Ten Ideas for Improving the AT&T Performing Arts Center

It has been nearly a year since the grand festivities that opened the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Since then, the center has experienced a number of highlights, and the year has also raised a number of questions. Many of these involve the PAC’s administration and finances, including CEO Mark Nerenhausen’s abrupt departure and financial shortfalls, some anticipated and others not. Later this month, the board of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, led by its new chairman, Roger Nanney, will go into retreat to plan for the future. Over the next week, we will share with you a number of recent conversations we have had with the leaders of the Performing Arts Center about the first year and the future.

In its design and planning, one of the intended functions was for the PAC to serve as a gathering place, a civic center, and a bridge between downtown and uptown. What is clear looking back on this first year is that the PAC has failed at these functions. And given the spatial challenges that the PAC’s immediate surroundings present, its size, design flaws, and mono-functionality, even with potential future residential development, the space, as is, may scarcely function as more than a dog walk for nearby residents when it is not in use for events.

But there are a number of simple improvements and initiatives that could be introduced to the Performing Arts Center to make its space a more welcoming and viable public space. Here are my ideas for improving the district, unconstrained, of course, by budgets, administrations, red tape, zoning, bureaucracy, or any of the things that make actualizing things that seem simple more difficult.

1. Café in Sammons Plaza: The Performing Arts Center people say this is going to happen, and it has always been part of the design, but the need for some kind of public food and drink stop in the center is absolutely vital to making the space work. The space needs a reason to be there during the day, but also a reason to stay in the space after an event. If you have been to Main Street Garden since the café opened there, you will immediately notice the life it brings to the park. And there is a key lesson from Main Street Garden too: don’t make the PAC café a fancy, overpriced venue-style concession stand. Offer three dollar beers like Main Street Garden, and at least the D Magazine staff will become regular bums in the PAC’s now empty park.

2. Collaborative Bookstore: Dallas is bookstore challenged, but some of the best book shopping can be done in the city’s museums gift shops. The Arts District should leverage the many institutions within its boundaries and create a common bookstore in Sammons Plaza that sells volumes from the various gift shops. Combine this with the café, and watch for the Saturday afternoon Half Price Books crowd to start milling about the district.

3. Moveable seating: There is something about the PAC that feels over-programmed and over-watched – its attitude is way too tight. It needs to loosen up. One simple way would be to add seating in the café that is intentionally moveable. The space is so huge, turn it into a game. Allow people to move tables to the many empty areas, find the shady spots at different parts of the day, create a Bryant Park-like dance of seats. It would make the space more usable and make it feel more welcoming.

4. Close Flora St.: At some point Dallas needs to realize that pedestrian spaces mean no cars. Flora Street is not very busy, but it is still an active street and you have to look both ways before crossing. Who creates a public plaza and lets a street run through the center of it? Plus Flora makes the Wyly’s entryway feel cut off and senseless.

5. Add fountains, rotating public art installations: Once Flora St. is closed to traffic, it will need to be reclaimed into the plaza space. This can be done with a few more water features/fountains smack dab in the middle of the street so we all know it is not a street anymore (plus, they could lure kids from the Main Street Garden fountain). Also, turn that odd, vacant feeling that currently characterizes Sammons Park into an asset by leveraging the creativity a few intelligent artists. Create a curatorial position that rotates between the various museums in the district. The curator will commission temporary installations for the plaza that focus on trying to make sense of its space.

6. Fix the transition from the PAC to the Woodall Park: Everyone is waiting on the Woodall Rogers Deck Park to fix a plethora of downtown connectivity problems. The problem is nothing connects very well to the future Woodall Park site. One of the biggest problems is the green space in between the Meyerson and the Woodall Rogers service road that is cut off from the PAC plaza by a parking garage entryway. This is the most natural path for people wanting to walk to and from the PAC and the Woodall Park, and it needs to be addressed.

