Photography by Leah Clausen

Urban Design

Why Dallas Keeps Getting Uglier

Developers are content to build a new Dallas defined by homogeneous, uninspired apartment blocks.

The many cranes and construction sites around town are often seen as a harbinger of a bolder and brighter future for Dallas. But is all the building really making this city better, or is it turning Dallas’ streetscapes into a glut of uninspiring, cookie-cutter, cheaply thrown together crap?

If you’ve ever driven around Uptown, or near Fitzhugh, or any of the parts of town that have seen rapid development of new apartment blocks, you know what I’m talking about. They’ve been called the most Dallas-y apartments, or contemporary Soviet-style, which is an insult to much of the Soviet-era brutalism I admire. In fact, I believe Soviet-style apartment blocks would be an improvement over Dallas’ version of homogenization, whose very insipidness is rooted to the many failed attempts at meaningless variation — some bricks here, a splash of yellow there, an out-of-place historical accent plopped on a facade that is as bland as a sheet of copy paper.

How come Dallas developers build so much of this stuff?

Well, lots of reasons.

Sometimes it is form-follows-timidity: developers simply replicate what has worked before.

Sometimes it is a case of form-follows-zoning: developers fill up a lot to the absolute maximum in order to maximize profitability, and then they have to adorn what amounts to big boxes with some sort of exterior finish.

Sometimes its form-follows-tastelessness: if you make a building that has any definable character or makes any kind of design statement, some of your customers might not like that statement. Better to use a design that can simultaneously hint at any number of styles while not really having any style at all. It is the architectural endgame of a kind of hyper-consumerism found throughout contemporary culture.

But then there are so many more reasons for crap design. Over on Candy’s Dirt, Jon Anderson lays out a few, including developers’ misconceptions about the cost of good architecture; design compromises that arise when developers try to appease neighbors; developers’ desire to steer more funds to the interiors of the property; and inadvertent side effects of building codes. Here’s a taste:

In stark, odd contrast, multifamily developers seem to feel there’s little incentive to a branded experience that attracts tenants from the street.  Sure, they plaster their name on their projects, but the designs of the structures themselves are far from noteworthy.  In fact, this “brand” of housing is a commodity, like so many bananas. It’s math on a spreadsheet.  Tenants, it’s felt, just drive by every complex in a neighborhood and look. Their streetscape is largely unimportant beyond being tidy.

Sure, apartment buildings plow money into the interior and public spaces. But these are actually the cheap pieces that are relatively easy and inexpensive to update as time goes on, especially compared to the exterior skin of the building.

Anderson’s article is well worth a read, and I especially agree with his last point. We need to shame developers into delivering buildings that will make Dallas more dense and more beautiful:

One day, I’d love to see a developer’s grandchild pushing their wheelchair and proudly pointing to a profitable building that was also beautiful. Then he’d point to me in my wheelchair and say, “… and that’s the schmuck that made me do it.”

 

 

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Comments

  • Sam_Merten

    Miss-conceptions?

  • Brandon

    Thanks for the entertaining read. Always very rich to see non-developers criticizing developers and educating them on how to develop.

    • MattL1

      I think we can all agree that “stop making our city look ugly” is a pretty good start.

    • Mavdog

      But Brandon, developing is just soooo easy…..so what if the cost of the project is increased by say 5% because it has some admittedly subjective architectural feature incorporated to please those people who say that all the other projects are “ugly”? Just raise the rents by 5% and all’s good, right? problem solved!
      next problem please.

      • Peter Simek

        I think the use of the phrase “architectural feature” kind of proves my point.

        • Luke Sassypants

          I think the phrase “admittedly subjective architectural feature” was the term Mavdog used. Like you said in your article “if you make a building that has any definable character or makes any kind of design statement, some of your customers might not like that statement.”

          Obviously built for the lemming generation that can’t stomach anything that would challenge or offend anyone.

        • Mavdog

          uh, no, it does nothing to “prove your point”.
          Your point seems to be that these multi-residential complexes are being constructed with a “facade that is as bland as a sheet of copy paper”, and the developer should be more adventuresome with their architectural palette. While your opinion is respected, the fact is you are expressing an opinion. Others may not share that view. If the builder incorporated different exterior features there could be others who express the same conclusion as you do- that it is unsightly and ugly. Why should a developer increase their project costs simply to make their project “different”?
          These developments are built to the design/composition specs of City Code, so if you want the developer to add more to their exterior I suggest to work and get these specs changed to better reflect your viewpoint on what constitutes “attractive”.

