Nothing to see here: In a few years, Friscans can get frisky at Frisco Square. Right now, it's just a scale model.
Nothing to see here: In a few years, Friscans can get frisky at Frisco Square. Right now, it's just a scale model.
Mark Graham

Perfect Town, USA

Four decades of James Bond films have proven that I must die now. Ive seen all the secret plans, uncovered facts and figures. I now know how the evil geniuses in Frisco plan to take over the world; i.e., I know too much. So this is where the needlessly complicated murder attempt comes in. Maybe something involving a laser beam, or a shark tank. I have five minutes, at the most, to plan my escape, and Im not even wearing a tuxedo.

Luckily, my host for the day is not a megalomaniacal supervillain of indeterminate ethnicity, harboring a grudge and possibly a few WMDs. (I dont think.) Its an attractive woman named Debby.

Truth is, theres no scheme to take over the world by Five Star Development, the company Debby Hanson works for as director of marketing. North Texas, maybe.

Hanson is merely showing me around Frisco Square, Five Stars newest, most ambitious development, mixed-use and multigenerational. Five Star already has developed one town square project in Flower Mound, Parker Square, and several more have sprouted up in bedroom communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the past few years, most notably Southlake Town Square. But Frisco Square--the company line goes--is bigger and better than the others, less about quality of retail than quality of life. Though, of course, quality of retail is still very important.

They might be right. Frisco Square is located just beyond where the Dallas North Tollway meets state Highway 121, a 4 million-square-foot community full of pretty parks and tree-lined streets with garden medians, stores that were meant for window shopping and the best restaurants around. Not to mention gorgeous townhomes and the kind of turn-of-the-century architecture that makes men want to wear bowties and fedoras. Frisco's new city hall is there as well, near the church and library, giving it the anchor a real old-fashioned town square needs. And the town square--like the newborn ones in Southlake and Flower Mound--gives the city a sense of history and identity it lacks, even though Frisco is 100 years old.

Frisco Square is literally and metaphorically a Five Star Development, a pedestrian-friendly plot of heaven you'd never have to leave unless you wanted to. But you probably wouldn't want to, especially since there's a concierge on-site to cater to your every whim.

Despite my initial fear of the project's too-good-to-be-true intentions (this perfect suburban development eerily mimics Cypress Creek, run by the evil mastermind Scorpio in a famous episode of The Simpsons), it's clear the only danger is that another generation of boys might be saddled with the name Opie. The most convoluted assassination attempt here is the three-hour checkers tournament at the senior center.

The tour doesn't take very long because, right now, Frisco Square fits very comfortably on a table in a leasing office and on a map on the wall. You can walk the entire thing in 10, maybe 15 seconds. Step outside that leasing office, and it's difficult to take in the scope of the project, to buy what Five Star is selling.

Because there's not much here at the moment. There are a few four-story buildings that eventually will house all kinds of retail and office tenants, with apartments above them. (A few of them have moved in already.) The first phase of townhomes is ready and waiting, and some have even been sold. The aforementioned senior center recently opened on the premises. Everything else is under construction or still on the map.

"Truly this is an urban environment," Hanson says. "It's nothing like anyone in this part of the country will know. We have a lot of people from Chicago and New York who are here. They come in and get the concept immediately. But, you know, to us suburbanites who drive everywhere, it's just a completely different concept to them." She opens up another map of the site so her visitor can see what she means, pointing to make her points. "But we really want people to feel like, you know, we want you to live down here, and your office is up here, and you'll be able to walk on the way home and check out a book at the library and sit in Frisco Square on a Thursday night and listen to live jazz...Our owner is absolutely committed to building something that is a legacy for not only his kids, but their kids and their kids."

It sounds great. Exactly the kind of small-town environment everyone involved with Frisco and Frisco Square immediately tries to conjure up when talking about the project. Reality is eight years away. It could be as many as 12. It also may never come. During its rise from sleepy suburb to Plano-sized player--with a gigantic mall, two huge sports complexes and a prodigious convention center either already there or coming soon--Frisco already may become too much of a big city to be a small town again. In 12 years, Frisco Square may be just another strip mall. You could say the same for Southlake Town Square and Parker Square.

"These kind of semi-self-contained communities are often pitched as a solution to sprawl, and I think they're really more examples of sprawl," says writer Alex Marshall, whose book How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl and the Roads Not Taken was published in 2001. He's written about, well, how cities work for the past decade. "And they tend to be kind of Trojan horses, where they allow sprawl to get in the doorway under different names.

"They also, I think, really don't work just on their own terms. They're pitched as kind of having a lot of attributes that people like about older urban communities or smaller towns. But they tend to really not function that differently than typical, conventional subdivisions...They basically just add to the problem of too much development spread out over too large of an area and too much dependence on highways. They're really more like fashion statements than a real solution to sprawl."

