If you took all the clichs about horrible urban design and shoved them into 75 acres, youd probably end up with something pretty close to Dallas Victory Park. A pre-planned billion-dollar collection of imposing hyper-modern monumental structures, high-end chain stores, enormous video screens, expensive restaurants, a sports arena and tons of parking, completely isolated from the rest of the city by a pair of freeways, Victory Park is like the schizophrenic dream of some power-hungry capitalist technocrat.
Or in this case, his sons. The neighborhood? development? was built by Ross Perot Jr. as an urban lifestyle destination. But what it really is is an entertainment district: that swath of cityscape whose character has been preordained by a city council vote and is now identified by brightly colored banners affixed to lampposts. (The entertainment districts close cousin, the arts district, is often lurking somewhere nearby.)
What could be wrong with a district where nightclubs and galleries are encouraged to thrive? Nothing, necessarily; done right, a city can help foster these scenes with a gentle guiding hand. Constructing an entire milieu from whole cloth, however, is where cities get into trouble. The problem with these created-overnight districts is that youre trying to create a culture as opposed to letting one grow, says Nathaniel Hood, a Minneapolis-based transportation planner. Youre getting the culture that one developer or city council member thinks the city needs, as opposed to the ground-up culture that comes from multiple players.
Victory Park is an extreme example, hyper-planned right down to the performances to be held at its American Airlines Center. (A U2 concert is fabulous, Perot told the Wall Street Journal. KISS, not so good.) But the Dallas Arts District, though less micro-managed, has struggled with its identity as well. Conceived in the 1970s by design consultants in faraway Boston, it relocated the citys arts institutions to the northeast corner of downtown. Another planning consultancy drew the boundaries of the district, and one by one, the citys cultural icons were moved there. Today, it contains the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Winspear Opera House. Its home to buildings by Renzo Piano, I.M. Pei, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster. In fact, youll find everything in the Dallas Arts District except a lot of people, says Patrick Kennedy, owner of the Space Between Design Studio and the blog Walkable DFW.
A district inherently becomes a single-use idea, says Kennedy. Everything has to be art. You end up with a bunch of performing arts spaces and when theyre not in use it becomes a vacuum. This vacuum has made the district itself a museum of sorts, something impressive to observe but strangely inert. (The Chicago Tribune called the area the dullest arts district money can buy.) It has few apartment buildings; one is the new Museum Tower, a 42-story condo residence that, as of last month, had sold only 16 of its 102 units. The Museum Tower recently made news when its glass facade began reflecting 103-degree sunlight directly into the Nasher Sculpture Center next door. Now the towers developers and the Sculpture Center are embroiled in a fight over which party should alter its building essentially, arguing over whether art or residents should reign supreme in the Dallas Arts District.
Thats a defeatist choice to have to make, but the monocultures created by urban districting make it almost inevitable. At last weeks 20th annual Congress for the New Urbanism, Hood spoke about the folly that is Kansas Citys Power & Light District, an $850 million entertainment district whose neon signage is as blinding as its eagerness to be hip. But no one would mistake Power & Light for a neighborhood created by cool kids. Land costs are higher downtown, so you have to create something genuinely unique, says Hood. It cant just be an outdoor mall with slightly cooler bars.
But thats exactly what you get in the Power & Light District: themed venues catering to neatly delineated tastes, Epcot-style: the Makers Mark Bourbon House & Lounge (Southern Hospitality rises to a new level), the Dubliner (true Irish ambiance), Howl at the Moon (a completely unique dueling piano entertainment concept) and PBR Big Sky (every cowboy and cowgirls nighttime oasis). The model suggests that city life is nothing more than a selection of personal consumption experiences. But at times, the district feels more like a very enthusiastic ghost town one with a $12.8 million budget shortfall.
Its not just that the developers are boring people the economics of single-owner districts incentivize blandness. Chain stores and restaurants can afford to pay higher rent, so they get first dibs. To boost rents even higher, tenants are sometimes promised that no competition will be allowed nearby. Starbucks will be willing to pay the higher rent if [the developer doesn’t] let other cafes into the area, says Hood. And forget about occupying the Power & Light District youre on private property. For a full list of the rules (no bicycles, panhandling, profanity on clothing) you can consult its website.
A true [arts or entertainment] district is always sort of moving around, says Kennedy. Its wherever the bohemians find cheap real estate. For instance, compare Power & Light or Victory Park or even the Dallas Arts District with Bostons Kenmore Square, which developed in the 80s and 90s as a wildly diverse barrage of punk venues, rock clubs, dive bars, sports bars and beloved hole-in-the-wall restaurants, all anchored by Fenway Park, bringing together an unlikely cross-section of Bostonians into one spontaneous not-an-entertainment-district for freaks, foodies and sports nuts alike. And despite being unplanned and unsubsidized (or, more accurately, because of that), Kenmore eventually upscaled in exactly the way city leaders hope for.
Kenmore Square, by the way, also disproves the conventional wisdom that the presence of a stadium or arena automatically dooms neighborhoods. Fenway Park is a beautiful example of a large entertainment-type building sitting in a neighborhood thats very vital, says Dean Almy, director of the Dallas Urban Laboratory, and one of the things that makes it vital is that it isnt all about Fenway Park.
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