A Way To Fix The Arts District?

You may have already read Patrick Kennedy’s column on the Arts District in the June issue of D, but if you haven’t check it out.

Patrick makes a suggestion for the re-purposing of decommissioned DISD portable classrooms. It’s an idea that has been floating around in various forms since our panel discussion on the Arts District last fall: if the problem with the district is density of use and function, why not add that density by introducing portable structures into the district? Think of an urban bazaar, where small buildings propped against some of the less visually-appealing areas of the district could house shops, eateries, studios, and more. From Patrick’s piece:

[Portables] could be repurposed for small businesses and entrepreneurs who otherwise couldn’t afford downtown rents. The parking lot owner gets rent for the spaces the portable occupies, and the city gets improved urban form as the ugly interior of the parking lot is hidden by a curtain of portables—aka storefronts. Parking lots tend to have a corrosive effect on surrounding properties, so anything is better than nothing (or just parked cars). Even better, once they do their job in one place, the portables can be relocated to resuscitate another struggling block someplace else.

One of the problems with the design of the district is that it contains much empty space. We’re not just talking about the to-be developed portions. Think about the wall of the Dallas Museum of Art between Flora and the future Woodall Park site, or that same stretch next to the Nasher. Or what about the backside of the Cathedral? Or Pearl St? There is a lot of space in the Arts District that is already designed to be useless from a pedestrian perspective. From Patrick’s piece:

The Arts District acts as a port for North Texas, importing internationally produced art and culture. But it’s a one-way relationship. Its imposing architectural trophies designed by Pritzker winners have thus far not proved hospitable to a robust ecology of human activity. We wanted a vibrant Arts District, but we hired an architect who explicitly wanted to disorient visitors, make them uncomfortable as they entered his building. Job well done, Joshua Prince-Ramus. . . .

The Arts District venues were expensive to build, but the dead zone around them can be jump-started on the cheap. The big buildings need some fine-grain detail to touch and feel. Let’s line the streets and blocks of the Arts District with DISD portables recycled as studios and showrooms where local artists can express themselves while providing daytime interest and activity in the district.

I like this idea in theory, but there are problems (and not just that it sounds really ugly). First off,  I really don’t like this ongoing talk about bringing working artists to the Arts District. If we are talking about trying to create more pedestrian life in the district, more use of public space, and more vibrant day-to-day activity by infusing life into the area, artist studios are not the answer. When was the last time you woke up, grabbed a sandwich, and ran by a local artist studio to watch an artist stare at his or her painting for an hour in order to determine if it was finished or not? Right, never.

Let’s pull back out our Jane Jacobs: street life is generated in areas that serve as intersections of a variety of functions. The problem with the Arts District is mono-functionality is written into its very concept. What it needs is more functions. Restaurants and eateries help, but what about a cafe, or a dentist, or a shoe repair, or any number of the practicals services that are buried under downtown Dallas? What about a place to buy cigarettes or cigars that you could smoke in the park? Or a small shop that sells doggy treats and donuts for the One Arts residents who walk their dogs through the district? Or a bookshop that pulls from the individual book stores at each of the district’s museums?

I’m sure you could come up with another dozen ideas for the kinds of shops that would be interesting to stumble upon in the Arts District, but I list these ideas to make a point. Space is only one of the issues with bringing life to the district, filling those spaces with viable stores is another one. Finding shop operators is not easy. Who is going to invest in an area that has no foot traffic today? Should the city subsidize these operators until they get on their feet? Should the Arts District? Would the institutions pay more dues to put functions in front of their buildings that don’t necessarily mean increased audience, ticket sales, revenue? Maybe. Maybe not.

There are other questions. Could you open any kind of cafe, restaurant, food spot near the AT&T Performing Arts Center? No. Wolfgang Puck would throw kitchen knives at you. Could you open a bookstore that culls from the museum’s shops? Why would the museums allow something to open that would divert people from their own gift shops?

I think this idea has legs. We have to think of other ways to introduce life into the district, and that life needs to take the form of services that are not arts-oriented. But all the Arts District is is space, and it is what fills that space that makes it interesting, enjoyable, and of civic value. If we are going to introduce more space in the form of shops, the real trick will be determining who — if anyone — would be willing to fill it with quality uses.

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