In the profligate noughties, developers had a surefire way to make money: 1) deliver square footage, 2) promote it with a snazzy Flash website complete with the mellow rhythms of hip-five-years-ago down-tempo techno accompaniment, and 3) profit! That is, if you could predict the bubble’s burst and accrue your returns before the music stopped.
But Victory Park has deeper issues than mere bad timing. It is plagued by both bad design and bad planning. It remains empty despite 20,000 people showing up next door every other night. I’ve heard tell of nearby Crescent office workers driving the quarter-mile to the American Airlines Center. And even if it isn’t completely empty, that is the perception, which is far more damning.
Victory Park promised Canary Wharf, except without the London. But Canary Wharf isn’t that great either. Please, find me a picture with actual people living their lives and loving Canary Wharf. There is a lesson to be learned from Canary Wharf’s antiseptic edifices. Places don’t need a “brand”; they need a soul. They must be neighborhoods first, allowing residents to define what the place is. Perhaps it is time to retire the old architectural proverb “Form follows function” and replace it with “Return on investment follows life.” You have to cultivate life first.
Victory Park still has a heartbeat, albeit a faint one. The patient can be resuscitated. Immediate measures must be taken, though. And then comes the more painful, long-range planning.
First, the long-range strategies. Successful places are interconnected at a variety of distances between departure points and destinations. Who feels safe walking to Victory Park? Joe the venture capitalist in the Crescent sure doesn’t. That’s because the place was planned almost solely with the regional visitor in mind, and that sort of thinking suffocates local vitality.
To make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs (and rules). In this case, the egg is Pace Realty’s Northend. A fenced-in superblock of garden apartments is antithetical to connected urban places. Replace it with a true grid of streets and more engaging buildings.
Real places don’t have hard edges. Rather, they blend from one to another. Unfortunately, every road between Victory Park and its neighboring hoods was built for uninterrupted, high-speed traffic flow. You can’t ring a place with a noose-like strand of cars and expect it to survive. Just ask downtown Dallas. Joe the venture capitalist doesn’t want to play live-action Frogger. Instead, he drives to the arena, parks his car there, then leaves at the buzzer. Or he just goes home and watches the game on TV.
As for short-term solutions, get outside of the box. Attempts at various iterations of high-end Chili’s will flounder without foot traffic. Be more inclusive. Grow your market by appealing to a broader demographic. No one wants to attend a party uninvited. Break down the monoculture of sleek and shiny (but vapid) opulence, and inject some messy reality. Look for creative types to fill ground-floor space and make Victory their own.
Get rich by lowering the price. Sound counterintuitive? It is logical and has proven successful in Newcastle, Australia, and DUMBO (the New York City neighborhood known as Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Drop the rental rate of ground-floor space to near free—with flexible, short-term micro-leases—to appeal to startups. Manage the tenants to ensure cross-pollination. But, by all means, get people there who will populate Victory Park day and night through cohabitational work-studio spaces. If some fail, so be it. Encourage quick turnover to keep spaces filled. As the new tenants establish a vibe, you can incrementally increase rents.
There is a group called Digital DUMBO that acts as a chamber of commerce for the tech firms there. The same people are behind Digital Dallas. Victory Park could enlist them as a partner for finding creative startups. Being “digital,” Digital Dallas might not know it needs physical proximity to other like-minded firms, but as economist Edward Glaeser points out in his new book, Triumph of the City, experimental groups are far more productive when collaborating in person.
I’ve called Victory Park a Potemkin Village, a highway-side veneer of urbanity. Follow the above suggestions and transform a stage set into a real city where we’re all actors in our own, and each other’s, movies.
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