If sprawl is evil, then the next few years will determine if Frisco will become just another suburban villain or something unique and worthwhile: a force for good. It will determine who is telling the truth: naysayers like Marshall or people like Cole McDowell, the president of Five Star, and David M. Schwarz, the architectural vision behind the projects in Frisco, Southlake and Flower Mound, as well as the man responsible for The Ballpark at Arlington, the American Airlines Center and Bass Performance Hall, to name a few. They argue that the traditional values represented in Schwarz's past-perfect architectural nostalgia can permeate and shape an entire community, that the design of a community can influence its behavior.

There is already some evidence--Celebration, Disney's much-criticized attempt at city building in Florida that was the model for The Simpsons' Cypress Creek--that it can't. But if Schwarz and McDowell are right, the city of the future just might be the city of the past. If Marshall is, well, at least there will be a new batch of strip malls that look really pretty.

If you want to get an idea of what Frisco Square will be, drive 30 minutes west on state Highway 121 to Flower Mound, to Parker Square. That will do for now, says Dana Baird-Hanks, Frisco's director of communications, who understates that "it's kind of comparable" to the project in Frisco.

Stand at Parker Square's front entryway and you'll see a living, breathing brochure for Frisco Square. There are no townhomes, but just about everything else is here. From this angle, it really does look like a picture postcard of what most cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area want to be, missing only a "Wish you were here!" banner hovering just above the rooftops. Just forget that you had to drive through three miles of failed ambition in Lewisville to get here.

Straight ahead, streetlights lead the way like a trail of bread crumbs past two-story buildings housing office and retail space to the solid, stolid Chamber of Commerce building, basking in the sunlight as though it's just waiting for someone to pick up the key to the city. Off to the right, a copper dome with a clock tower stands sentry over the ad hoc downtown. To the left, in the middle of an emerald green lawn, is the kind of gazebo Thornton Wilder wrote plays about. Today, a mom and grandma push a baby in a stroller while another youngster toddles along behind them. Nothing evil about it.

No detail has gone overlooked: David M. Schwarz's designs were meant to invoke the kind of old-fashioned downtown Flower Mound never had, and they do so to an almost fetishistic degree. Brick crosswalks meet you at every intersection, and scattered throughout Parker Square are benches where you can sit and visit for a spell. Vintage-looking fixtures adorn every building, each one constructed with varied brick styles and patterns, as though each had a separate birth. The illusion is that Parker Square grew organically over a few decades. Since it's so freshly scrubbed and new, the criticism often leveled against Schwarz's work--that it's more of a stage set than a town--carries some weight.

But Schwarz's style is exactly what Cole McDowell wanted when he hired Schwarz to design Parker Square. The president of Five Star Development and a Flower Mound resident, McDowell wanted to create a focal point for his community, give it a place to build a sense of history around...and to buy a pair of pants, maybe a nice plate of enchiladas. Build it and they will come and all of that. Flower Mound didn't have much else in that regard, since it was incorporated in 1961 and only recently had to think about what it wants to be when it grows up.

"These suburban communities that were little farm towns 30 years ago have been overrun by housing and land development," McDowell says. He founded Five Star in 1997 after spending the previous 15 years in real estate, building more than 1,000 single-family homes. "In most cases, the city planners and councils have not planned for a downtown. And so they're left with no image except a major intersection with grocery stores on each corner."

In short, he wanted the kind of town square that doesn't really exist anymore, even in places where it sort of does. Look at McKinney. Its old-fashioned town square is essentially a tombstone for the way of life McDowell talks about. The old courthouse, reconstructed in 1927 and currently being reconstructed again as a community arts center set to open in fall 2005, is surrounded on all sides by a dozen antique stores. Yes, there are tree-lined streets, brick crosswalks, office space and retail, restaurants and soda fountains. But they only reinforce the musty, antique atmosphere of the place. The McKinney Community Development Corp. is trying to resurrect the district, but it might be merely giving a face-lift to a corpse. As the low-rider truck pumping 2Pac proves, this is a different time in McKinney.

In Flower Mound, Parker Square pretends it isn't. Since it opened in 1999, Parker Square has given Flower Mound both tradition and traditional retail. Its Holiday Stroll on the Square events--with Christmas carolers in Victorian getups, Dickens plays being staged at the gazebo and over-the-top lighting displays by area businesses--bring in just about everyone in the city. Judging by today's turnout, the restaurants and retail keep them coming back throughout the year. Why wouldn't they? At just past noon on a lazy Friday in March, the sky is blue, the grass is green, the air is cool and the shopping is fabulous.

"It's been a great benefit for the community," says Jim Lang, Flower Mound's director of economic development. "I mean, everybody loves it."

