If you took all the clichés about horrible urban design and shoved them into 75 acres, you’d 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 son’s. 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 district’s 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 you’re trying to create a culture as opposed to letting one grow,” says Nathaniel Hood, a Minneapolis-based transportation planner. “You’re 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 city’s arts institutions to the northeast corner of downtown. Another planning consultancy drew the boundaries of the district, and one by one, the city’s 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. It’s home to buildings by Renzo Piano, I.M. Pei, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster. In fact, you’ll 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 they’re 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 tower’s 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.