit making downtown more easily accessible from other parts of the city.

So where does the new arena fit into this picture? It is certainly one more in this series of good moves in Texas cities that will benefit downtown life. The chosen site is terrific – a wasted industrial tract at a critical juncture in the urban fabric. Even in the worst case scenario (imagine the kind of isolation and suburban single- use mentality which Reunion Arena embodies so perfectly), it would still bring frequent, citywide activities downtown where they belong. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, it is impossible to escape the importance of athletic events in consolidating the identity and spirit of a city. Just look at the massive explosions of energy and solidarity that come to cities locked in a championship playoff. That kind of spirit is most appropriately focused downtown.

But it is important that the new arena not just be located downtown. It should become a contributing building block of downtown. To do that will require a serious commitment to urban design quality in the critical planning stages currently underway. It will be in the design of the new arena, its parking, its support facilities, and its surrounding district that this important civic project will succeed or stall as an engine for downtown renewal.

The precedents for both success and stalling abound. Ancient Rome was, after all, nestled between three great sports facilities-the Coliseum to the west, the Circus Maximus to the south, and Domitian ‘s stadium to the east. (Today’s popular Piazza Navona is a sort of radical adaptive reuse of Domitian ‘s stadium, retaining the shape of its long, oval track.) One can still stand by the Arch of Constantine in front of the Coliseum and imagine the crowds pouring out after an event onto the adjacent Caesar ‘s Forum, Augustan Forum, and Trajan ‘s Forum. These three great civic spaces would have been teeming with urban life-from markets to political rallies-all much enhanced by the activity of the coliseum. Many important Roman cities, from Verona in the Veneto to Merida in Spain, were built around great multipurpose arenas which were a vital part of the formula that made Roman culture justifiably famous for its savvy city building.

Probably the most successful American city in integrating sports events into urban life is Boston-famous for both Boston Garden (basketball and hockey) and Fenway Park (baseball). The “warm-up” of Kenmore Square adjacent to Fenway Park is palpable in the hours before a game as crowds gather and mingle and eat before they filter toward the ballpark. After a game, the bars are full of fans rehashing highs and lows as they let the traffic subside before heading home. People still talk about the defining urban party of the century in Kenmore Square when the Red Sox were in the World Series in 1967. Fenway Park is a tremendous urban asset and activity generator, beautifully integrated into its dense, near-downtown context.

Cleveland is a germane case-in-point to look at just now as well, having recently completed both an arena and a ballpark at the edge of their well-planned downtown. Though both facilities probably deserve some credit for the Cinderella reawakening of downtown Cleveland over the last few years, neither Gund Arena nor Jacobs Field seems fully satisfying in terms of its integration with the surrounding city. The arena, which is just a block or two from Euclid Avenue and the city’s main square, is a hulking behemoth separated from the rest of the city by a ring of parking lots and garages which surround it. Sky bridges take fans directly into the arena from garages so, for many, there is no real contact with downtown to be experienced. Though one can observe some trickling street life generated by arena patrons and though one can find a few bars and cafes with names like “Coach’s” in the adjacent neighborhood, there does seem to be an opportunity lost in this drive-in/drive-out arena. Dallas should do better.

The new arena site indeed has “opportunity” written all over it. So much could be accomplished for downtown through this one important project. The TU Electric plant site lies at a critical hinge between the West End and Uptown. These two thriving retail/entertainment districts are surprisingly close to each other but seem miles apart because of the chasm created by Woodall Rogers Freeway and the industrial wasteland of which TU Electric was a part.

Already, there have been tentative steps to build a bridge across that chasm. The classy new Centex building pushes the Crescent/McKinney Avenue action southwest, a bit closer to the West End. A bar or two has jumped the freeway north, extending the West End toward Uptown. (Woodall Rogers is, fortunately, elevated in this stretch.) Magnolia Station and Magnolia Hill townhouses have been followed by a whole string of new residential developments filling in the eastern side of the gap bit by bit. It is the TV Electric plant site, however, that could transform these tentative steps into a solid, vital link which might begin to knit downtown Dallas into more than a series of isolated events and start to make it a viable whole. What would it take to make that happen?

Three guiding urban design principals must lead the conceptualization of the new arena site and its surrounding area if this project is to live up to its potential as a boon for downtown Dallas.

Connection. Piecemeal real estate development has been the bane of most American downtowns in the late 20th century. There is an almost irresistible tendency to look at what makes good sense for this or that site internally rather than looking at any given project as a cog in a larger urban system. Because the old TU Electric site is so deliciously definable (all those streets and railroad tracks outline its boundaries so clearly), it will be tempting for architects, planners, and developers to make a tidy package of it.

Great cities don’t work that way. The Grand Boulevards in Paris were a brilliant 19th-century device to tie all the former medieval villages of the city together and make it easy to wander seamlessly from one district to another. The ubiquitous American grid has been a handy mechanism for accomplishing the same purpose in cities from New York to San Francisco. Bold steps need to be taken to connect the neglected TU Electric site back into downtown to make the arena district an extension of the West End and a natural outgrowth from Uptown.

Mix. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” He must have had modernist planners in mind. The inclination to segregate uses (housing on these three blocks, restaurants on this street, parking all clumped together at this end of the site) is so ingrained in us by now that it is hard to even discuss planning issues without falling into the trap of consistency. When you are working with a district that will inevitably have one powerful use-a 500-pound gorilla like an arena-it is particularly important to counter consistency with variety. This site needs a rich, well-orchestrated mix of activities and land uses.

Scale. Many of the components of this project and this part of town are inevitably big – big freeways, big arena, big parking structures. If care is not taken this could become a part of town where we all feel like Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag. Big things, however, need not be gross or overpowering. If scaled properly they can be big and comfortably human-size at the same time. The great train stations, exhibition halls, and cathedrals of European cities accomplish this beautifully. Fair Park, closer to home, does a fine job of making buildings with many acres of square feet feel pedestrian friendly. The architecture of the arena and the buildings around it must make human scale a primary concern in shaping both spaces and building forms. With proper connections, an appropriate mix of activities, and a user-friendly urban scale, the new arena project could constitute a big victory for downtown Dallas. Bringing thousands of people who are in the mood to have a good time into the city core several times a week for most of the year can hardly be a bad thing for a district that strives to be a destination. The arena will inevitably make a big score in this regard.

But the bonus points, the ones that will likely make the difference between winning and losing for Dallas’ underdog downtown, will be hard fought. They can only be won through careful, strategic urban design.

Thinking about Texas Architecture, Urbanism
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Originally published in , May 1998, Page 18-24