Are the Plans To Build A Green, Sustainable Building of Tomorrow Smack in the Heart of Downtown Dallas Some Pipedream or A Reality?
Imagine, if you will, a utopia smack in the heart of downtown Dallas. In this green, sustainable building of tomorrow, you might roll out of bed, take a shower and find your runoff water feeding vegetation growing on the roof and walls, upon which you'll feast later that night. Or maybe you'll move downtown and become a cattle rancher several stories above the concrete jungle. Or perhaps you'll grab a bite in the slow-food café downstairs after knocking off your shift working the counter in the holistic pharmacy next door.
Solar panels heat and light your home, and the high-tech and the natural mesh seamlessly in a Logan's-Run-to-a-kibbutz kind of way. It's a place so inviting, so self-contained that there's really not much reason to ever leave home.
The possibilities, say the three architectural firms competing to design this future world, are endless—so much so they can't really pin down what life in their buildings would be like, which is precisely what makes it so hard to believe one will ever exist. But if local affordable housing advocates Brent Brown and John Greenan have their way—and they insist they will—this world of tomorrow might be a lot closer than you think.
For Brown and Greenan, this story begins on a pan-fried July 2008 afternoon behind Dallas City Hall. Theirs had been nothing more than a routine trip to a bureaucrat's office. Brown and Greenan often had occasion to visit City Hall: Brown, as the head of bcWORKSHOP, celebrated for its efforts to give ramshackle South Dallas homes extreme makeovers; Greenan, as founder and executive director of nonprofit Central Dallas Community Development Corp., a subsidiary of Larry James' Central Dallas Ministries.
That summer, Greenan was knee-deep in his biggest project to date: converting 511 N. Akard St. from a ghost town of an office tower into affordable and low-income housing into which Brown plans to move. The two men could not be more dissimilar. Greenan sports a gray beard obscuring a baby face; he speaks softly and seldomly, especially when Brown is around. Perhaps that's because Brown, tall and broad and bespectacled, is as exuberant as his colleague is placid. They are, say many who know them, a perfect match. Says one real estate executive, "If Brent and John try doing something, I can't imagine it won't get built."
So, on this day, after crunching numbers and implementing action-plan items and whatever it is dreamers do when they spend time with public servants, Brown and Greenan took the elevator down to the ground floor and exited into the blinding sunlight. And, for no reason other than the fact it was all he could see, Greenan turned to Brown and commented upon the asphalt wasteland where they had parked the car.
"There ought to be a better use for a block in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the country than a dollar-a-day parking lot," Greenan told Brown.
To which Brown replied, "Let me get back to you on that."
Architect Eric Corey Freed is something like a tent-revival preacher, traveling the country proselytizing for Frank Lloyd Wright's theory of organic architecture, which melds the man-made with the found-in-nature. He sits on the advisory board of a nonprofit out of San Francisco called Urban Re:Vision, which since 2007 had been holding a series of academic competitions that asked doers and dreamers to re-imagine the future of building, designing and living. Each competition—involving such things as urban planning, transportation, energy delivery, architecture, commerce and construction materials—had a cutesy name such as Re:Connect, Re:Construct, Re:Design, Re:Route, Re:Store or Re:Volt.
But all along, Urban Re:Vision has planned a climactic competition that could render the theoretical tangible. Hypotheticals were good for fund-raising. They got Urban Re:Vision's name out there. They were fun as hell. And, hey, that idea for making walls using building blocks fashioned from compressed maps? Kick. Ass. But until Urban Re:Vision lived up to its name, so what?
Which is why, during the course of these competitions, Urban Re:Vision began scouting for a city in which to plant their piles of theories, to see if it would sprout an architectural revolution—a self-sustaining block, a steeped-in-green building where people of all incomes would live, work, play, shop and eat (off their own walls, more or less). San Francisco seemed, at first, the likely site—then organizers realized it was too obvious. New York City? Perhaps, but there's not much separating a left-coast crunchy from a right-coast liberal. Again, too predictable. Portland? Maybe. But wait. How about, um...Texas?
As far as Freed was concerned, it made sense: Something in flyover land would attract attention. It would prove that this was no hippy-dippy, never-gonna-happen, greenwashing bullshit. So Freed called Kathy Zarsky in Austin, where she runs a "sustainability consulting firm" called the HOLOS Collaborative. Urban Re:Vision also reached out to Sergio Palleroni, who, at the time, was teaching architecture and sustainable design and development at the University of Texas at Austin. He told Urban Re:Vision he knew just the guy.
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."
