Caution: sterility

Pop-up district

By now most of us are familiar with the planned Entertainment District currently rising east of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex; a night-time view is rendered above (see construction cam here). This blog has discussed the inherent risks with creating “districts” from scratch, and with single developers or entities calling the shots, as opposed to more organic neighborhoods that grow over time with multiple participants. A very interesting article in Salon takes a dim view of this type of development, and is worth a read and discussion of its points.

It fills up for New Years

The author, Will Doig, takes Victory Park in downtown Dallas, TX to task. For him this is an extreme example of how banal an instant district can be (the main plaza is pictured above).  A much bigger project than Birmingham’s (think billions instead of millions of dollars), it includes luxury apartment and condo towers, office space, a park, restaurants, retail, a W Hotel and the American Airlines Center (home to professional basketball and hockey, as well as a concert venue). It has all been built over the last 10 years.

But it’s not New Years yet

While the main plaza and other public areas fill up during game time, New Years, and other special events–the neighborhood is otherwise quiet, according to Doig: its overpriced chain restaurants drawing too few patrons, and a revolving door of retailers leaving sidewalks empty (above). Keep in mind that there is still much more development planned for Victory Park, so perhaps it’s too soon to judge. But it’s hard not to take seriously the criticism leveled by Doig about the lack of vitality in this type place.

Everyone’s inside looking at the art

Doig also describes the Dallas Arts District as a related, but distinct example of the pitfalls of “designated district” development. A massive 68 acres of prestigious fine and performing arts venues developed over the last 30 years, it includes many well-reviewed architectural works (including the Dallas Art Museum above by Edward Larrabee Barnes, the same architect who designed the last expansion of the Birmingham Museum of Art). While there is much to admire about the high quality streetscape materials and refined architecture, street life itself is muted: unless you’re walking from an art museum to a concert, there’s just not much to do. It’s a mono-cultural district that suffers from too much of a good thing.

Ah, organic growth

The counterpoint to these listless new districts for Doig is Kenmore Square in Boston, MA (above), whose slow growth over time has resulted in an eclectic, mixed-use neighborhood that feels perfectly suited to Fenway Park without being contrived. The famous Citgo sign is a microcosm of the argument: first erected in 1940, it became so beloved by neighbors and Red Sox fans that when it was dismantled as a tired eyesore in 1979, a huge public outcry led to its restoration. It’s just one more quirky layer of the neighborhood. Such a sign today would neither be allowed under city ordinances, nor particularly loved by the public: it would be too new, too crass.

Which brings us to a final point–when Kenmore Square was first built out and connected to Boston with a subway line 100 years ago, it probably had little of today’s charm. Our best neighborhoods often need time to grow, breathe, rejuvenate, go through cycles before we realize we love them. If the entertainment district is expanded, ties together successfully with our own art museum and CBD to the south, Norwood to the north, is connected to great transit, and finds the right retail mix–it may prove Doig wrong. Since we’re investing so much money and effort into the project, let’s hope so.

[thanks to Bayer Properties for the Entertainment District pic; ecrosstexas and payton chung for the Victory Park pics; tilton lane for the Dallas Arts District pic; henry han for the Kenmore Square pic]

8 responses to “Caution: sterility

  1. Proof positive that “authentic” neighborhoods touch us on some elemental level that makes them attractive and therefore, popular. Dallas has always had a sort of mall mentality but the point here, I think, is that it’s up to all of us to create the linkages that will connect a made environment like the enterntainment complex with downtown’s other organic environments and give it the time it will need to marinate and hopefull develop it’s own character as an integral part of the City Center. The Rivercenter mall complex in San Antonio might be a good example.

  2. Great article on the instant, ready made mentality of Americana. Great neighborhoods can not just spring up over night, they take years, decades to develop. This doesn’t fit the buisness model of most chains, they want instant, prepackaged, predictable development. The real world doesn’t work like that. I also don’t think developers ever ask themselves, ‘is this a place I would want to live in’?

  3. Ah, Robert, I love “marinate”! An excellent concept for what has to happen. I do agree with the Salon article and am delighted to see it made available here too.

  4. The BJCC was built in the era of Lincoln Center influence. Lincoln Center, though an ‘arts district’, is fully integrated into its Upper West Side neighborhood. BJCC has always been isolated, thus it never attracted related development. It does need attractions within a short walk. Let’s hope it’s (no name yet) big enough– but not too big– to work.

  5. I’ve been to the Dallas and other ready-made parks, and they really are empty most of the time. The sites seem to attract suburban ‘tourists’ visiting the city for the evening and local criminals who break into their cars and vacant shops. The locals meet elsewhere.
    What’s missing is the sense of community that grows when local chefs, artists, and shopkeepers love their craft, are part of the culture, and give a damn about their neighborhood. I’ve been to Dallas, Vegas and Vail and I don’t want to live there. Developments attract investors that offer over-priced, pre-packaged, demographically-correct-mall-like venues that treat you like cattle.

  6. Every time a Red Sox player hits a home run at Fenway, the CITGO sign lights up…C-IT-GO. I never saw it, but that’s the urban myth…and I love it. Just a small story that helps bring a community together.

    • Wow. Thanks for sharing that–urban myth or not, it’s a perfect story about how quirky, un-planned things sometimes morph into relevance beyond their original intent.

  7. And don’t forget about the 1980’s when numerous cities tried (and failed) to recreate the success of well-designed and connected places like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Underground Atlanta is probably the closest example of that. I am afraid we may be doomed to repeat history here with the Entertainment District and perhaps also with the areas adjacent to Regions Field. Residents and visitors quickly tire of places that don’t offer them different experiences than they can get at the nearest shopping mall. I hope I am wrong.

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