The Opera American conference is being held in the Arts District this weekend.

Arts & Entertainment

Will the Dallas Arts District Ever Be a Place for Dallas Artists?

City planners and outside developers are hoping to infuse a bit of new urbanism in the district to help address that very question.

Last week, the Horchow Auditorium at the Dallas Museum of Art was at full capacity for the latest installment of KERA’s State of the Arts, this time looking at the future of the Dallas Arts District. In many ways, particularly the collection of major cultural institutions lining Flora Street, the district is the crowning achievement of the Dallas donor class. Its development took more than 30 years and hundreds of millions of dollars of public and private money, and now, for better and worse, Dallas has a district made up of those coveted world-class facilities, respected cultural institutions, a unique park, a few high-end restaurants, and, of course, million dollar condominiums. But not much else. And so the question at the heart of this conversation was this: can the Dallas Arts District, created by and for affluent cultural consumers, ever serve the entire city of Dallas?

Alex Krieger, a principal at global architecture firm NBBJ and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, joined Peer Chacko, the chief planning officer for the city of Dallas, in a chat with KERA art reporter Jerome Weeks about what comes next. And it was fascinating for both what it included and for what it did not. The conversation kicked off with Krieger giving a 15-minute slide presentation on his vision for the district. Krieger’s firm—which is based in Seattle, but Krieger works out of the Boston office—has been hired by the Dallas Arts District to create a new master plan for the district.

This is a long-overdue update of the Sasaki Plan, which has governed the development of the district since the early ‘80s. The boilerplate touched on redesigning Pearl St. and renaming it Avenue of the Arts; repairing Flora St. and improving lighting for the sidewalks; modernizing signage and wayfinding throughout the district; enlarging the district to cover the rest of Ross Ave., turning the downtown artery into a good urban street (think Flora-esque walkability); and connecting the Perot Museum of Nature and Science to Klyde Warren Park.

But what was surprisingly absent was any mention of artists. One of the longtime critiques of the Arts District is that it was established in a place without a high density of artists—becoming effectively an artist-less arts district. But the last five years have seen real efforts to incorporate local artists. Most major neighborhood institutions now have programs that directly support Dallas-based artists, and larger district-wide events like Aurora, Soluna, the Crow Collection’s Chinese New Year Festival, and the Art District block parties are careful to include local artists in their programming.

Yet, most artists still can’t afford to live, or even dine or drink, in the Arts District on a regular basis. And this is why Klyde Warren Park was so transformative. Not only did it provide a green space that connected downtown with Uptown, it brought with it a space for mostly free programming and cemented a location for the food trucks, which offer more affordable price points than many of the area restaurants. It remains a destination point from morning past dusk: Parents walk with their children in the morning, workers fill it in the afternoon, and residents from all walks of life stroll through during the evenings, maybe for a yoga session or a late-night concert. In many ways, the Arts District has been seen as a luxury location: a place for the ultra-wealthy to live and play, and for everyone else to visit from time to time. Klyde Warren serves as the most inclusive effort to shift that through urban connectivity and activity.

Part of addressing those connectivity issues of the Arts District is supporting developments with multiple uses and a variety of price points. For example, the long-awaited Atelier | Flora Lofts project in conjunction with La Reunion TX, the artist residency program, should include 52 units of affordable housing for artists in the Arts District. It has the potential to be transformational. However, the lack of affordable housing throughout the Arts District remains a risk. It is a hindrance to creating a vibrant, diverse area. This is, perhaps, not surprising. Much of the renewed interest in new urbanism has to do with the suburban residents returning to the city core, wanting the benefits of a dense city life that they’ve been so removed from. And new urbanism, in many ways, can cater to this image of younger, affluent white people (literally, there was not one image of a person of color included in Krieger’s presentation).

This is a shame, as the ideas of new urbanism—creating multi-modal communities, using green spaces as connective tissues, lining sidewalks with shade trees to lower street temperatures (essential for our hot climate), making sure lighting actually lights these sidewalks at night, having public art, public wifi, and enough human activity to help improve public safety—are ideas that would have appeal to many communities. Hopefully, as the next stage of the Arts District focuses more on building connectivity and a sense of place, planners will also consider who will be able to access, benefit, and make use of this place.

After the presentation, Chacko and Krieger discussed why Ross Avenue is booming on one side of the overpass and barren on the other side leading up to the Arts District. According to Chacko, the city of Dallas planner, this has much to do with lower density zoning, which is easier to finance compared to the high-density zoning in the Arts District. One thing that Chacko and Krieger agreed could improve the Arts District is having a design review panel. This wouldn’t affect the scale of future developments, but hopefully help with the quality and diversity of them.

There’s also the matter of the cars and the surface-level parking lots. Krieger sees downtown as an island surrounded by highways, and does not think further ones should be created. Some of his plans call for narrowing the streets to create greater and safer spaces for pedestrians. But the fear is that this will increase congestion on already congested streets such as Pearl. He also wants to combat the old habit that cars are the only way to move within the city. The irony: without necessities like grocery stores in downtown, cars are still essential for most downtown residents. Chacko and Krieger were hopeful, however. The critical mass to get those services is 20,000 people and downtown is halfway there.

In many ways that can be the conclusion of the discussion; Dallas, as it perpetually seems to be, is at a crossroads. The grand boulevard that is Flora Street is complete, the cultural institutions are housed in great buildings, and visitors appropriately ooh and ahh at the spectacle of it all. Krieger now wants to focus on the other half of the equation: How everyday people use this space, paying particular attention to streets, walkability, retail, affordability, and housing. The aspirations of the Dallas Arts District’s new director, Lily Cabutu Weiss, certainly seem to speak sincerely to the desire to make the district an accessible place for all of Dallas. Yet, if the new master plan for the Arts District does not specifically include strategies that will meaningfully target and incorporate a broad range of people—including artists themselves—the Arts District stands to remain to many Dallasites merely a destination and not a home.

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