The new West Dallas and the old West Dallas meet at 4.5 acres of opportunity. The plot is rectangular, wrapped in chain-link fence, then battered sidewalk. There are two listing soccer goals, a playground, a brown-brick building. Everywhere, grass runs rampant.
A block away is the bustling Trinity Groves, a restaurant strip that describes the vibrancy to come; in the other direction, a huddle of weathered houses, part of a working-class neighborhood called La Bajada.
This plot is a borderland, a space symbolic of an oft-contentious relationship between longtime West Dallas residents and outside developers. Don Gatzke wants to change that; the dean of UTA’s School of Architecture envisions this land as an urban farm. It’s an idea that has both sides interested, that could turn this borderland of mistrust into a literal common ground. But only if Gatzke doesn’t make those developers’ same mistakes.
The idea of an urban farm came to Gatzke on a 12-hour motorcycle ride back from New Orleans. It was summer 2012. He had met with colleagues at Tulane University’s architecture school (where Gatzke was dean until 2004). Along with community partners, they were nearing completion on Grow Dat Youth Farm, conceived as an urban farm that would grow healthy produce for the surrounding food desert; that would employ economically deprived youth, teaching them about horticulture, nutrition, and cooking; and that would double as an urban green zone and public space.
“It pieced together these various elements: helping at-risk youth and promoting public health, green space, community gardens, a foodie culture, hipster localism,” Gatzke says.
On his Triumph, he realized that the model could be exported to West Dallas.
When he joined UTA, Gatzke wanted his school to engage the community, to make the only architecture program in North Texas integral to the discourse and practice of Dallas design. Under him, the school launched initiatives such as the Center for Metropolitan Density, a sustainable-development project, and the David Dillon Center, to promote public dialogue about urbanism.
Building an urban farm in West Dallas dovetailed with this plan.
In September 2013, Gatzke started the proceedings. More than 30 people were sardined in a conference room at West Dallas Investments’ makeshift office. WDI is the development group led by Phil Romano, Larry “Butch” McGregor, and Stuart Fitts. The choice of venue was telling: WDI’s office is like a nerve center for the frenzied activity in the area. It signaled that the urban farm was more than a pipe dream.
The 30-plus assembled included Romano, McGregor, reps from West Dallas Community Center (the property owners), City Councilwoman Monica Alonzo, West Dallas Chamber of Commerce board members, and others. Gatzke put forth the vision for a Grow Dat-inspired urban farm on WDCC’s land. UTA architecture grad students, working alongside community-design and urban-farming consultants, would design the field and physical facilities. The complex would be constructed using low-cost, durable shipping containers and would include storage, office space, and a commercial kitchen. bcWORKSHOP, a Dallas-based, nonprofit community-design center, would assist.
Then, WDCC, partnering with SMU and/or UTA’s education schools and DISD, would develop programming for West Dallas high school students to work as paid interns on the farm. The produce would be shared with and sold to the community. The green space would be a shot in the arm to La Bajada, boosting the neighborhood’s vitality. And the project wouldn’t require tearing down existing facilities.
It was a long meeting. There were questions about cost. Apart from WDCC’s fundraising efforts, they would need $1.5 million for construction and three years of operation, to be funded mainly by philanthropists. Details are still being nailed down. By the end of the meeting, though, every critical constituency was on board, “exuberant.” Except for one, which hadn’t yet heard of a West Dallas Urban Farm.
At a hastily arranged mid-December meeting, Eva Elvove asked Gatzke why the community hadn’t been consulted yet. It was three months after the initial meeting. Elvove, president of La Bajada Neighborhood Association NSO, was one of a handful of community leaders invited this time.
Native West Dallasites have been largely cynical about development—not because they’re anti-change, Elvove says, but because they don’t know where they fit in the vision.
“[Developers] showing up was like a blessing and a curse. Blessing, because of the improvements, the economic vibrancy. But a curse, because, what happens to this community? People here say, ‘Oh, all this development isn’t for us.’ ”
In the last few years, La Bajada homeowners have fielded offers to buy. And in 2012, developers resisted, before finally acquiescing to a Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay, which would use zoning restrictions to protect the character of La Bajada. There’s also that larger history. In the 20th century, West Dallas was marginalized, literally and metaphorically cleft from a booming Dallas by the Trinity River and civic neglect. It became a left-behind working-class enclave and proof of Dallas’ de-facto segregation: in 2010, La Bajada median household income was $29,000; its population, 93 percent Hispanic.
“You’re like the stepchild that’s been kicked around for so long,” says Dustin Thibodeaux, vice chair of the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce. “You’d be wary if they suddenly showed up, saying they want to help.”
The urban farm would seem to make good on outside promises. It might even demonstrate the viability of a symbiosis of new and old West Dallas. Gatzke believes so, and he thinks a university can lead the charge.
“We can come into controversial social and urban situations and are able to act in ways that others could not, because we have different motivations,” he says.
Yet Gatzke made the same mistake, marginalizing the community by deciding on behalf of it, by presuming what La Bajada wants and needs without asking. One person close to the project expressed frustration with this “backwards, outside-in approach.”
“It was upsetting that the members of the community were not embraced or informed ahead of time,” Elvove says. “We’re still not getting the respect we deserve.”
Nonetheless, Elvove and other community leaders at the December meeting were receptive to Gatzke’s idea. She’s encouraged by the plan to revitalize the community-center land, which she views as the heart of La Bajada.
In January, Gatzke and architecture professor Kevin Sloan were set to lead a semester-long graduate studio session to create designs for the farm. They hope to finalize the plans by summer, when, if all goes as planned, construction can begin.
Gatzke is now recognizing that community leaders are most concerned about “transparency and openness”; he seems to grasp the importance of maintaining the community’s trust. He’s even assembling a steering committee of community leaders.
Elvove is hedging her bets: “Great idea, but our attitude is ‘Let’s wait and see.’ ”