Each of Us Must Insist on Better Design for Dallas

Over much of the last five years I was involved as a neighborhood representative on a municipal infrastructure project in North Dallas, the $50 million replacement of the aging Walcrest water reservoir by Dallas Water Utilities. Initially my concern was the negative impact this 150,000-square-foot structure would surely have on my neighborhood. There was merit in that concern, but it soon became apparent that choices could be made to not only minimize that negative impact, but perhaps improve upon the existing condition. And while the sometimes tense coalition of city council members, plan commissioners, Dallas Water Utilities and neighborhood representatives did accomplish some improvement, for me the experience represents a lost opportunity for the neighborhood and the cityContrast this experience with another municipal project: a salt shed (a building for storing road salt) in the Hudson Square neighborhood of New York City. Like the Dallas project, this department of sanitation project included input from elected officials, design consultants and the neighborhood. But it also had help from mentors, critics and champions. The project had an in-house architect from the sanitation department with the aspiration to build the best building in the neighborhood. It had help from a department of design and construction initiative called Design and Construction Excellence, and a public design commission. A former member of that commission pushed back on early designs as not good enough. This was a municipal project that was elevated by a desire to make the city better. The results? A project within budget that does what it's supposed to do, and that also won multiple city, state and national design awards.So, what happened in Dallas? Two councilmembers took an interest in our project, and one remains engaged. Plan commissioners attended meetings and were generally responsive, and representatives of all nearby neighborhoods were initially involved. And of course, there were professional design consultants. All the players were there, but the required design leadership was not. The neighbors voiced understandable concerns, but elected officials and neighbors alike appeared to have little interest in the actual design. In fact, little understanding of design. Add low expectations and waning interest to the mix, and you get a project that might not embarrass, but will not lift up the city. I used to wonder whether the project might be Dallas' salt shed. Now I'm thinking it may be just Dallas.Why should you care? Because your city says something about you — your values, your accomplishments, your aspirations. And the city you see speaks loudly. Dallas is not blessed with natural wonders. We don't have a coastline or mountains on the horizon, nor do we have much remaining architectural heritage to speak of. We need all the help we can get if we are to overcome the obstacles of our location and lineage. Signature bridges and Klyde Warrens may propel us incrementally forward, but with every missed opportunity the ratchet slips and we fall behind. We may never overcome the head start of cities like New York, Chicago or San Francisco, but we shouldn't keep giving ground to cities like Houston or Atlanta, Fort Worth or Des Moines.If that's to change, you must understand and embrace the fact that you design Dallas. With your good input and your bad, with your action and your inaction, you set the bar. You are the mentor, the critic, the champion, if not directly, then through the representatives you choose or accept. Get involved if you have the time and the talent, or demand representatives who can lead the design or seek out expertise. Challenge them to choose the most capable and motivated design consultants and to push back if the design is not good enough. Elect a mayor or councilmember or choose a committee member who makes design quality a higher priority not just for signature projects, but for all projects. Reservoirs, sidewalks, landscaping and utility poles — every element of our built environment is an opportunity, and every good design decision elevates our city. You design Dallas, and Dallas needs your best work.Roger Harris is an architect in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.What's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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