7. Turn the parking lot across from the Nasher and south of the Museum Tower lot into a park: When I wrote this piece in D Magazine last year addressing the PAC’s pedestrian issues, I brought up urban planner Kevin Lynch who spoke about creating place legibility, visual cues in space that pedestrians can read and that encourage people to move through spaces. In terms of cues, the Arts District is still a collection of moments that aren’t linked together very well. From the PAC, you may get to the Meyerson, but once you hit Pearl St., there is nothing to keep you going all the way to the Nasher. Turning the parking lot in between into a modest green space would help ease that transition. Reclaiming the back of the Belo Mansion across the street from the lot and turning it into retail space would be even better.

8. Dampen traffic on Pearl St.: Pearl St. has to become two lanes. There won’t be an “Arts District” until it is narrowed.

9. Green the Wyly esplanade: The entrance to the Wyly is a disaster. It is difficult to navigate, full of concrete, hot, and unwelcoming. It needs to feel more like the stairway at the Nasher that leads from the garden to the lower auditorium space. That is, it needs to be greener and offer spots where people feel invited to sit in the shade, duck out of the plaza space above. How come we still build spaces in Dallas that have so much concrete? Does everyone designing these things forget about June, July, August, and September?

10. Create the Performing Arts Center Oversized-Chess Club: A city that functions well provides opportunities for people to go out and have a great night filled with conversation and social drama without having to go to an event, spend money, or have any idea what you are “doing” with your night at all. When I lived in Rome, I spent many nights simply sitting on the steps of a fountain in Campo de’Fiori watching the chess matches that popped up in the square with players using three foot high pieces, chatting with other onlookers and homeless men, grabbing an occasional coffee or Peroni from a nearby café. Dallas can’t expect organic chess matches to pop up in its parks, but if the PAC organized a chess tournament or league, it would help create the sense that the plaza is there to be used and to be congregated in. Matches would serve as way of “catching” people as they left events, giving them reason to stay in the plaza after performances. Who knows, street musicians may even swing by to earn a buck or two. If everyone in North Texas knew that on Fridays and Saturdays, if you had nothing to do, you could head to the PAC and jump in on a pick-up chess match, at least a few people would go to the Arts District without having to have tickets to an event.


  • Great suggestions. Love the idea of a book store/cafe. Why not also include used books/donated books?

    Chess Club, talk to UTD’s world champion Chess team.

    Love the Patio Sessions, this needs to be expanded. Love the movie idea for this weekend! More of that.

    More community use. Pecha Kucha is using the Wylie at no cost, so that’s a great use, to get people in, who might not ordinarily come down to the area.

    agreed on fountains. There are liability issues, but it would be great if wading was encouraged/or at least permitted.

  • hiccup

    2. This is not Austin. Generally speaking, Dallas does not like books and book stores.

    Additional ideas.
    a. Maybe the Arts District is a case of too much, too soon. It’s our equivalent of being house poor.

    b. The City of Dallas is on the hook for ongoing maintenance, yes? How ’bout some help from our brothers in the Park Cities? Remind me where most of the wealthy donors and boosters live.

  • TB

    These are great ideas.

    Re: #1: Why not give a concession to the folks who run the cafe at Main Street Garden?

    Re: ##4, 6, 7, & 8: The world looks really different when you plan for people instead of cars. Forty percent of these excellent ideas address car problems.

  • Zac Crain

    All great ideas, and all realistic — except, sadly, winnowing Pearl to two lanes. Just getting the right people to even discuss the possibility of thinking about it maybe seems too hard.

    Accomplishing this is my biggest hope for the future: “A city that functions well provides opportunities for people to go out and have a great night filled with conversation and social drama without having to go to an event, spend money, or have any idea what you are ‘doing’ with your night at all.”