And, in early September this year, the design firm Office of Metropolitan Architecture debuted its concept for a tropical paradise in Singapore. Called The Interlace, it's really nothing more than buildings stacked one upon the other as though by an infant; the empty rooftop spaces would serves as gardens, while the complex would be engulfed in greenery and water below. OMA, incidentally, was founded by architect Rem Koolhaas and is the firm responsible for the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater in the AT&T Performing Arts Center that opens in mid-October.
So, the future is here—or, at least, teased in the privately funded Arts District. It raises the question Brent Brown put to Eric Corey Freed one year ago: What about Dallas? What was it Lon Tinkle once wrote? Ah, yes: "One streak runs like a common thread through all the people of Dallas: a love of brand-new things. They like to erect new homes, stores, schools, factories, office buildings, public structures of all kind, places where they may work or play." That was in 1965, in a book titled The Key to Dallas. It was aimed at educating school children, but it is no less instructional for adults today.
On a frigid Friday morning last December, architects and developers, designers and dreamers were invited to a conference room on the fourth floor of Dallas City Hall. Most had no idea what they were doing there, save for the vague invitation to jot down on Post-It notes ideas that would ultimately lead to the development of a "self-sustaining community" where "people of all incomes" would live, work, shop, eat and play together. Stacey Frost, head of Urban Re:Vision, welcomed everyone and showed a short film documenting the earlier competitions and another charette in Denver. Greenan told the group he hoped to transform the parking lot into "something we can actually build [that's] way cool, so cool we can get people from all over the city to live there."
Mayor Tom Leppert spoke as well, evoking the Trinity River Corridor Project and the Woodall Rodgers deck park as proof of Dallas' forward momentum. He says that when he first spoke with Frost and Urban Re:Vision about creating a self-sustaining block downtown, it was "one of those decisions [I found] easy to make. Because I think what you're going to do is exactly what you need to do, and not only in Dallas but across the nation...Sustainability thinks strategically about how you use space and how you use structures and that goes beyond the green. There are projects in Dallas that I think are examples of that, where it's more than a project...First, the Trinity River project. A lot of times we'll think of it as being enormous benefits for recreation, transportation or flood control, those elements. But the biggest part of that isn't those things that I talked about, the tangibles. It's the intangibles. It's the idea that a space in our city that has been historically a divide could all of a sudden bring people together."
Attendees, who had been given canvas bags upon arrival, were then told to empty out their contents—pencils, Post-It notes. They were given only a few instructions and a couple of pieces of paper upon which were written some cursory howdy-dos. They were told this block should contain no fewer than 500 housing units. And no fewer than 75,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, including "shop(s) for daily grocery needs." And an "educational component that serves all the residents." And a "multi-purpose care area and provider." And a place where residents could grow their own food. And so much more.
As the large group broke into smaller ones, you could see all around the room the what-the-what looks on some folks' faces—a few blank stares, some sneakily exchanged smirks, a couple of knowing nods that seemed to say, silently, What nonsense. Yet others were intrigued by their charge—this chance to redefine an abandoned block in downtown Dallas.
"I was excited," says Ann Allison, executive director of The Real Estate Council Foundation, whose board of directors consists of bald-faced deal-makers, among them Hillwood's John Scovell and Jack Matthews, who are building the city's convention center hotel. "And there was part of me that was like, 'Oh, right, sure—this is going to happen.' But the people in my group—architects and developers—everyone was very serious in terms of really trying to express something about it and what it might mean. Everybody was very engaged. And it's always great having an opportunity to be visionary, even though you have no idea if it'll come to fruition."
To which Greenan adds, "I got the feeling that everyone didn't know what the hell they were rooting for, that it was such a strange concept."
Yet, somehow, they managed to offer enough ideas to lead to the creation of an eight-page document called Re:Vision Dallas: A Design Brief for the Future, which outlined the vision for the block and the rules for the final competition.
"At first glance, this brief may appear implausible; it is intended to be provocative," read the introduction. "But it is very much real and assumed completely plausible no matter how aspirational it may seem. These are the intentions that aim to propel us beyond the typical, beyond the norm and to lay the foundation for a future of sustainable development we all hope is inevitable. If you can't satisfy everything stipulated within the brief, then do as much as you feel appropriate for the aspirations defined. If you think this brief is not enough, then push it further and lead us forward."
