By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
So, at some point last summer, Brent Brown got on the phone with the Urban Re:Vision people, and this is what he said, according to Freed: "Austin? What about Dallas?"
"My argument was, if you do this in San Francisco it's just going to be another project," Brown says now. "But in Texas, if you look below the surface, there are some pretty interesting things happening in regards to alternative energy. And we are a pro-developer city. Besides, someone has already torn down everything, so we have a blank parking lot and a blank canvas. The question is, If you are going to start with the blank canvas, then where should you start?"
At first, the other Urban Re:Visionists looked in east downtown, toward Deep Ellum; Freed especially liked that idea. (At least they'd be close to bars.) But Brown knew just the place: a dollar-a-day parking lot behind Dallas City Hall.
This is how Greenan and Brown wound up in charge of building the most fantastic project Dallas has ever seen—even if, for now, it exists only in a short stack of conceptual renderings and cost estimates and engineering specs.
And then there's the question of costs. The project's capped at $60 million—just a fraction of what the city will pay to build its new convention center hotel, but nevertheless a pretty stiff bill for a pair of project managers with nonprofit groups. Who's paying for this again?
That and other questions are being addressed at this very moment, as Greenan and Brown plot their course in the hopes of getting this...this...thing off the ground within the next 14 months. The two men are working alongside the higher-ups at The Real Estate Council—a powerful consortium of Dallas real estate execs, powerbrokers, bankers and development hot shots—to see if this is as viable as they keep insisting it is.
But, again, what is it? Oh, right, a building that will "fertilize an old parking lot in the hopes that dormant seeds of retail, commercial, residential and social equality, if given water in the form of education and teaching, and sunlight, represented in the sustainable movement of nature and man, can encourage this block to flourish and grow beyond its original footprint." Or so say the architects responsible for one of three contenders to fill the spot—the same architects who have suggested putting smaller-than-normal cows on a "sky pasture" perched above downtown.
So, that answers that: When will this get built? When cows fly.
The notion of a live-work-play development is not exactly new to Dallas. The West Village, Mockingbird Station and Legacy Town Center have all created variations on the theme. In Greenan's and Brown's vision, however, instead of a prefabricated, prechewed miniature Manhattan populated by the upscale and the overpriced, there would be a self-sustaining "community" living off the grid and eating off the building. The amenities will, most likely, be familiar, so utterly Dallas: a spa, a specialty slow-food eatery, a rockin' gym, a performance space, shops downstairs. But the method of their making will be utterly foreign. The electricity would come from photovoltaic panels and tiny combined heat-and-power chips and vertical-axis wind turbines; the water, collected from ponds filled with runoff rainwater and from recycled bath water; and food, grown on rooftops and the building's very walls. All this would be planted but a few steps from the Dallas Convention Center and the Dallas Farmers Market and AT&T headquarters and the central library and, of course, City Hall. And, more to the point, just within reach of the Cedars and Old City Park that sit just across Interstate 30 but might as well be miles away.
"All those places are all job centers," Brown says. "They aren't high-paying jobs, but they are all good jobs. To achieve the great potential of the Cedars, you have to figure out how to bridge downtown and the Cedars. I don't mean bridge as in build an I-30 deck park. You've got to get things happening in the middle...This is an activator."
And, no doubt, it all sounds so very out-of-reach—looks it too, as evidenced by the illustrations accompanying this piece. Said one commenter on the Dallas Observer's news blog, Unfair Park, one of the entries "kinda looks like what Logan saw after he emerged from his Run." And more than once on the blog it has been mentioned, even by fans of the winners and proponents of the project, that they all resemble something featured on the History Channel show Life After People. Or I Am Legend. Or Planet of the Apes. Anything apocalyptic. Anything abandoned and overgrown and left to return to nature.
That's precisely the point. This is not science fiction—ask Patrick Blanc, who has draped the Athenaeum hotel in London with what Wired in its September issue called "an eight-story antigravity forest composed of 12,000 plants" that grow on a "techno-trellis" irrigated as though by raindrops falling in the woods. Out in El Paso, a company is manufacturing vertical farms intended to be planted in city centers, hydroponics skyscrapers upon which crops move up and down on conveyor belts depending upon the amount of water and sunlight needed for growth. As Time wrote in December 2008, "As the world's population grows—from 6.8 billion now to as much as 9 billion by 2050—we could run out of productive soil and water. Most of the population growth will occur in cities that can't easily feed themselves. Add the fact that modern agriculture and everything associated with it—deforestation, chemical-laden fertilizers and carbon-emitting transportation—is a significant contributor to climate change, and suddenly vertical farming doesn't seem so magic beanstalk in the sky."