Thursday, May 30, 2024 May 30, 2024
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How to Liven Up the Dallas Arts District

A modest proposal for what to do with Dallas ISD's 1,700 portable classrooms.
illustration by Douglas Jones

Over the years, portable classrooms have sprung up on campuses across the Dallas Independent School District like mushrooms after a rain shower. DISD isn’t the only district harboring these eyesores, of course, but I happen to have its data at hand. The district owns about 1,700 portables, 475 of which do not meet fire code. Thanks to the 2002 and 2008 bond programs that are funding new construction of school buildings, many of those portables are scheduled to be decommissioned. And what does DISD do with a portable building it no longer needs? This is America. The district throws it away.

Along come those no-good do-gooders from Oak Cliff led by Zac Lytle, co-founder of the insufferably cool group Bike Friendly Oak Cliff. Lytle left Dallas a few years back but has returned with an organization called Builders of Hope. The nonprofit’s mission is to increase the stock of affordable, safe workforce housing. With the help of DISD, Lytle tracked down some portables and began refurbishing them. He and his team added new bathrooms, flooring, and everything else necessary for habitation. They also built front porches for the portables, the architectural welcome mat for greeting neighbors or spending a lazy afternoon in the neighborhood. His first refurbished project, on Bexar Street in South Dallas, was finished in April.

I think this concept can be taken one step further. Remember those enormous party tents that popped up in empty downtown parking lots during the week leading up to the Super Bowl? They showed that pop-up “stores” can jump-start moribund parts of the city like an urban defibrillator. Downtown Dallas has no shortage of these dead zones that could be enlivened with some portables.

Rather than turn the portables into affordable housing, they could be repurposed for small businesses and entrepreneurs who otherwise couldn’t afford downtown rents. The parking lot owner gets rent for the spaces the portable occupies, and the city gets improved urban form as the ugly interior of the parking lot is hidden by a curtain of portables—aka storefronts. Parking lots tend to have a corrosive effect on surrounding properties, so anything is better than nothing (or just parked cars). Even better, once they do their job in one place, the portables can be relocated to resuscitate another struggling block someplace else.

There are several landowners around the city already exploring a similar concept, bringing in food trucks to provide some return on their land until the market turns and they can build more permanent developments. The food trucks also help build momentum in an area where it may be lacking otherwise. Portables would work the same way. They are a near-ready-made form of modular housing. And they could do wonders for areas other than parking lots.

Consider the Arts District. Despite its promise and the sheer amount of investment in the neighborhood, the Arts District, most would agree, hasn’t quite lived up to expectations when it comes to generating street life. (Yes, it is not yet finished. I understand that.) The Arts District acts as a port for North Texas, importing internationally produced art and culture. But it’s a one-way relationship. Its imposing architectural trophies designed by Pritzker winners have thus far not proved hospitable to a robust ecology of human activity. We wanted a vibrant Arts District, but we hired an architect who explicitly wanted to disorient visitors, make them uncomfortable as they entered his building. Job well done, Joshua Prince-Ramus.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like places that make me uncomfortable. It might make sense in architect Peter Eisenmann’s Holocaust memorial in Berlin, but it doesn’t make sense in a place where you want to encourage people to spend their leisure time and take their children.

I say we desecrate the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. Not literally. But we should make it more hospitable to, you know, people. Make it ours.

The Arts District venues were expensive to build, but the dead zone around them can be jump-started on the cheap. The big buildings need some fine-grain detail to touch and feel. Let’s line the streets and blocks of the Arts District with DISD portables recycled as studios
and showrooms where local artists can express themselves while providing daytime interest and activity in the district.

The Wyly ringed with portables might not be the prettiest thing in the world, but that is what the artists are for. Their mobile stage can be their canvas, and the Arts District can show what Dallas has to offer the world.

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