Registration opened on January 26, and by the May 8 deadline Urban Re:Vision had more than 120 entries—including one from Italian architects who offered only a handwritten note damning the endeavor as "misguided," as Greenan puts it. That month, the panel of renowned judges—which included Freed, Palleroni, Pliny Fisk (a sustainable-architecture pioneer who now teaches landscape architecture and engineering at Texas A&M University) and two principals from Architecture for Humanity—gathered in San Francisco to pore over the applications. Greenan and Brown joined them and were appropriately terrified: What if they all sucked? Freed recalls that Greenan just sat there, silent and unnoticed.
"It's like throwing a party," Freed says. "You're worried no one will show up and all the entries will stink. The opposite, though, has been true for all of these competitions. It's hard to decide. There are a lot of carbs everywhere—pastries and doughnuts and bagels—and you feel sick already, but we project the entries onto a wall and go through them bit by bit, and it's clear everyone's yes or no for 90 percent of the entries right away. And 10 percent of them catch the eye of one or two jurors, and we put them in the pile. Then we go through them again. And again. And again. And we do that five, six times. It's a system that's tedious, but it works. And you're left at the end of the day saying, 'I want to submit something now,' you're so charged with ideas and solutions."
With little fanfare, at the end of May the winners were announced, along with three honorable mentions and other special-award favorites the judges deemed revolutionary but ultimately impractical. From Portugal came a building called Forwarding Dallas, which is "modeled after one of the most diverse systems in nature, the hillside"—as evidenced by its myriad peaks and valleys covered in greenery. From San Francisco came the slightly more conventional-looking Greenways Xero Energy, where "community gardens, vertical farming and water capture are at the basis of the community unit." And from Charlotte, North Carolina, came the Entangled Bank, a high-rise containing everything from a spa to a slow-food eatery to "a green roof with vegetation and a sky pasture to sustain 'Dexter' livestock that require less dietary consumption and can thrive on pastures where other cattle would starve."
The paperwork submitted with the sketches provides a glimpse into the personality of the buildings. Xero was short on specifics but long on generalities: "The XERO district is focused on urban architecture and food." Forwarding Dallas' designers waxed philosophical ("All sustainable projects have to be a compromise between what we receive and what we deliver to others, so in more than one sense we are Forwarding Dallas") and, c'mon, really? ("The northeast façade is made of prefabricated thick, high thermal mass, straw walls"). And Entangled Bank—easily the most far-reaching of the projects, with its organic grocery and holistic medical center—suggested both an experiment in living and...well, just an experiment. Concerning the creation of an Environmental Learning Lab and Nutritional Institute, the architects and designers wrote, "Subjects to be researched and shared with the community..." Say what now?
"One of the things that's great about this idea is that it's not great for everybody," says Brad Bartholomew at Little, the North Carolina firm responsible for Entangled Bank, so named for Charles Darwin's notion that everything depends on everything else to survive. "Everybody's experience in the Bank won't be the same, but there will always be an interaction. The key is everyone has his role, and it's important to the overall success of the Bank. The Bank is intended to be constantly changing, just like in nature. There are entangled banks in nature with birds and organisms and earthworms. They live and die and regenerate and work and do all these different things like we all do, but each one contributes to that bank growing."
It's talk like that that probably scares off the casual observer—and also the fact that every for-profit development pitched in the last two years has gone belly-up, leaving the city pockmarked with moonscapes foreclosed on by anxious banks fed up with waiting. If those with money can't make a go of their European crossroads, such as the Glen at Preston Hollows project promised for Walnut Hill Lane and North Central Expressway, or their mini Manhattans, like the one stillborn near the Galleria Dallas, then how in the world will a nonprofit make a go of a highfalutin hilltop in the shadow of City Hall?
From the moment we first mentioned the competition on Unfair Park in December, the comments were ruthless: As in: "I'm thinking all the amenities: several dive bars, a needle gallery motel, plus a small Mexican grocery stinking of raw organ meats with a prominent lotto business and Big Butt Mamas magazine. Maybe a run-down Indian buffet where the curry gives a man the trots. In short, a full-on 'loaf-live-vomit' development." And: "Wouldn't you be able to smell City Hall if you lived next door?" By the time we began posting images of the winners, the knives had been well-sharpened: "It'll never work without millions of taxpayer dollars to sustain it—Dexter livestock and all. Tell me that's not where the 'developers' are going with this steaming pile." And: "Hideous in the extreme—all three finalists!"
Greenan and Brown know how the natives feel about the project. Of course, that's if the natives heard of it at all, because the truth is, outside of the Observer's blog and a handful of Web sites devoted to green issues and architecture, the Re:Vision Dallas project has received little mention in the mainstream media. Maybe that's because no one thinks it'll ever get done for whatever reason—it's too expensive or too foolhardy or just too "pie-in-the-sky," as Greenan says, echoing others' comments. Or maybe it's because Central Dallas Community Development Corp. is a nonprofit.