  • Lakewood mom

    Create opportunities for parents to bring children of all ages to the area such as:
    – offer outdoor art classes and demonstrations (including hands on installations that kids can touch and hear to stimulate their senses)
    -coordinate with the Nature & Science Museum and create some type of outdoor science day linking the arts with science (include the Symphony to do sound experiments, etc). This should be a no brainer!!
    – organize outdoor children’s plays, concerts, puppet shows, dances,orienteering, etc.
    – how about hosting a kite day (probably more suitable for the future park)
    – invite yoga, tai chi and other groups to demo outdoor activities and promote health & fitness

    Offer these activities for free or nonimal cost and see the area thrive with future art-patrons in the making.

  • Donn Coburn

    All excellent, very thoughtful suggestions. Instead of a park (# 7), they should turn it into a food truck court. And, on that same lot, allow artists and assorted swagmongers to have stalls, 59th-Street style. Additionally, they should get rid of the circular Pearl St. exit from Woodall Rogers and make any other enhancements to the pedestrian crossing across Pearl that they can. (Narrowing it is one of the few suggestions you make that is actually impractical. But longer light cycles, visually unifying elements of some sort, a few speed bumps on either side, et cetera.)

    Also, Arts Magnet deserves a place at the table here.

    Lastly, waffle trees and legal marijuana. Thank you in advance.

  • LakeWWWooder

    I grew up in Dallas and adore bookstores. Good idea.

    I think making the parking lot between Belo Mansion, Nasher and the Museum Tower would be the best high-impact project for now. It looks very much out of place. As for a fountain – that would be a good place.

    Since we are ridding Ross Ave. of auto-related businesses the next big bond project ought to be turning it into a grand boulevard from the cool places and entertainment areas of East Dallas -namely Henderson and Greenville- to the Arts District. Since a lot of those car lots will be empty, it’s a good opportunity for redevelopment.

    Imagine several sidewalk cafes along the route ala Ocean Drive in South Beach.

  • Justin

    Great ideas, especially closing Flora St., it seems so superfluous.

  • J.Mayfield

    I have only A FEW GREAT IDEA FOR D MAGAZINE!!!!!

    Why doesn’t D Magazine worry about their massive layoffs for the past 2 years. Possibly they could worry about the major losses in advertising revenue. So one may have a bit more creditability if their business was in order instead of trying to run someone else business.
    It is almost a joke to read this article implying all the ego, arrogance, etc from ATT….. Give me a break …. So D Mag sit up on the top of your “leased building” and throw stones all across Dallas. The BIG BULLY OF DALLAS…..Shall we say National Inquire!!!!!! By the way how much did the Arts District Pay in Advertising as they were slammed by D Magazine….. SICK!!! I wonder if this is what Mr. Marcus had in mind when he help get this publication started. I need think this is what made Neiman Marcus what it is today.. DO YOU????

  • Veletta Forsythe Lill

    Thanks Peter.
    I normally don’t weigh in on these things, but I feel today it is time, since it is my job to look at the district holistically.
    The Arts District and the AT&T Performing Arts Center are constantly evolving and it will be another 20 years before the neighborhood is truly mature. Something on the order of 20 acres of real estate are left to develop when you include the area between Ross Ave. and the DART line. We will need a better real estate market than today to make that happen. But as the private sector does develop it is paramount that retail be included in every property with a block face. My dream would be to have retail in the area of Trammell Crow Center that is occupied by PriceWaterhouse. While I know they are good people and good tenants they are occupying prime real estate with computers, desks and erase boards that we see through the windows. The same could be said of the property on the backside of the Belo.

    Café’ in Sammons Park – absolutely needs to happen. ATTPAC is working on it. Bistro sandwich.

    Our Dallas Arts District movable chairs were shipped today. This is our first shipment, but we will use them in the district as needed and will be getting more. Speaking of movable chairs there will be a movie on Flora, in front of the Crow Collection on Friday night. There will also be a screen with temporary chairs across from the Meyerson on the Hall Arts Center garage on Friday night (8-11).

    Who could argue with adding fountains, but who will be paying to operate? The city can’t afford to operate the fountains in Betty Marcus Park (the park outside of the Meyerson that we are currently raising money for – to improve the furniture, etc.) There is currently movable seating in that park and we will keep that goal for the future.

