Quick-fix syndrome: To revitalize downtown, the whole must outweigh the parts

August 11, 2010

With its proposed $250 million Center for the Performing Arts, Dallas has caught the latest urban wave, along with Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and a dozen other American cities.Performing arts centers have become the new fixe du jour for ailing downtowns, succeeding the pedestrian mall, festival market, convention center, cultural district, sports arena - and presaging who knows what. Dallas has built or toyed with all of these and has now set its sights on the Trinity River and the massive Victory development.

Former mayor Ron Kirk called the Trinity plan 'the key to Dallas' economic future,' while Ross Perot Jr. referred to his Victory development as the future 'Times Square' of Dallas and 'the new front door for the city.' With the threatened withdrawal last week of partner Tom Hicks, and resistance to additional public subsidies at City Hall, that door may be closing.

The premise of the big fix is that the way to lure disaffected urbanites back downtown is to create a constellation of special attractions that the suburbs can't duplicate, such as ballparks, concert halls and blockbuster exhibitions.

It's theme-park thinking, but with understandable appeal. Most people like to eat and shop and be entertained, and historically, downtown has been the place to do such things, whether it's a Greek agora, a Renaissance piazza or a Disneyfied Times Square. The trick is to persuade the visitors to stick around or to come back when there isn't an important game or special show. That takes more than one or two big fixes, as generations of American planners have discovered. .

One of the most popular urban-design nostrums of the 1960s and early '70s was the pedestrian mall, of which Dallas' Akard Street is a tiny remnant. This was the era of urban renewal and the interstate highway boom, when planners became convinced that the car was the enemy of public life. One remedy was to close streets to create tranquil, trafficless zones where shoppers and tourists could stroll contentedly among flowering shrubs and antique street lamps. (Dallas' extensive sky-bridge-and-tunnel system sprang from the same desire to separate people and cars.)

But the typical result was a wasteland of shuttered stores and empty plazas. Most cities that built pedestrian malls eventually ripped them out. The few that flourished, such as Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif., accommodated cars and buses. Cars, it turns out, are an essential element of the urban experience, part of our mental map of how cities work. Banishing them entirely creates eerie, alien landscapes where nobody feels comfortable.

Failed festivals

The pedestrian-mall bug was followed by festival-market flu. Dallas caught a mild case in the '80s when it poured millions into public improvements around the Farmers Market in hopes of creating a new commercial cornucopia.

This phenomenon was driven by the spectacular success of Boston's Quincy Market and Harborplace in Baltimore, Md., both developed by the Rouse Corp. America's downtowns were on the ropes, and any sign of life was greeted with wild enthusiasm. Quincy Market attracted nearly 10 million visitors its first year, persuading mayors and city managers that a savvy blend of food, shopping and entertainment, cleverly choreographed and tightly policed, was just the thing to revive the center city.

But the concept didn't travel well. Except in Boston and Baltimore, festival marketplaces bombed. New Yorkers preferred the real Manhattan to the concocted version provided by South Street Seaport; residents of Toledo, Ohio; Tampa, Fla.; and Flint, Mich., were equally underwhelmed by their ersatz town squares.

The devil was in the details. The marketplaces required large public subsidies, were formulaically designed and often featured the same mix of stores and restaurants as the regional malls to which they were allegedly an alternative. The Dallas version would have contained a replica of the San Antonio River Walk, complete with riverboats and strolling musicians. Dallas dodged that silver bullet when Rouse pulled out, though some of the spirit of the marketplace survives in popular consumerist warrens such as Mockingbird Station and West Village.

Conventional wisdom

No fix was bigger in the 1980s and '90s than a convention center, in small towns as well as major cities. In 1992, for example, an urban design SWAT team from the University of Minnesota traveled up and down the Mississippi River advising mayors and city managers how to perk up their moribund downtowns. What they wanted to talk about most was a convention center, even when the best they could hope for was an occasional tractor pull or fly-fishing tournament. They had seen the future over in St. Louis or St. Paul, and they were going to build it.

The Dallas Convention Center has been expanded so many times that it's more like an artificial mountain range than a building. These expansions have enabled the city to attract home builders and cardiologists and other expense-account philanthropists, and to keep its top-10 ranking in the national convention sweepstakes, significantly below New York, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., but roughly even with Atlanta, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Yet whatever this golden flow of tourists has done for Dallas' economy, it has done little to energize downtown. The convention center remains inscrutably vast and disconnected from the rest of the city. No stores, restaurants and chic hotels line Young Street; weary conventioneers exit into bleak parking lots and empty streets. Some of them pile into cabs and head for downtown Fort Worth, where an old-fashioned urbanism of street, block and square still prevails. The Wild West theming gets a bit thick, but the scale is comfortable, the sidewalks are jumping and one thing connects to another. Even the locals show up.

