Jon Anderson: New Arts District Plan is Like Trying to Create Life By Joining Two Cemeteries

Last night, District 14 council member David Blewett held the first community meeting of an authorized hearing involving the Arts District. The purpose is two-fold:

First to update the original Arts District plan (known as the Sasaki Plan) adopted by the city in 1981 – no surprise that urban planning has changed.

Secondly, the desire to expand one of two Planned Development Districts (PDs) to grow the district one block south to San Jacinto Street from the DMA to One Arts Plaza and unofficially encompassing Klyde Warren Park.

So far so good, nothing too odd here. But …

An authorized hearing is called when the city needs to decide on appropriate zoning (changes) in a specified area and in certain instances (i.e. all authorized hearings are zoning cases, but not all zoning cases are authorized hearings). But off the bat, we heard that Dallas Arts District representatives have been working on the Sasaki rewrite for roughly five years. They presented full-blown-and-baked renderings of their proposed streetscapes and appeared to have the new PD verbiage captured. We also saw that 90 to 100 percent of the stakeholders were already in agreement.

Why Are We Here?

Why have more steps when there’s nearly full agreement at square one?

But wait, last night’s meeting was considered step two of six in an authorized hearing – the first community meeting. The next step is for the council member to assemble a steering committee to “review current zoning, the intent or direction of possible changes, and to develop proposed zoning amendments.”  The plan seems to be done and full of support, so why were we there?

Will a steering committee be assembled (once?) to hail a job well done? I certainly don’t see a committee being formed that will seriously delve into issues that would take the current proposal in a different direction. It’s just not human nature to rock the boat.

This meeting itself was a perfect example. At the end of a half-hour meeting kicking off the future planning of the whole Arts District, questions were asked for. Not a single question was asked. None. Now there were three Arts District representatives who weren’t on the dais but who read prepared statements of fawning over the already-done plan. As much as we heard, “are there any more questions”, I’d yet to hear one.

“Gentlemen, start your engines” … “oh wait … what … we’re already here?”

This kind of slam-dunkery is a real problem.

Today’s Arts District is a Failure

One pedestrian on a sunny May day in the urban core of a top 10 city?

First of all, the Arts District today is a failure – in last year’s D Magazine special edition “Dallas and the New Urbanism”, the Arts District was literally called out as one. It’s a district bereft of life – without a ticket, there’s no reason to be there. Besides theater traffic, the only activation comes from the occasional outdoor event or wayward food truck from Klyde Warren Park.

It’s a danger that those presenting last night never admitted their failure, instead proudly hailing it being the highest concentration of arts venues in the world. There’s a reason that a relatively small area can nab that prize (does anyone think we have more arts venues than New York City or London?). It’s because on their own, event-driven venues suck the life out of a neighborhood – just ask another D Magazine-lambasted failure, Victory Park. Other cities figured out that organic venue spacing worked, Dallas it appears, still believes coin-operated neighborhoods work.

Their second buzz-phrase of the evening was the desire to turn the Arts District into a 24/7 venue from today’s – what? – 2/3 vibrancy. How? The 400-ish condos costing over $1 million that’ll border the area’s barren streets aren’t going to do it.

It shows they don’t get it.

Better Pedestrian Experience Brings Vibrancy

They need to bring foot traffic from outside the area to gain any sort of critical mass. Their solution is to pretty much give up on Flora Street (not much open land to work with) and extend south to Ross Avenue to bring the bread and butter venues needed – it’s not lined with the Pritzker Prize monuments that killed Flora Street.

Fine. That may be the only option short of lifting and shifting a few of the venues around the city. But as you can see above, their street activation can be counted with so many, many brick pavers. The goal of urban design is greenery interspersed with retail and restaurants. Last night we were told the Sasaki plan was too treed. But their plan is too bricked, seemingly prioritizing those few annual street-based events over everyday use.

Another issue is the desire to metaphorically extend the district west to connect it to the Perot Museum. Why? The Perot borders Victory Park – the Arts District’s neighboring development failure. I liken it to believing you can create life by joining two cemeteries.

If the goal is to increase foot traffic to the Arts District, it has to come from already vibrant areas like Uptown, Deep Ellum and the coming East Quarter – literally any direction but towards the Perot. The example given was attracting parents with kids wanting to visit both Klyde Warren and the Perot. I daresay adults with disposable income will do far more for Arts District vibrancy than the stroller and Fudgsicle juice brigade.

I could go on.

Sure, I agree in principle that to build vibrancy the area needs better sidewalks, easier street crossings, and a ton more restaurants and retail opportunities to offset the dead zone of museums and theaters. What we disagree on is how this 5-year-old plan has been developed, which group led the developing and how a done-done plan is presented at square one of an authorized hearing process whose mission is to seek community input.

To me, this is how you get named an “Ongoing Failure” in D Magazine’s next “New Urbanism” issue.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

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