Dear Mr. Headington:
I read in the paper that you would like to receive nearly $1 million in public funding (TIF incentives) from the city of Dallas to use towards the development of a new location for upscale retailer Forty Five Ten in downtown Dallas.
I also read that your request has already prompted some backlash. The Dallas Morning News’ Mark Lamster called it “chutzpah” on Twitter to ask for public funds to replace the historic buildings your company razed to make way for the new store. Then the DMN’s Tod Robberson wrote a column reiterating how terrible it was that you destroyed the historic buildings. Even on this blog, Krista, a downtown resident, expressed her concerns that your little four-story building is going to block light, and City Councilman Philip Kingston chimed in with his desire to advance regulations about residential adjacency.
I know you are a very private guy, and I know that you really don’t like this kind of attention. You were not happy about catching so much flak for destroying those historic buildings in the first place. After all, you followed all of the correct procedures and got all the right approvals. The press even knew months in advance. And yet, as your TIF application begins to make its way through the approval process, it looks like you’re going to have to brace yourself for another round of criticism all because of some crumby old buildings that, let’s face it, weren’t exactly on par with the Parthenon.
What happened? You were the darling of downtown, like, 10 minutes ago.
Well, that’s why I think that before we talk about public funding, we need to have a heart-to-heart about public relations.
Here was your first PR blunder: I know everything you did was on the up and up, that you invested some amount of time and money trying to figure out how to repurpose those old buildings, but you have to remember that we live in a city that has made a blood sport out of trashing history in the name of a bigger, brighter future. A lot of people are tired of it. In fact, as our inventory of old buildings dwindles, some people in Dallas are coming to appreciate more and more that historic buildings are not merely historical artifacts, that architecture engenders a continuity between the past and present. When we lose evidence of the way the identity of this city has taken its shape through a kind of sedimentary layering, we’re not merely losing a symbolic relic of what we were. Rather, we are losing something of who we are.
And yet, even though a lot of people are tired of Dallas’ penchant for historical erasure, there are still tons of people who are perfectly fine with watching our architectural heritage turned to rubble as long as they can be sold on a bigger, brighter future. The only problem is you haven’t adequately sold us on that future.
Sure, two weeks ago the Urban Design Peer Review Panel fawned — practically drooled — over your plans. “Amazing,” “remarkable,” “congratulations.” That’s what you heard. Be careful with that. See, you have to remember that Dallas boards and commissions are generally terrible at doing their jobs. The ease with which you tore down a few historic buildings is symptomatic of a bigger problem in Dallas: we have municipal oversight boards that don’t actually provide proper oversight.
Look at the Uptown Walmart fiasco: a big box green-lit on some of the most valuable urban land in Texas. Look at Goat Hill: a beloved geographic feature dynamited to make way for a generic, hideous-looking apartment complex on stilts. Look at your own demolition. Three of the city’s oldest buildings in a city with scarce evidence of its history? Thumbs up for the wrecking ball.
Sure, you received proper approval, but the problem is you shouldn’t have received that approval. The demolition should never have happened. And you know who got burned because of that? You did. Because now you are caught in between a city that allows you to do whatever you want, and a public that is angry at you and the city for letting you do it. That’s what happens when city government fails to be an extension of the public interest. You get mixed signals. Similarly, just because the panel drooled over the new Forty Five Ten, it doesn’t mean that it has shored up simmering of public outrage. I don’t think we have heard the last of it yet.
But that’s why I’m here. I want to help you navigate this sticky terrain. First, we have to work on the way you’re selling your vision.
Part of the problem is that you are a very private person and no one really knows what motivates your vision. So we’re forced to infer from your track record, both downtown and in business, what kind of person you are. Your projects on Main Street all reflect a high esteem for quality, a downtown corridor that functions as a high-end, private playground for the hip and cool set, replete with a fenced-off private park and a massive eyeball (Tony Tasset’s Eye sculpture) watching over all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — in fact, that’s largely been the appeal. You’ve created a place where we can indulge in the feeling of living in a vision of the high-life. The problem is it also sets the stage for a toxic publicity cocktail: take an exclusive vibe, add a shadowy developer no one really knows, and tear down a few historic buildings. That will make the hoi polloi turn against you fast.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. Allow me to take some liberties here to infer a little more about your personality. In the bio that is available online, I’ve been most intrigued by the fact that a man with a degree in history and such a robust interest in the arts and letters — from contemporary art collecting to film production — also studied theology and psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. In my mind, this biographical background begins to shape a portrait of a philanthropist cut in the image of the Gilded Age, a benevolent, enlightened baron in the grand tradition of Andrew Carnegie.
As a student of history you are surely familiar with Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth,” the idea that those who come to possess great wealth have a moral obligation to use that bounty to service the public good. The character of your involvement in downtown Dallas seems to reflect some affinity with this philanthropic disposition. Because of the great amount of financial capital you bring to bear in your efforts downtown, you can take an extremely long view and you can remove yourself from some of the constraints of the market which can sometimes place short-term gains over long-term vision. You can ask yourself the important questions: what is a great city? What would a great Dallas look like? And how can I make that happen?