    You will begin to see temporary public art installations in the coming year.

    Connectivity in the district is an ever present goal. A higher and more urgent priority is to link the DMA and the Nasher to the Park. They immediately adjoin the park and were built to buffer against the park, not to connect.

    Turn the parking lot across from the Nasher into a park. I would strongly disagree. That property is planned to be a mixed use development, which is desperately needed – more retail, more activated street front. As I previously stated – there is park right next to the Meyerson which will be spruced up, but could be programmed too.

    @Donn – The parking lot will be a food truck meet-up place on October 31 and will a prime spot for future food trucks. Hope to see you on October 31.

    @Zac – The city will talk about Pearl St. calming, although it makes them uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean I am giving up. It was a recommendation of the 2007 Fregonese Report and is on my Plan-of-Work. That has slowed until Downtown 360 is complete and right now we will lose 1-3 lanes of Olive almost every day for the next 2 years. On some days we are down to 1 lane – we need a little capacity on Pearl during that time. Look for some Pearl St. recommends in Downtown 360.
    Yoga, 5k runs all have been done or will be done. 5k run on October 23 – the Uptown Run.

    @Lakewood Mom – For kids activities we have had some very preliminary and casual conversations with friends at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science for collaborations that can occur once they are down in the neighborhood. A kinetic sculpture race is my first choice. A small group of us have also had conversations with some of the pre-k association folks and are looking at on-going, monthly programs. Places like the DMA’s Creative Connections are perfect templates for engaging young ones.

    If I could change one thing and change it immediately I would get the city to waive its fees for closing the streets temporarily – for October 31 (one day) it will cost the Dallas Arts District/DowntownDallas, Inc. almost $8000. I know folks would like to close Flora permanently, but that has its own set of challenges which I will outline in a separate piece some time.

    This is only a taste of things being worked on and I hope people will engage and be a part of what is being discussed on this board. These ideas take money, manpower, time and lots of collaboration – those of us in the district look forward to working with everyone to make them happen. Come on down.

  • Jason

    Representatives from the ATT PAC could stand on the corner and pass out money to people visiting, but I still won’t go there as long as they continue to treat non-subscribers as trash.

  • TB

    Sad to say, looking out a window of Chase Tower at 2:57 p.m. on one of the prettiest days of the year, I see exactly zero people at the ATTPAC. (I know. It’s not the most happening time of day. And I also know I should be working.) But don’t some Booker T. kids, at least, want to hang out there? Oops. On second thought, why would they? Unfortunately, I also see exactly zero reasons why they’d be attracted to such a dead zone. Ms. Lill’s observation about the need for mixed-use development is well taken, but the mix of uses is key. Any rate, buildings alone do not a city make.

  • Veletta Forsythe Lill

    @TB Maybe you can look out at 4:57 for the Booker T. kids. They usually don’t hang out until after school. Yesterday about 15 of them were hanging out on the grass and in the reflecting pool at the time.

  • downtown john

    obviously there’s still a lot to do but i am excited for the future. in my mind…

    Retail…i dont know where, but there needs to be coffee/cafe/bookstore/grocery on Flora.

    Parks…there’s no “parkiness” to sammons park. it’s large, cold, uninviting. no fountains. “The Park” will help, but there needs to be more.

    Flora St. should indeed be closed.

    it would also be nice if there was a DART rail “Arts District Stop” somehow. i realize this is probably completely far-fetched, but the Pearl Station is just too far for most people to consider it accessible.

  • LakeWWWooder

    Thank you Ms. Lill for all your work on this and for our city in the past. It is appreciated.

    I don’t think Flora would have to be closed every day but on some days it makes sense – the fee to close it is penny wise but pound foolish.

    As for that park adjacent to the Nasher, yes I can see why that would be good as a mixed use project – like the Lone Star / Craig Hall site would be good when it’s developed. But in the meantime, how much would it cost to make it a lawn with a few trees?

