Tuesday, July 07, 2009

An Empty Victory: When urban planning fails to live up to expectations

As the current severe recession shuts down countless buildings and spaces everywhere, it is a good time to take stock on why some real-estate ventures succeed and others fail. The generous financing available the past five years not only led to lots of construction but also enabled the consideration and speculation for new models of development. Many large-scale buildings and instant communities were planned and built to a degree never seen before. Urban concepts that were confined to academia not long ago were suddenly put to the test as built projects. For example, entire abandoned airports were transformed into attractive neighborhoods with commercial town centers. Many cities seized industrial brownfield sites as a way to regenerate urban life by masterplanning dense mixed-use districts. After decades of rapid suburban development, the central city was due for a comeback, as demographic developments, pollution reductions and changing tastes conspired to make downtown living look enticing. It was just a matter of finding an ambitious project to kickstart it all.

Dallas was no different. Having for a long time failed to populate its dowtown with any residents, the city made a concerted effort (i.e. gave lots of tax incentives) to refurbish and even repurpose vacant office buildings into top-of-the-line apartments and condominiums. It even subsidized a neighborhood grocery store to get residents to stay. Yet these efforts were modest compared to one of the largest new mixed-use developments just outside the central business district, Victory Park. The brainchild of Ross Perot Jr. (the son of the former presidential candidate), Victory was advertised as the the premier masterplanned urban community, designed for the on-the-go single professional who desired place to live, work, shop and play. Anchored by a state-of-the-art basketball arena and a luxury condo-hotel, Victory was going to be a district defined by high-rise apartments, fashionable street retail, trendy restaurants, and a public plaza surrounded by gigantic and moving digital projections. Apparently, what Dallas needed was an instant Times Square, complete with a glassed-in television studio at the corner to highlight the crowded pedestrian-filled sidewalks that are common in the city (...uh huh). After an early flirtation with a low-rise, historicist architectural theme, it was decided for this district to appear distincitively contemporary, with multiple glass skyscrapers of at least 25 stories, bamboo landscaping and reflecting pools with clean edges.

Now, only a few years later, Victory Park seems to embody at the local level the wreckage wrought by the global real-estate bust. The trendy restaurants have been shutting down one by one, the public plaza feels like a ghost-town when basketball and hockey games are not taking place at the arena. Most of the shops have closed their doors and many residential units remains unsold. Another major hotel flag, the Mandarin Oriental, backed out of the project, leaving a large parcel at the center of the development undevelopped and further undermining viability of the planned street blocks. The local television newscast still broadcasts from Victory, but struggles to show an outdoor shot due to a constant lack of passerbys. Despite civic groups' efforts to stage rallies, awards ceremonies, film festivals and new year's parties, Victory continues to fail as a favorite place for everyday people to regularly congregate. Ross Perot Jr. has had to sell a majority stake to a German financial entity to keep the place going. There's no sign of deterioration or neglect, just on overall impression of emptiness, an utter lack of street life. Affluent yuppies do live there, and the luxury W hotel stays busy. A brand new office building just opened, with high-profile corporate tenants such as Ernst & Young. But most Dallas residents agree that the story of Victory is much like the one where someone throws a party and everyone is invited, only to find that no one shows up. Where did it go wrong?

In Rockwall, a surburb 25 miles away, just a stone's throw from the interstate highway at the edge of a large reservoir lake lies a much more modest, less showy, mixed use development-The Harbor. There are no condos, apartments, or offices. There's no professional sports arena and definitely no fancy LED projections. There is a hotel anchor, a small Hilton, but nothing as ambitious as the W in Victory. There is also a 12-screen movie theatre, fountains and a collection of relatively middlebrow restaurants. A green lawn with a gentle slope serves as an outdoor amphitheatre. A small marina lies at the edge, complete with an abnormally small lighthouse. In contrast to Victory Park's cutting edge modernist style, this suburban development chose to emulate, however clumsily, the look of a Mediterranean seaside town. Hip roofs covered in red clay tiles, arcades, pergolas and warm palette of colors evoke the Southern European architectural tradition, but it is nontheless a vocabulary promotes a sense of ease. In spite of my own personal quibbles with its cheap construction (tilt-up with EIFS...ugh!) and plain cardboard-like facades, I question most the neo-Italianate style's genuine appropriateness for a community in North Texas.