And like Carnegie and others of his ilk, answers to these questions lead you to the great ideas: art, architecture, inspirational design. You are not merely building hotels and stores, you seem to desire to create venues where life’s experiences are well-crafted and intelligently considered.
When faced with these same questions, Carnegie decided to build libraries. He built libraries in cities large and small all over America, 1,689 libraries in total, including the very first Dallas Public Library, which opened only a few blocks from the Joule in 1901.
Andrew Carnegie built libraries; Tim Headington builds a new Forty Five Ten. I’m not being snarky or pejorative here. I actually believe that this dichotomy is telling, and that the distance between the public library and Forty Five Ten is not as far as one might think. Both libraries and high-end shops offer a functional symbol of what a given society understands to contribute to the “good life.”
What has happened is that there has been a shift in the American sensibility and how we understand what constitutes a civic good. American individuality has shaken off some of its austere, puritanical roots — Carnegie’s hard-nosed, Scottish Presbyterian ethic, the pride of hard work, sacrifice, and self-made success. It has evolved — via Don Draper, you could say — towards a more consumeristic understanding of the American Dream. This is the emergence of VIP culture, the trappings of success as consumable good. A bottle of Coke is the “Real Thing;” what you buy defines you. Behold the $30,000 millionaire!
Even though Occupy Wall Street pantomimed unrest among the masses and a dissatisfaction with the gross income inequality and economic inaccessibility in American society, we are not so much enraged with the one percent as we are enamored with them. And we do not so much aspire towards great wealth as we believe we should be able to access — maybe even believe we have a right to access — the lifestyle that accompanies success.
If the value of the library was rooted in a the ideals of a nation that believed that part of what allowed the masses access to the American Dream was access to education, dropping a credit card at Forty Five Ten offers a means for the masses to access the belief that they are already living the American Dream.
In other words, the whole reason why your work downtown has been praised so fervently is because you are providing, out of a kind of enlightened benevolence, exactly what the public wants and values. Your investments are understood not merely as private enterprise, but as a contribution to the greater good of the city of Dallas. In light of this, it makes perfect sense to ask for public funds to realize that vision.
I believe your only real misstep so far is that you cling too fervently to the first aspect Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth that argued that the wealthy “set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display.” Today, it’s all about display — all about having a vision that is shiny enough to get everyone so excited about the new, they forget the old. Better yet, put it in watercolors.
Looking over your plans for the Forty Five Ten building, I don’t see a shiny-enough vision. Something is missing.
When you tore down the Praetorian Building, the first skyscraper ever constructed west of the Mississippi River, one of the quaintest strips of pedestrian space in Dallas — Stone Street — was all but ruined. But you had a vision, and in place of the evocative alley, we got a welcomed greenspace that opens up the area, makes it all feel airier, and offers lovely sightlines from the new balcony of the Woolworth.
See? Shiny visions. I think you didn’t hear the grumbling you’re hearing now after you knocked down the Praetorian because the vision — the eyeball — won us over.
But here’s the tricky part. For all of our love of the new and our aspiring towards fabulousness, the American public still clings to a false sense of modesty and sentimental brand of populism. We haven’t completely shaken old Carnegie yet. So when you go to the city asking for public funds, the public is going to ask, “Well, what’s in it for us?”
When I look at the Forty Five Ten proposal, I’m hard pressed to find an answer to that question. In fact, the new building subtracts from the public realm, first by demolishing some of this city’s oldest buildings, and then by replacing them with a building that under-contributes to the surrounding area, turning its back on Elm Street with a valet driveway and offering no other street-level uses, while keeping the greenspace cordoned off and your eyeball lording over a domain of exclusivity.
You can’t show the city a picture of “park” and then turn around and say, “Oh sorry, the fence has to stay. It’s not a public park, just a park for me and my friends.” Claiming that you are simply trying to protect the beloved Eyeball doesn’t work either (should Millennium Park be fenced in because of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate?).
And then you asked for public funds to do it all.
No matter the extent to which your bold, upscale vision for downtown is understood as a new brand of benevolent city building, that’s going a bit too far. Keep it up, and you are going to start to see pitchforks on Main Street.
I know you’ve recently completed your 12-year “vision quest,” but it is still too early in your long-range plans for downtown to tick off the public just yet. There is still much more to do, and so we need to get out in front of this latest public relations SNAFU.
Here’s one simple thing you could do: open up the park. Hire a security guard who can pester all those pesky downtowners who don’t curb their dogs. Then blast us with a whole lot of positive PR about how great it is that you are creating a beautiful greenspace in the center of Dallas. Include a rendering of the park with those cartoonish people architects like to put all around their projects. Quote Andrew Carnegie in the press release. The Eyeball will be Instagramed to death, and no one will mess with it. After all, has anyone ever tagged Cloud Gate?
Most importantly, everyone will love you for it. You will be our Andrew Carnegie. You will continue to go about doing whatever you want downtown, and we will continue to go about forgetting Dallas’ history. We will forget all history. We always do.