  • Coloring

    #4, Close Flora for a pedestrian mall? 1970s flashback. Bad idea. Half the world is turning those back into streets. Instead, stripe Flora for head-in parking, with meter paying stations. Make it easier for people to go down there for a quick visit, not having to make it a dress-up deal with valet parking and all that stuff.

    #7, that’s someone’s business and the easiest parking lot for Nasher. Don’t mess up something that is working for the owner and the public.

    #8, how soon can they begin? Pearl is just an exit to the Tollway for Planoites and Friscoians. Why should urbanites have to make do with a thoroughfare for the suburbs when what we want (need) is a working street? Maybe we need to do a complete streets deal on Pearl to show its potential.

    I’d add to your list better signage, big directional signs for public parking — Red Lexus Garage? That doesn’t sound very public. How about an old fashioned PARK HERE?

  • Veletta Forsythe Lill

    Thanks to LakeWWWooder and Coloring. Some good points and thanks to LakeWWWooder for the kind words.

    #4 I agree closing Flora is not a good idea for the reasons mentioned above. In addition to Coloring’s comments a closed street would mean more public space to program and less access. It would mean everyone would access the district from Woodall or Ross. Just the thought of what is tens of thousands of school children from all over the state that access the venues each year being dropped off from Ross or Woodall is not a good story. Please note that there are a number of legal 1 hour, free parking spaces along Flora. This allows easy access to box offices, photographs, an hour play in the reflecting pool, a parent to drop off something at Booker T. or a quick bite at a One Arts restaurant.

    #7 in addition to the parking lot providing the parking for patrons – the parking lot owner is allowing us to use the lot for some programming (think street fair on October 31).

    #8 Pearl is on the list for Complete Streets consideration. We do have 1 short term challenge. We are a construction zone for the next 2 years – Museum Tower, “The Park” and shortly the McKinney Ave. trolley extension up Olive to the DART line. This means on some days for the next year or two there will only be Pearl and a lane or so on Olive.

    More wayfinding is needed. The next phase of wayfinding signage was approved by the city this year. Installation 2011. More parking signage will probably come out of the parking study that is being done right now.

    I don’t anticipate we will ever see a DART line that is closer than the Pearl and St. Paul stops. Those were planned 20+ years ago with little long term vision of the district in mind. I actually park in my work parking garage at St. Jacinto and Pearl for every performance. I find it a lovely walk. The DART line is one more block or 4 blocks from the Wyly. In any city that is not an unusual walk to the mass transit line.

  • LakeWWWooder

    Thanks again – most of us don’t know all the background on this stuff (even those who think we are informed) so I hope you aren’t frustrated with our shooting from the hip.

  • Veletta Forsythe Lill

    @LakeWWWooder. Very grateful actually. It points to the need for us to do more communicating and educating. So, thank you – we are looking at ways of doing more of both. Some of us live it every day and forget to speak up. This was a healthy exercise:)

  • Lakewood mom

    Ms. Lill, thank you for engaging in this forum it is good to know decision makers are stopping to listen and to take some ideas into consideration. I hope your discussions regarding to children activities move from casual to more serious and lead to committments. Dallas needs creative and dynamic places to stimulate the minds of little ones and give parents options other than TV and computers for entertainment. I know it takes a lot of effort, resources and helping hands. So I would be willing to volunteer to move this process forward, and I assure you there are many other parents and grandparents who would also lend a hand.

  • Veletta Forsythe Lill

    @Lakewood Mom. Call me at 214-744-6643. While we are busy right now with Art in October. November would be a good time to talk.

  • Parking Guy

    I’d like to say that I know the parking and traffic around the Performing Arts Center better than most anyone. I’ve worked parking there for over five years right off of Flora St. I’ll be a little vague, but if the author wants some serious detail then email me.

    You can’t close Flora because it’s a direct link to everything and believe me the traffic is very heavy at times. Shutting off that traffic would prohibit all School Buses, DART handicap, limo’s, shuttles(retirement homes), and general drop-offs directly to the main entrances of event buildings. In particular handicapped, elderly, and school kids would not be able to attend.

