As someone who was born in Dallas and writes about cities for a living, how they look and how they feel, I’m fascinated by the new landscape of parks and plazas that downtown boosters are counting on to give the center of town a bona fide big-city spark, once and for all. After a visit from San Francisco earlier this year, I’m impressed by what’s been accomplished and what’s on the way. I’m also nervous, honestly, that the high expectations will fall flat. The spark will fizzle out. A decade from now, Dallas might look back on the whole effort as a good idea that went too far and tried too hard.
My last trip to town came in 2009, on this magazine’s dime, to explore the Arts District—another example of civic leaders trying to revive the core of the city with a concentrated dose of money and grand hopes. So the obvious starting point this time around was much-hyped Klyde Warren Park, which in 2009 was a concept that sounded screwy. Why put 5.2 splendiferous acres of lawns and trees and fountains atop a freeway that the neighbors, wisely, had turned their back on for decades?
Main Street Garden, by contrast, felt more like a cautionary tale—the 2-acre park that opened in November 2009 looked a little tired. OK, a lot tired.
Now that I’ve spent time in the park, which opened in 2012 and is privately managed with a $6 million annual budget, count me among the converts. Make no mistake, the kowtowing to corporate sponsors is out of control. Nissan shouldn’t be allowed to park a mammoth black Texas TITAN pickup inside the park, next to a “Proud Sponsor of Klyde Warren Park” sign. Those soft, cozy seats near one entrance are found on the Southwest Porch. Even a potted pansy came with a large tag announcing, “Provided by Southern Botanical.” The only unbranded installations I saw were two hand-sanitizing stations. Maybe negotiations with Purell are underway.
But there’s also no denying the energetic amiability of the space designed by landscape architect James Burnett. Or the success at packing it with free crowd-friendly attractions (check out those Ping-Pong paddles and giant Jenga blocks, please!) while keeping things serene and secure enough that a lone woman sunbathed on the east lawn at lunch. Two kids cartwheeled with four lanes of freeway gridlock as a backdrop.
What I liked best is that the park, all privatized trappings aside, genuinely feels inviting. There’s a heartening blend of races and economic classes that is all too rare in our increasingly fractured nation. Especially on the weekends: kids finding new pals on the various whirling contraptions in the play area also are being taught that there are kindred spirits around you, even if your parents don’t live in the same census tract or belong to the same swim club.
This is the aspect of Klyde Warren Park that deserves to be celebrated, more than the interactive fountains or the early morning yoga classes. As the park’s novelty wears off—and it will—it will endure if it continues to serve as a crossroads. Common ground where people can pass through or linger. Or, if you’re a family from Fort Worth or Frisco, serve as a good excuse for a day trip a few times a year.
The time I spent in Main Street Garden, by contrast, felt more like a cautionary tale—but a contribution to the public realm that has paid dividends nonetheless. I’ll start by stating the obvious: the 2-acre park that opened in November 2009 looked a little tired. OK, a lot tired. Flagstone pavers wobbled or were cracked in two. The “study shelters” were blotched with rust and peeling their lime-green skins. The dining pavilion was padlocked. And, yes, the park regulars include people who look as if they have nowhere else to go. One rocked gently at a table the last morning I stopped by. Two men swapped cigarettes near South Harwood Street. Another relaxed on a magnolia-shaded bench, watching dogs and their owners on the sad-looking lawn.
There are homeless people at Klyde Warren Park as well, I’m told. You just don’t notice them amid the hubbub. At Main Street Garden, they’re on full view.
But here’s what else I saw around me: a long-neglected edge of downtown that is stirring back to life. The reason five buildings were cleared from the block in 2008 was to provide a civic anchor that would make developers take notice and restore buildings that had sat empty for years if not decades. It’s an audacious gamble that worked, which is why I was being charged $15 for a rye Old Fashioned at the stylish bar on the rooftop of the one-time Statler Hilton, a 19-story behemoth from 1956 resurrected last fall as a boutique hotel. The old city library next door—crisp white marble modernism at its best, built in 1955 and vacant since 1982—now houses the Dallas Morning News.
Changes at this scale are profound. The design flaws of Main Street Garden can be fixed. One problem with the approach by landscape architect Thomas Balsley is that too much was packed in, such as a minuscule tot lot next to a green hillock that resembled a sod-covered cyst. Solution? The hillock is being flattened so the tot lot can expand, an upgrade funded jointly by Downtown Dallas Inc. and the city’s Park & Recreation department. Live and learn, right? Because here’s the thing: public spaces by their nature are works in progress. This includes Klyde Warren Park, where paving strips through beds of maiden grass and Texas sage now connect the park’s interior to the sidewalk along the south edge. They were added so people could stand in line for the gourmet food trucks, an attraction that wasn’t foreseen when the park was designed.
But cities are works in progress, too. Planners and landscape architects craft gorgeous visions of what the future will be. Then reality turns the future upside down. Central Dallas has its full share of examples. In 2004, the Downtown Parks Master Plan called for wider sidewalks between the old downtown and the new Arts District. Now they exist—and are used by dockless bike-sharing patrons as spaces to ditch their two-wheeled transit, like it or not. As for the assumption that new housing downtown would attract new retail businesses, it doesn’t hold true in an era when apartment lobbies are cluttered with deliveries from Amazon (no, Forty Five Ten, with its $400 straw fedoras, doesn’t count).
Cities are works in progress, too. Planners and landscape architects craft gorgeous visions of what the future will be. Then reality turns the future upside down.
Or turn back the clock to 1976, when Thanks-Giving Square opened with lofty aspirations and a central gathering space located 15 feet below the sidewalk. The conventional wisdom back then said city plazas should be set apart from their hectic surroundings, a design theory that (rightfully) has gone out of fashion. To make things worse, towers soon sprouted to block out sunlight—sunlight that helped dry out the square’s grassy slopes after a heavy rain. Instead, there’s plenty of shade, and the space is an often muddy morass.
Keep this in mind as South Dallas gets its own version of Klyde Warren Park over I-35E, as Pacific Plaza Park takes shape three blocks from Main Street Garden, the first of four green spaces that will be built in the next five years at a total cost of $70 million. Then there’s AT&T’s Discovery District, a $100 million repackaging of its four-block downtown headquarters as a sort of hip Times Square, complete with a six-story-tall video wall.
But there’s only one Times Square; it’s in New York. Klyde Warren Park has blossomed because a supersize town square between Uptown and the Arts District made sense, even if the need wasn’t obvious at the time. Main Street Garden shows that urban placemaking isn’t as simple as covering a void with seating and sod.
The key to downtown Dallas’ long-term revival is that it needs to become a varied place where you feel like you belong. The casual come-on of Commissary on Main Street, with its blue-tile façade and its breakfast array an easy jaywalk from Belo Garden, makes more of an impression than the tacky vertical video advertising along Main and Commerce streets. Vibrant parks are part of the allure. Vacant ones could set things back.
This isn’t to say that the new layers of public greenery aren’t welcome. They are. But small moments of serendipitous delight are more important than flashy new spaces trying hard to be cool—no matter how many corporations and donors line up to chip in.
John King is the architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote this piece while on leave as a Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Write to [email protected].