Tuesday, May 28, 2024 May 28, 2024
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Fair Park

Does the New Fair Park Master Plan Lack Vision?

Efforts to re-imagine the park certainly improve on the status quo. But an independently drafted vision for the park shows how great Fair Park could be.

In late November, we shared the draft Fair Park Master Plan created by architecture and design firm Perkins and Will for the new managers of Fair Park. At a glance, the plan offers some significant improvements on the concrete-heavy, State Fair-dominated fairgrounds that have been a thorn in the side of South Dallas for generations. The master plan calls for the addition of a community park, provides for more pedestrian way-finding, adds more green space, and expresses the need to revitalize and reuse many of Fair Park’s crumbling historic buildings.

But is it enough?

One long-time park watchdog doesn’t think so, and the alternative plan that he has now put forward imagines what Fair Park could become if Dallas really wanted to transform the park into a community-minded green oasis in the center of the city.

The watchdog is Don Williams, former chairman of the Trammell Crow Company, who has made advocating for Fair Park a significant part of his retirement life. Williams has long worked with Boston-based architect and urban designer Antonio Di Mambro to create draft visions for the park. You may remember the so-called Di Mambro Plan, which was touted as an alternative to the many short-sighted and unimplemented visions for the park that have been drafted over the years. Williams shared the draft Fair Park First Master Plan with Di Mambro, and he was unimpressed. Here is his full reaction to the plan, but I’ll touch on some of the highlights:

I am disappointed with what has been proposed so far and believe that what is emerging is a plan that is mostly a confirmation of the “status quo,” a plan that is not aspirational and does not address the primary issues that have inhibited previous Fair Park plans. Even though some of the specific site proposals are thoughtful and should be part of the final plan (e.g. the pedestrian loop, extensive tree planting, hard and ecological infrastructure improvements, renovation and repurposing of decayed structures, etc.), I believe the current overall plan is uninspiring and does not produce a compelling and transformative vision to capture the imagination of citizens and potential philanthropic donors. It does not foster a creative and mutually beneficial coexistence with State Fair’s activities and the park’s other tenants and stakeholders.

Yikes, OK. If that’s what Di Mambro thinks of this new plan, then what would he like to see done?

First, Di Mambro doesn’t believe the new plan should merely update previous plans. He takes issue with the master plan’s guiding principle: “The concept and design of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition shall continue to guide the development of Fair Park.” He also argues that any new plan needs to include redevelopment for the communities around the park.

“This should not be an historic renovation project,” Di Mambro writes. “It should be a plan that defines a new vision for 21st century South Dallas.”

Revisiting Fair Park First’s Master Plan, you can see Di Mambro’s point. The park exists in the renderings as an island sitting within a sea of grayed-out communities. If the great potential of the park is its ability to act as a catalyst for equitable development in South Dallas, then how are the decisions about the park’s redesign tied into a plan for targeting that development? The draft master plan doesn’t answer this.

Dallas has learned the key lesson of Klyde Warren Park: signature park projects can drive significant increases in value and desirability, even in seemingly undesirable locations. Transforming Fair Park could have a similar effect, but we can’t forget that the border between Uptown and downtown is very different than South Dallas. Merely stirring on value increases in South Dallas is not enough. In fact, it could be disastrous and destructive. The question that needs to be answered is how a new Fair Park will target its design improvements so that their economic impacts will generate sustainable, equitable development, and not merely displacement and community disruption.

Di Mambro continues, explaining a series of five proposals for the plan drafters. He would like to see more alternatives in the master plan for park space and redevelopment based on various programmatic assumptions. He wants to see a detailed study of how to use underutilized land around the park and land controlled by the State Fair of Texas. He argues that the study needs to consider alternative parking solutions for the fair outside of keeping many of the existing surface lots or adding a single parking garage, as the current master plan draft proposes.

He would also like to see a more detailed analysis of how the redevelopment of I-30/I-345 will impact the park in terms of land use changes, parking needs, and accessibility, and he would like to see “an evaluation of the financial sustainability and self-sufficiency of the existing and future uses/elements programmed in the park and surrounding areas.”

Outside of these directives, what really drove home Williams’ and Di Mambro’s critique of the master plan draft was a vision rendering they have created (see above this post). Rather than carving off one large lot for a new community park, their vision re-purposes the entire ring of surface parking lots as green space. A plan for parking is provided by using land that the State Fair currently owns outside the boundary of the park to construct a parking garage that could handle the once-a-year fair parking. Perhaps most dramatically, the plan reorients the Gexa Energy Pavilion concert venue to take advantage of the additional green space and transform the southern edge of Fair Park into something that resembles the Frank Gehry concert pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

This vision is short on details. How much would it cost? Will the State Fair agree to such a vision? To what extent does the State Fair of Texas rely on parking and therefore would not be willing to give up more than one or two surface lots? But at this stage of the planning process, those questions are not really the point. The point is envisioning the best possible future for Fair Park, and Williams and Di Mambro have produced a vision that demonstrates how limited and shortsighted the draft Fair Park Master Plan currently is.

Our ideas for Fair Park can and should reach further; they need to be as bold and visionary as this city claims to be. At the very least, we should know what our biggest and best visions will cost and what the obstacles to their implementation may be.

But here’s the problem. The master plan process is well along its timeline for completion. The final draft of the plan is supposed to be ready by March, right around the corner. The future of Fair Park is too important to rush. If the master plan draft that heads to the Park Board and, eventually, the City Council falls short of the kind of vision laid out by Williams and Di Mambro, then planners should be sent back to the drawing board.