    You can’t limit Pearl St. traffic. You just can’t do it. What would be helpful is quite a bit more signage and changing the timing of the lights plus adding green arrow times for turn lanes(Pearl and Flora.)

    Sammons Park is basically a joke right now. Sometimes people go there for some outdoor, very small venue, bands. The majority of people using it are in the following categories; cutting through to the Winspear entrance, taking wedding photos, jogging, kids skateboarding, or people entirely lost.

    TL;DR: Ask me anything about traffic between Routh to Pearl and Ross to Woodall Service Rd.

  • Parking Guy

    Perhaps I spoke too brazenly. Valetta seems highly informed on the area. Please Valetta, what is most needed is wayfinding. You probably don’t realize how messed up things would be if I wasn’t standing out there acting as a “concierge” if you will. When I am working there I am the wayfinder and it’s not really my job. “Where is Opera parking?” “Where is underground parking? “Where is lexus red parking?” “Where is a place to eat?” “This is a two-way street?” Any object within the radius I listed in my first post I get asked about every evening and you would not believe how many things I am asked in an evening.

    Not that I mind being helpful, but hopefully less people would stop in the middle of the road to ask me where/how they need to be somewhere in the area. I feel worse for the pedestrians that don’t even realize where the Meyerson, Winspear, or Wylie is at when it’s ten feet from them.

    One other issue people have is finding food. I get asked where restaurants are at and direct them to One Arts Plaza yet they don’t even know what that is. Anyone that asks me where food is doesn’t know the building

    “Yeah, end of the street, that big 20-30 story building straight ahead has like 5 restaurants. They are all supposed to be good so take your pick.”


    “All the way at the end of the street on the plaza level there. That really big building *points finger*.”

    Valetta, you probably would want some more “Art Carts” too. They are highly used, not run enough, and you only have one. Well, that one was broken for a while, but I guess you got it back this week.

    Just trying to be helpful.

  • Stacy

    I biked thru the arts district for the 1st time a couple weeks back and oh my….The 1st thought to me and my cycle buddy was “this is an arts district?”
    When one thinks of the arts district one expects to see art…well where the hell was it? There needs to be more art/sculptural gardens like the water sculpture garden by Stephen Pyles, and the DMA outdoor garden…these need to be incorporated on Flora since Flora is the main artery in the district not a side st like it looks now. Instead of pine trees which have shed allover the sidewalk why not use cherry blossoms or some other decorative tree that will make the district stand out as the diva of art it should be.
    Sammons park was the biggest joke of a park I have ever seen in my life. It was cold and very unwelcoming to be honest we didn’t even think you could bike or walk thru it, it was so uninviting, and none of the water fountains were working.A cafe would spruce it up but the park needs alot of work to make it not look so sterile and cold. I dont mind the escapade at the wyly but the easiest fix would be to keep the side stairs and and ramps and lay grass in place of the concrete. I wouldnt mind having a picnic on that slope.
    A book store would be amazing down there, but why stop there. I could picture an amazing flora street lined w/ museum gift-shops restaurants and art gallery’s.
    Finally the connection to the new deck park….Oh lordie where do I begin..That’s gonna take alot of work since walking along Hardwood and Olive is basicly walking along a blank wall for the whole block, a glass/plexi wall like the gate on the hardwood side on the all sides of the Nasher gardens would fix that problem and let walkers know the treat that is in store for them around the corner or a couple art sculpturals integrated in the landscaping.
    Well theres my take on the art’s district.

  • Sarita

    Peter, this is a great conversation. I am so excited about what’s going on in the Arts District these days, and what could happen. What a change from the ghost town that space was just 10 years ag0. @VelettaForsytheLill, thanks for sharing what’s coming up. I, for one, am prouder of Dallas b/c of what’s evolving downtown.

    Also, I love that everyone’s pointing to the Nasher as something that’s been so well-thought out and is so well-loved. Go team! Now become members!