          • Peter Simek

            All I meant by my comment is that to see architecture or design as a “feature” or an “add-on” is to have already missed the point.

            There does not necessarily a directly relation between architectural consideration and cost. Considered architecture doesn’t have to hurt the bottom line. That’s the point Anderson makes in his article, if you click through to it. I’m also not advancing any specific taste here. Build throw-back Tudors, rip-off Philip Johnsons, faux-Georgian manses — whatever you’d like, just build something that has some coherent design or character to it. It just so happens that I’d prefer that character to take into consideration its context and setting — environmental, urban, regional, temporal. (If only Frank Welch left an open-source apartment block design that developers could download and implement. Good thing he has so many protegees around that I’m sure would appreciate the work.)

            The problem is Dallas developers are building a city full of buildings that aren’t designed or can hardily even be considered architecture — they are merely the physical manifestations of spreadsheets.

            Your comments, however, suggest that design is not something inherent to the form of a building, but some bling thrown on for “character” or “brand.” And yes, if that’s how you see architecture — as a “feature” and not the building itself — then no wonder developers believe any talk of architecture is a cost they can avoid.

            But I will agree with you that you are right that it’s silly to argue about opinions or taste. It is my opinion that most Dallas developers have no taste. And my opinion happens to be correct.

          • Mavdog

            That’s what is great about opinions, everybody has one. What you believe is lacking in the “coherent design or character” there’s somebody else who lauds the form and function of these projects. You may see these developers having “no taste”, and they may have the same view about you. You know what? neither are “correct”. There’s a reason it is called subjective…

            We disagree on the purpose of architecture. I’m reminded of sitting down with architects (not for housing mind you) who are showing their design for a project, pointing out this and that and how tasteful it will be, very pleased with their work…until I point out the purpose of the buildings and how the architect’s plan isn’t practical, neither to the pro forma nor to the intended use. This isn’t about art, it is about building.

            These developments are not public plazas or museums. They are to provide housing to its residents at a market rent, and to produce a fair ROI to the investor.

          • Lynn Bossange

            Developers do have taste. A taste for dollars. Lots and lots of dollars with a drizzle of dollars on top. Having to spend any more time than necessary on a new design (even an affordable one) that isn’t on their template eats into profit. Why take time on one design when you can bang out three blocks of crap on Fitzhugh?

          • C Newman

            If architecture really doesn’t hurt the bottom line, you should build the better mousetrap of better designed buildings with character. Everyone will flock to your projects since they are more beautiful than others. Having pushed aside and ignored the misconceptions of the cost of good architecture, solved the neighbor problems by building a beautiful building (your opinion of what’s beautiful happens to be correct; those that are wrong will be shamed until they agree and are also right), educated the tenants on how they should prefer base amenity interiors and overall exterior project design/character since the interiors will be updated for them every so often (no increase in rent of course because they are inexpensive easy updates); you will become the best and most successful developer in Dallas’ history. The other developers will either follow suit or be put out of business (through either market forces or the crushing weight of shame from those educated enough to have the right opinion). Their brand of historically affordable and purposefully functional housing that has boring exterior design without character is just a commodity, like so many bananas. And housing choices are plentiful, just like bananas, so of course everyone will choose your beautiful building over others. The best part of this is that no schmucks even need to make you do it, you can do it because you know how to do it better than the next guy. Oh, and the correct way.

          • Brandon

            ^Bingo. Would love to see the day come where someone actually puts their money where their mouth is, but it is far easier to comment from the sidelines than it is to actually get in the game and create something.

    • Ecin

      I don’t think Peter was trying to educate developers. He was just making observations about the architectural choices of new multi-family construction. He wants to make the city better through architecture.

  • bmslaw

    During the 60’s and the 70’s, developers were doing pretty much the same thing with “garden apartments”–those two story rows of ticky-tacky that proliferated throughout every growth area of the city. Oak Lawn had more than its share of them. Now, when you drive by the ones that are still standing, so many of them seem . . almost charming. Why? Forty and fifty years’ growth of trees around them, along with decent maintenance. Yet another benefit of trees–they hide the unnatural ugliness that we impose on the landscape. If you want to avoid the “new ugly,” make the developer put full-grown trees in front of the facade. If you can’t ban it, at least you can hide it.