And yet, the people come-in droves. Having spent many weekend nights at The Harbor, I can attest that the place is packed everytime, restaurants overflowing with diners, live music acts at almost every corner, and hundreds of people strolling past the marina and standing by the mini-lighthouse. The Harbor has a compelling reason for people to come- it's the only place on the town's long lakefront the public can access. The creation of the lake 40 years ago transformed Rockwall's identity, from a quiet rural county seat to a rapidly growing suburban community defined by the water and all the kinds of leisure activities associated with it. Hence, the Harbor in my mind has achieved something Victory has yet to have-a real sense of place. Given that there are little to no civic spaces in Rockwall other than historic courthouse square, there was already pent-up demand to create a place that interfaces with the lake.

One can hardly say that there was much public inertia to create a place like Victory Park. Although many people can agree that an entertainment district adjoined to a major sports arena would be nice, there was no convincing reason why this was to come at the expense of established nearby areas. Both the Harbor and Victory Park were public-private collaborations, but the need for having the latter was never obvious and was thus perceived as a much more speculative venture. Though the Harbor was as much speculative venture as Victory, its unique location and the lack of other places for public gathering made it appear a a more organic result. Even if it were to take on a different scope and architectural character, a mixed-use retail development on the lakefront was inevitable given how Rockwall bills itself as a lakefront community, down to its official logo.

There was never anything self-evident or organic about Victory Park. Worse, it was envisioned as a district too exclusive to most Dallas residents. Mr. Perot wooed the most luxurious retailers, the priciest chefs and the upcale hotel tenants. Whether you were interested in buying chocolate, jeans, artwork, you could be sure that the stores did not expect middle- or even upper class customers. During a stay at Victory over a year ago, though the stores were open, my wife and I were the only ones in the stores, and the salespeople 'working' in them never appeared more bored. In spite of having hundreds of people living in apartments and condominiums just above street level shops, the stores were devoid of customers. Somehow, more serviceable retail for the neighborhood, such as a small grocery store, a drug store, even a dry-cleaner were nowhere to be seen. For some reason, it made perfect sense to Mr. Perot that upscale yuppies could live in his neighborhood and buy $400 dollar jeans on daily basis. Nothing is more bizarre than to watch the thousands of sports fans making their way to the arena dressed in team jerseys walking past restaurants catering to the fashionably dressed and high-spending clientel. Other than a gelato shop (since closed) there is no other retail attraction for middle-class families in the entire mega-development other than what's inside the arena (ahhh- a Chili's restaurant). After almost everything has shuttered, desparation has finally forced Victory's owners may finally get its tenant mix right- a Hard Rock Cafe is moving in.
In addition to the district's misguided social exlusiveness, Victory suffers from the kind of planning that unnecessarily isolates it from the surrounding existing urban fabric. The first fatal move was to force the location of the new light-rail line designed to feed pedestrians to the arena to the very periphery of the site. It seems that there was no intention to make Victory a functional 'transit-oriented' development, possibly because it may have gotten in the way of clientel showing off their cars at the hotel drop-off. For a place that bills itself as the ultimate walkable community in Dallas, Victory is not that easy to walk to. Whether you are coming from the historic West End immediately to the south or the uptown district a quarter mile away to the east, there is no natural pedestrian flow or wayfinding to the main plaza. The site is bound on two sides by highway overpasses, on one side by a vast lawn, and the north side by a sea of parking servicing the arena. Alhough there is a strong visual axis that ties the series of spaces within Victory into a cohesive whole, it is imperceptible from other major points of view elsewhere in the city. Useful gateways to the area are strangely obscured, with monumental corners taking precedence over the space defining the street. The result is that one's view is focused on the sculptural corner buildings, while the actual promenade that frames them is pivoted at an angle that makes it hard to see the end of the axis. This undermines a pedestrian's ability to make a quick mental map of the place, and unsurprisingly discourages people to wander towards the shops and linger. It has been observed that when the crowds walking from the West End make their way to the arena, they unknowingly bypass the main promenade and continue along the back side of the development. It also doesn't help that the main promenade is not lined on both sides by retail, further weakening the viability of the project.
All is not lost, however. By its shear location as a connector between the central business district and the booming uptown district, and by the fact that it is the only place to root for the Mavericks and the Stars, Victory Park will succeed over time. Mr. Perot gambled that he could create an instant high-end urban district that would be a magnet for the public. 3 years later, it's evident he lost that gamble based by underestimating the importance of catering to all the public, not just the cool few. The W hotel still stands, but the nightclub on the 33rd floor, popular with a few Dallas Cowboys and a handful of celebrities has recently closed down. More middle-brow restaurants would help, and some common anchor stores wouldn't hurt either. Something else to do when a game isn't playing would be nice, and rumors have been floating that some kind of movie theatre could be a part of the mix. A brand new Morphosis-designed Children's Museum is being planned, which should help. A city-subsidized grocery store should be opening its doors soon, which is better late than never. Victory will eventually become a lively district, but it will have a considerably different feel and image by that point. At any rate, it will definitely feel like a natural extension of the city, if it is to prosper.