Sports arenas generate stronger feelings than convention centers, because they offer the cachet of being big league instead of merely convenient. Yet the economic evidence is overwhelming that with a few exceptions - Washington's MCI Center, for one - arenas and ballparks generate little new money or new development, particularly when located on the fringe of downtown like Reunion Arena or the new American Airlines Center. There's no synergy in a remote site. Fans drive in and out without setting foot in the city.

A livable city

In a special report on Dallas published 11 years ago in The Dallas Morning News, urban historian Neal Peirce noted that while from a helicopter downtown looked stunning, 'when we got to street level, we found astounding inactivity, a place so vacant you'd have thought the neutron bomb exploded there, removing the people.'

Much has changed since then. Fifteen thousand people now live in downtown lofts and apartments compared to a few hundred in the early '90s. DART rail has arrived to pick them up and drop them off in aerodynamic comfort. The Arts District, after a decade in intensive care, is showing signs of sustainable life, with a sculpture garden, a performing arts center and possibly a new natural history museum by Frank Gehry in the works. Santiago Calatrava has been commissioned to design a dramatic new bridge connecting downtown and West Dallas, and plans are under way, however muddled, to reclaim the Trinity River that flows beneath it.

What hasn't changed since Mr. Peirce's report is that downtown Dallas remains a stark, abstract place, far more appealing from a distance than up close. In its fascination with big fixes it has neglected the small, everyday ones that make downtowns livable: parks, trees, walkable streets, places to buy a good baguette or a $ 3 shine.

The late sociologist William Whyte - no stranger to Dallas - referred to such things as 'tremendous trifles' and pointed out that, though apparently trivial, they can have a dramatic cumulative effect on cities and landscapes. They were his potent antidotes to 'the grand-sweep approach to regional design' and the big-fix approach to urban development.

Paris has more monuments than any capital in the world, yet it is also a city of cafes, gardens, parks, surprising views and an inexhaustible supply of great walks. It is this interplay between big and little, grand and ordinary that makes it such a memorable place.

Similar things could be said about London, Boston, New York, Montreal, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, all cities rich in grain and texture. Barcelona, Spain, used the 1992 Olympics to reinvent itself, not just by building arenas and stadiums but by investing simultaneously in neighborhoods, parks, gardens, beaches, public art - the condiments of urban living.

Downtown Dallas still needs big ideas, but it also needs greening and softening and more connective tissue to pull its fragments together. Instead of one 50-story building, it needs five 10-story buildings. Not only more housing, but a broader range of housing to attract a more diverse urban population. And nothing would draw the middle class back quicker than a couple of first-rate public schools. The arts magnet is terrific, but it's not enough.

Downtown's next monument could be the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, which is being touted as both the city's cultural showpiece and the exclamation point for the Arts District. Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas are outstanding architects, and there's an excellent chance that their designs for the opera house and theater will be stunning. But architecture alone won't produce the civic triumph the public is hoping for. It will take all the other stuff - shops, cafes, parks, housing, that elusive element known as ambience - to turn the Arts District into a place instead of a collection of discrete cultural destinations. The goal is a bouillabaisse instead of a buffet.

This won't happen overnight. It took 25 years for New York's Lincoln Center to become a cultural mecca; Yerba Buena in San Francisco is still a work in progress after nearly 30 years. A building, even a great building, is only a first step.

E-mail ddillon@dallasnews.com

Pedestrian malls

The Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif., (above) made the best of a dubious idea. Examples: Akard Street, Dallas; Main Mall, Tulsa, Okla. Problem: Downtown is noisy, messy and congested. Solution: Close off streets, put down bricks, add trees and benches, and let the public loose. Result: An explosion of dead space, proving that a certain amount of grit and congestion is essential for urban life.

Arenas and ballparks

Being big league doesn't necessarily pay off. Examples: The Ballpark in Arlington; Camden Yards in Baltimore (above). Problem: The teams are leaving! The teams are leaving! Solution: A new arena or ballpark, publicly subsidized, with luxury suites and a retro fantasy look. Result: The teams stick around, but the promised public windfall doesn't materialize.

Convention centers

Mass without class. Examples: McCormick Place, Chicago; First Union Center, Philadelphia (above). Problem: The residents won't go near downtown, but perhaps visiting dentists and home builders will. Solution: A convention center, the bigger the better, where all sense of place and time can be profitably erased. Result: Dozens of big blank boxes that kill street life for blocks around.

Festival markets

The success of Quincy Market in Boston (right) wasn't exportable. Example: South Street Seaport, New York. Problem: Downtowns are dirty, dangerous and full of strangers with funny accents. Solution: Bring in food, pushcarts and street performers, and turn shopping into amiable entertainment. Result: Like sequels to hit movies, the novelty faded and the marketplaces devolved into semi-suburban malls.

         
 

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