At two o’clock in the morning, developer Bryan Stebbins locks his office door and walks outside. He zips his jacket against the cold. There are rumors of rain. Stebbins’ face is slack; his friends tell him he looks awful. He’s been holed up in his office for months with partners, architects, contractors, potential tenants, and city officials, all of whom finally bought into the dream. But it’s hard for him to remember, as he passes under the banner advertising the grand opening parade scheduled for the next morning, just whose dream it was to build a brand-new town in the middle of a cow pasture in Southlake, using an urban grid laid out by Washington architect David Schwarz.
Stebbins crosses Main Street to the square that gives the development its name: Southlake Town Square. He has copied it, fountain and all, from his favorite square in Savannah. The Southlake square is lined with two-story, brick and masonry buildings, all of which are designed by Schwarz. They appear architecturally to have been built piecemeal over the course of a century. They include retail shops, restaurants, and second-floor offices. The store shelves are all stocked; the window displays are ready. Stebbins looks down at the flowers lining the walkway. Frost wiped out the first batch. He picks a bench near the fountain and plops down, spent. Without intending to, he replays the previous four years in his head¡ªit has taken that long. He thinks about the parade. It’ll be the first in Southlake’s short, suburban history. Surely 650 people will show up, he reassures himself. There are that many people in the parade itself. But will there be anyone there to cheer?
Eventually Stebbins drags himself home. He sleeps for three hours and returns to the square at dawn. Almost immediately people start arriving in excited clumps: the parade staff in matching t-shirts, neighborhood kids on bikes and floats, city and county dignitaries. Contractors and subcontractors bring their whole families. By noon, 10,000 people are celebrating. But what?
In designing Southlake, which opened on March 20, 1999, David Schwarz achieved the same sense of familiarity, scale, and comfort that contributed to the overwhelmingly successful openings of The Ballpark in Arlington (1994) and Bass Performance Hall (1998) in Fort Worth. This year two new Schwarz-designed projects will open in Dallas: the American Airlines Center on July 28th, and in October, the West Village just north of Uptown. Both projects, as well as Schwarz’s extensive work in downtown Fort Worth, form his continuing answer to three problems in post-war Texas development: bad urban planning, bad urban architecture, and an almost unmanageable suburban sprawl. Through the patronage of such names as Bass, Perot, Miller, and Hicks, David Schwarz has been handed an opportunity few architects or urban designers will ever know: to reshape a region§´s thinking about how its buildings relate to people.
Schwarz is a man of clearly defined ideas. “The response that you end traffic by building more roads is simply incorrect,” Schwarz says from the offices of his 40-person architectural firm in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t work, and we should know very clearly that it doesn’t work because we’ve been doing it for so long.
“What you have to do is shorten travel distances, decrease the number of trips, and encourage certain sorts of density,” he continues. “When I first came to Texas, one of my clients told me that Texans didn’t walk. It totally disturbed me. I tried to figure out why and concluded that no one had given them anywhere to walk to. We became very interested in disproving that old Texas maxim. All of our work has been geared toward creating and fostering places for people to walk.”
Schwarz labels his architectural style “neo-eclectic,” because it incorporates the highest and best elements of the past with current thinking and technology. Schwarz’s Bass Hall, for instance, draws its inspiration from the traditional 17th-century Viennese opera house.
Schwarz, now 50, often talks about standing on the shoulders of those who have come before him. An especially sturdy set belongs to Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In a book largely ignored when first published but now rapidly achieving classic status, Jacobs argued that healthy cities shared four characteristics. Their neighborhoods serve more than one function. They have small, short, walkable blocks. They are made up of a variety of building types and facades. And, most of all, they are dense, rich experiences. Jacobs also believed that neighborhoods needed a civic Maypole¡ªa place to check out a book or purchase license tags.
“Jacobs is probably one of the seminal characters in how we build what we build today,” Schwarz says. “Jacobs analyzed what made neighborhoods work in the past and the proposition is that if it worked in the past, it will probably work in the future.”
Like Jacobs, Schwarz is convinced that people want to congregate in pleasant, human-scaled environments. We used to have them. A hundred years ago, almost every Texas town had a square that formed the center of a large wheel of development that provided a mix of civic activity, business activity, retail activity, and leisure-time activity, drawing people together at a variety of times in a day. All of it contributed to what Schwarz calls the “casual fraternity” of a town.
“The casual, social interaction that the forms of the built environment fostered prior to World War II are quite different than getting into your hermetically sealed box called a car and going to the next hermetically sealed box called your office,” Schwarz says. “That’s very different from walking down a sidewalk, meeting your neighbor.”
Schwarz’s West Village, bordered by McKinney and Cole avenues and sited north of Lemmon, is intended to provide an urban version of that small-town feeling. Two and four-story buildings with varying setbacks and facades fill two long blocks. Some give the appearance of townhouses. The redbrick structure on McKinney is reminiscent of a refurbished high school or turn-of-the-century office building.