Unfortunately, fixing the country's most ambitious urban mixed-use district will have come at tremendous cost to the city and its taxpayers. The enormous scope of the project posed a higher-than-normal risk for both public and private partners. Given the exclusive character of Victory, it's apparent that most Dallas residence helped finance a supposed public good that was not really oriented to all of them. The Harbor, for all of its faults, did not make that mistake- all types of people come there to spend time- from teenagers hanging out and playing music, to hispanic immigrants who watch their children revel in the interactive fountain, to middle-aged doctors and their families enjoying a 4-star meal at an outdoor dining veranda. The Hilton hotel at the end is constantly booked with wedding receptions, which adds a different dimension of family-centered activities in the Harbor. During the summer on Thursday evenings, several hundred people (and several dozen boats) fight for space to listen to a live music on the stage. This makes for quite a memborable scene for all the commuters driving along the interstate highway bridge as they approach the Harbor. It crystalizes an image of the family friendly and leisurely lifestyle of this emerging suburb by the lake.

This isn't to say that everything works at the Harbor. Some retail spaces have never been leased, and a number of shops swiftly went belly-up. The upper floors designated as office space remain unleased as well. What disappoints me most, however, is the harbor's poor quality of design and construction, as it permanently compromises the setting in which all the social interaction of the community takes place. It also serves as an indictment on the lack of aesthetic and cultural sophistication that characterizes the suburbs. Victory, though not perfect compared to older parts of downtown, still exhibits a quality of construction and detail that is dignified enough for a grand urban gesture for a some time to come. Even with its modernist vocabulary, it looks much more durable than the Harbor's cardboard-like appearance and obvious cutting of corners.

What can be learned from these projects? For one thing, scale matters a lot. Trying to do too much too fast sets one up for failure that much more easily. One of Dallas' most successful new districts is West Village, an area not much older than Victory but a lot smaller. It includes several blocks of low- to mid-rise blocks dressed in historicist (yet high quality) clothing and incorporating a lively mix of shops, restaurants, bars, a movie theatre and bookstore. It sensitively integrates with the surrounding neighborhoods and densities, incorporates the streetcar and the lightrail system. West Village functions as a connective tissue to smaller yet fast emerging neighborhoods, such as Knox-Henderson, with their traditional commercial cores lying nearby. Victory suffers from feeling like an isolated precinct, placed on a large abandoned site with nary a relation to the surrounding city. Its self-imposed architectural conformity in the use of the beige masonry, satin-finished metal panel and blue-tinted glass lend an unnecessary sterility to the place. By contrast, the random hodge-podge character of the older more established districts or the deliberate heterogeneity of styles in newer developments promote a lively feel for pedestrians. And lastly, when masterplanning a district it is more important to appeal to as many potential users as possible before creating a niche-based identity. It's understandable that selling a brand is critical in attracting high-paying residents to a new development, but this has to be balanced with the need to supply as broad pool of customers to support the retail. Apartment dwellers alone can't keep the street-level businesses below in business.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I'm convinced that Victory's boosters were so enamoured with their project's futuristic vision that they had completely ignored the traditional realities of how communities and urban districts come into being. Planning a popular urban hotspot is indeed an art and at its heart a speculative exercise. A certain amount of humility is called for among planners and financial backers within government and the private sector, something I suspect is scarcer than we would like to believe. Start small and let the users sort out what fits in a district, allowing flexibility that certain elements will fail and unexpected successes emerge. It's sort of a democratic approach, but the results are a truer reflection of the community compared to the more authoritarian alternative. So long as people believe that their private truth can will itself into the world through the built environment, costly follies like Victory will forever go on.

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