  • trek1red

    I thought most buildings in Dallas are built to last until the mortgage is paid off so they can be torn down and replaced by an even uglier building.

  • Ecin

    No, I am not a builder, but I agree with Peter. A majority of new construction is lacking inspiration. It’s always amazing to see great design when I’m travelling (in the US and abroad). Thoughtful architecture brings so much to a city- character and charm can do a lot to draw in more visitors. Dallas is working so hard to develop such a wonderful art and design community so it’s just disappointing that our architecture doesn’t reflect that. We have so much talent in the city and we should be proud to put that talent to use!

  • Patty Clark

    I am just your average working woman Dallas who will looking for an apartment soon. These new apartment complex are going up really fast and they are way too expensive for the average person. They look nice but I am not impressed, they all look the same, cheap. They need character or landscaping to distinguish one from the other.

  • C Newman

    “We need to shame developers into delivering buildings that will make Dallas more dense and more beautiful:”
    This is silly. Shaming people for making a useful and needed product because it doesn’t meet some other people’s ideals for design aesthetics seems like a fairly close minded and aggressive way of attempting to accomplish what you want. Which might also be the same thing some others want. In which case, you could actually do something about this issue by getting together (or on your own) and develop apartments/buildings in the manner that you deem to be the right kind or “beautiful”. You aren’t going to get people to change the way they make their livelihood, or even their minds, by attempting to shame them into line with you. Have a better method or idea for apartments/buildings/anything….prove it and they will follow.

  • C Newman

    Would like to know what are the acceptable areas of life, people, occupations, etc. that people are allowed, or apparently, “should” be shaming if we have a different opinion? Also, who is the person or group that is in charge of making those determinations and the process for getting elected (or is it an appointed position scenario?) to the group that makes those determinations?

  • Hallie Moore

    I know I’m late to the party, but you could also have a case study in “5 Mockingbird” (the former Phoenix Midtown) who painted over all of the murals on the building, and are next demolishing the other things that made it the art deco style it was before, like the columns. They’re virtually un-designing it.

    They’re also renovating the insides, so the argument of the inside only matters doesn’t pan out here. Apparently the exterior was so offensive the whole thing has to go. 🙁

  • Jay Heacock

    I agree that these new apartment complexes are being built as cheap as possible by companies that generally only care about profit. Unfortunately, this article is about 5 years too late because most of the new development is either completed, under construction or too far along in the planning stage. Don’t worry, in 50 years we can tear them down again and build new ones.

    Another issue I see is that many of these apartments are being built right next to the highway. Why would anyone want to live in an apartment 50 yards away from an 8 lane highway? They would have to pay me to live there.

    • C Newman

      The issue you see about the proximity to highways is fairly straight forward. One of the main reasons is shown in your own post; it is clearly less desirable which makes it less expensive to buy as well as develop in most cases. Very few people “want” to live 50 yards from an 8 lane highway, but the rents are cheaper and lots of people need housing.

      • Jay Heacock

        Actually, all things being equal, land along a highway is typically more expensive than land not located along a busy corridor. Also, building an apartment complex costs the same whether you build next to a highway or not. So, no, it is not cheaper to buy and construct an apartment complex along a highway compared to a suburban area. I do see your point about rents. Eventually, after a few years and these apartments get worn out, these apartments along the highway will primarily house low-income tenants. But, right now, these places are probably asking $1500 for a 1 bedroom.

        What it basically comes done to is the city’s zoning of the land and building codes. If the rules and regulations allow it to happen, then a company will follow the rules and meet the minimum requirements.

        • The_Overdog

          You are missing the most important aspect of building apartments, which is residential complaints and difficulty of getting through planning and zoning. There are obviously reasons why so many apartments in the US are built in freeway corridors even though environmental studies show it dangerous. If land is cheaper and available in more desirable locations and all else is equal, then why else are so many next to freeways?

          • The_Overdog

            I also object to the ‘ugliness complaint’ raised in the article about individual buildings, which may be ugly, but generally replaced something even uglier.