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.

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