"And Dallas doesn't believe in the capacity of the nonprofit to do anything significant," says Greenan, who, during this interview, sits next to Brown at a small conference table at the front of Central Dallas Community Development Corp.'s Main Street storefront in Deep Ellum.
Brown picks up the conversation: "If you put in a for-profit development, and they said they would come out to do this, what would be the perspective then? They would have a spread in the paper. For us, the day you move in is when the success happens."
"There are imaginary projects that get front-page spreads at least in the business section in The Dallas Morning News," Greenan says. "If we had come in December with a set of conceptual plans and lots of pretty pictures and said, 'Look at this wonderful thing we are going to build,' everyone would have said, 'Look at what they are going to build.' But instead, when you say, 'We don't know what we are going to do build yet, we've got do research, run the competition, run designs and figure out the economic support,' gee, that's boring. That's like studying health-care options."
But, at the moment, that's precisely what's going on behind the scenes: research and number-crunching. Greenan, who's days away from opening Citywalk@Akard and moving a few formerly homeless into their new domiciles next door to affordable-housing pioneers, has relegated this task to The Real Estate Council, which has spread the duties amongst some 20 professionals divided up into teams—for instance, a site-analysis team, a finance team, an energy and engineering team, and a construction and budgeting team—donating their time to the project. Ann Allison says that for the last two months, engineers, architects, attorneys and construction company execs pored over the three finalists' plans, discerning the plausible from the impossible from the outright insane. In other words: There will be no Dexter cattle on the sky pastures of Entangled Bank, so sorry, Brad.
"These teams must come up with a feasible, doable project that will exist appropriately in Dallas and appeal to a market and fulfill the sustainability goals of the project," Allison says. "It's a grand experiment to apply a lot of green building principles to a single project. This is green building on steroids."
That said, Allison says what Greenan and Brown won't: Of the three finalists, Xero so far looks unworkable, while Forwarding Dallas and Entangled Bank have issues that could be solved in short order. (Sorry, Forwarding Dallas, no straw walls.) In November, Allison says, all three winning teams will pay a visit to The Real Estate Council's LBJ Freeway offices, where the volunteer army will grill them one final time before submitting their recommendations to Greenan and Brown. At that point, they will decide when—and how—to move forward with one of the winning entries or, perhaps, a mash-up consisting of elements of all three.
"They're kind of like children, in a way," Freed says when asked to pick a favorite. "There are parts of each I really love. I can almost imagine a fourth scheme that encompasses pieces of all three. It's really tough. I am fortunate in that I don't have to pick. John and Brent have the unenviable task of having to pick, not only based on architecture but budget, and that's important. But I really love the pedestrian plan of Xero. Forwarding Dallas is very scalable. And the Entangled Bank is striking, a beautiful building. At this point I'd be happy if any of those three are built."
First things first: They must buy the parking lot from Chavez Properties, which once owned the land upon which the city is constructing its convention center hotel. But where will the money come from? Grants, says Freed, and perhaps even some Recovery Act dough from the feds: "The timing," he says, "couldn't be better." And it will be constructed much the same way Citywalk@Akard was done, with millions in low-income housing tax credits and city money and foundation dough and bank loans. Freed and Greenan also hope companies looking to test their latest and greatest water-saving, energy-making doodads and gewgaws would consider donating them to the cause—the greater good and all that.
Karen Zarsky in Austin, who began as a facilitator for Re:Vision Dallas and wound up submitting an entry that did not place among the finalists, looks 200 miles up the road and thinks the project can become a reality, but only if Greenan and Brown can negotiate City Hall, which has offered support but little else to this point. She points to the need for private-public partnerships and the dangers involved when negotiating daydreams with code inspectors.
"I hope this effort is not done in vain, but there are some very lofty objectives here, and there's a large amount of due diligence necessary," she says. "I sure hope it works, because it's imperative to put precedent-setting work on the ground, and Dallas is a great place to do it for all kinds of reasons."
Greenan says he wants to break ground by no later than January 2011, which seems like forever from now—yet another reason the nonbelievers hiss and giggle upon the mention of the project.
"But this just might be the right time to do it, because of the economic situation with our country and the political dialogue" concerning sustainable developments, Brown says. "It's the perfect storm. Folks think it's pie-in-the-sky, sure, but there is a lot of energy. We are getting things finalized. This is the next project. It's right there, ready to happen."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.