The ground floors of West Village will fill with restaurants and retail shops, the upper floors with apartment dwellers. Cars will be treated like children at a wedding: they will stay in the back until it’s time to leave. Although there is surface parking on the interior streets, the bulk of West Village’s residential parking is buried deep in the center of the project. West Village is designed for walkers. In fact, some critics cite that as its major drawback: who wants to shop in the heat, walking outside from store to store? The best answer to the criticism may be the granddaddy of all malls, Highland Park Village. It’s no surprise that Highland Park’s owners, the Miller family, are partners in West Village.
“What makes for a good driving environment is probably the antithesis of what makes for a good walking environment,” Schwarz says. “A good driving environment means being able to get from here to there without having to stop. No traffic. Wide intersections. One of the constant discussions in Texas when you are trying to do more traditional development is the radius of curbs at intersections. In an automobile-driven society, you want to have a very big curve so the car can get around the corner without hitting the curb. But that makes for long crosswalks. Cars and pedestrians are at cross purposes with one another.”
Anyone who drives into West Village will find it tight going, even claustrophobic. That’s intentional. So are sightlines that are framed and abbreviated, pulling the viewer’s attention inside and around corners. When it fills with pedestrians, the effect to motorists passing by on the perimeter will be theatrical. Perhaps it already is. Before the apartment leasing office had signs or a phone number, more than 400 people found their way onto a waiting list for 180 apartments.
In the course of talking to Schwarz, I begin to wonder how Southlake was working as a predictor of the success of West Village and the new urbanism that Schwarz so passionately advocates. Schwarz knew that Southlake’s acceptance as a true town center would take more than the right mix of national, regional, and local retailers and restaurants¡ªquite a few area malls have that. Southlake needed to draw on a collective small-town memory. He was already working under a major handicap: in the Jacobs scheme of things, a town center can’t be manufactured; it arises naturally at the intersections of roads. Schwarz’s project was manufactured. It would work only if it served the nearby residents as a trip reducer: a place where five different errands could be accomplished with one automobile trip, a feat virtually impossible anywhere in Dallas.
To get there, I drive out Highway 114. Past the airport, the highway is lined with 1990s strip centers with chain restaurants strung across the front. The only people in sight hurry to their cars. I turn west on FM 1709, Southlake Boulevard. Southlake Town Square is three miles west. You pass a Wal-Mart. You pass a Lowe’s. You are in Anywhere Suburbia, USA. Then you crest a small rise and come upon the town square. There is something visually comforting about the two-story town with a redbrick town hall in the center. Some people on our staff described the sensation as restful.
All day long mothers push strollers in every direction. Seventy percent of the retail shops are chains, as in Anywhere, USA: Stride Rite, The Container Store, Talbots, and The Gap. There is a Starbucks, a Corner Bakery, and a Mi Cocina. The second-floor offices house orthodontists, attorneys, and title companies. There’s a full-service post office. The project is 100 percent leased and additional phases are already under construction.
THE MAN WHO§´S REMAKING THE REGION
1989 Cook-Fort Worth Children’s Medical Center, Fort Worth
1991 Sundance West, Fort Worth
1994 Fort Worth Public Library Expansion, Fort Worth
1996 Barnes & Noble Bookstore, Fort Worth
1997 Worthington Hotel Renovation, Fort Worth
1998 Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth
1999 Southlake Town Center, Southlake
2000 Southlake Town Hall, Southlake
2001 West Village, Dallas
2002 National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth
2003 Parker Square, Flower Mound
The bride, I soon learn, is Jennifer Brightman, and she has a semi-circle in front of her, including her mother, a cousin, a former co-worker, and the photographer. Brightman is the executive chef at The Classic Cafe in Roanoke and Southlake. She was trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Her mother used to run the Greenhouse Spa in Arlington. I learn all this standing on Schwarz’s sidewalk.
“I love it here,” Brightman says of the town square. She holds a spray of roses. “My fianc¨¦ and I bought our wedding license in there two days ago.” She points to the town hall. There are masonry stars on the sides. “The architecture has a town feel. I didn’t want to take a picture in a marble building. I am so much more relaxed here.”
We say our goodbyes and best wishes. The wedding is only four days away. I step inside the town center building. It is possible to pay parking tickets, purchase license tags, and file a lawsuit in the town hall. The public library is downstairs.
I spend a total of 10 hours at Southlake on three different days, ducking in shops, chatting with people on the sidewalks, observing. But I§´m not sure I needed to. On that first visit, I stop in to eat lunch at Mi Cocina, whose interior rivals its Highland Park Village location. Before I can sit down, I see Brightman, her mother, and her cousin sitting at a booth by the window. They wave me over. “Come sit with us,” they say. “We’re practicing our Spanish.” The conversation rockets from famous French chefs to Brightman’s Catholic fianc¨¦’s choice of Amazing Grace for the wedding. Her cousin will sing. They tell me stories about Debbie Reynolds and her turban at the Greenhouse Spa. That kind of thing only happens in a real town.