Still, there's something about the place that feels artificial, and it's not necessarily the fiberglass benches that dot the terrain. It's not the parking lot filled to the brim with so many Explorers and jacked-up Lexuses that it comes across as either a playground for bored soccer moms or an SUV dealership. It's not the fact that one of the first businesses you see upon arriving is a laser skin center, the bread and butter of most strip malls. It's not even the multiple signs that warn: "No bikes, skateboards or roller blades," sucking the fun out of the place.

It's that, just down the street, seemingly in polar opposition to what's going on at Parker Square and everything Schwarz and McDowell believe in, there is The Highlands of Flower Mound, a well-to-do strip center that opened in February and is anchored by a Super Target. Across the street from The Highlands, another big commercial development is planned: Highlands Ranch, a 34-acre shopping center built around a Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, a Western-themed spot complete with cattle guards and stone-strewn streams. Both projects will add 1 million square feet of commercial retail to the area and continue the big-box retail trend that projects like Parker Square supposedly should curb. It's clear from this that though Flower Mound's city planners appreciate Parker Square, it's not exactly what they're developing their city around. It's just another shopping center.

"We like to encourage the special projects that bring high quality," Lang says. "But that's a very general statement. I mean, you have to really look at each thing coming up...I hesitate to make that general statement, because then it sounds like, you know, we don't want Outback Steakhouse. Well, we do, actually."

It's a mess, really, if you look at it on paper. Even if you look at it in person. The attempts by Frisco's planners and developers to give the new-old city an identity and, just as important, a healthy tax base sound great. Individually. But when you put them together they don't quite fit, as though someone mixed up two boxes of jigsaw puzzle pieces, or stuck a white picket fence around Deep Ellum.

Think about it: A couple of miles away from Frisco Square is the Stonebriar Centre, the biggest, most active mall in North Texas. It's arguably a city unto itself, especially when you factor in all of the ancillary developments that have emerged in its shadow. Next door is a $300 million sports complex that includes the Dr Pepper/Seven Up Ballpark (the David M. Schwarz-designed home of the Texas Rangers' Double-A affiliate the Frisco RoughRiders) and the Dr Pepper StarCenter (home of the Texas Tornado, a Junior League hockey team, and a training facility for the Dallas Stars). Just up the road is a 115,000-square-foot convention center ready to go in April 2005. And just across Main Street from Frisco Square, the Dallas Burn's new stadium and soccer complex (with 17 additional fields) is set to open next year.

This doesn't even include the new hotels and office parks that are in the works, or the extension to the tollway that will open now that the state Highway 121 interchange is complete. Or, for that matter, Frisco Square.

When it is all said and done, an almost entirely new city will stand just to the left of where the old one used to be, and it'll be as big and powerful as any city, outside of Dallas and Fort Worth, in North Texas. Which will make it tough to maintain a small-town environment while incorporating the amenities of a big city, the stated goal of Frisco Square. "We laugh because a lot of people used to consider 121 sort of the edge of the earth," Hanson says. Frisco Square alone will be "one-third the size of downtown Fort Worth," she adds. "You know, it's huge."

This big, ambitious development had its serendipitous birth in the late 1990s. McDowell had started working on a residential development in Frisco; about the same time, the city was trying to decide what it wanted to do with the acreage it had bought and earmarked for its new city hall, how it possibly could lay out a new downtown around the building. City Manager George Purefoy served as a bridge between the separate projects. He had seen what was going on in Southlake and Flower Mound, and he thought something similar would work in Frisco. Together with city planning director John Lettellier, they began preliminary discussions. Eventually, Schwarz was brought in to start working on development standards and site layouts. All of this was strongly encouraged by then-Mayor Kathy Seei.

"The mayor looked at [the sprawl and overdone residential developments] happening in Plano and said, 'I don't want this to happen to Frisco. I want my town to develop differently. And I want to keep some of the values of the original place,'" Schwarz says.

Lettellier agreed. He'd been a city planner in Plano and knew the potential pitfalls that lay ahead for the growing city, how explosive growth can have explosive results. After more than a year of meetings, the concept of Frisco Square was born. Lettellier and the various city offices set about the task of figuring out how they wanted to raise it.

"They were open to the concept of traditional town development--new urbanism. They saw the value in it," Lettellier says of the city council and zoning and planning commissions. "They saw what's happening in Southlake. We visited Celebration in Florida, did a lot of research from these type of developments, and the city was very comfortable in trying to do something like that."

In November 2001, the city officially broke ground on Frisco Square, the $600 million, 4 million-square-foot development that will contain all of the city's offices, as well as a library, church, police station, senior center and dozens of parks and gardens, plus high-end apartments and townhomes. Schwarz came up with the master plan and is designing some of the buildings. With Frisco growing at an exponential rate--according to the U.S. Census, it's the fastest-growing city in Texas and one of the fastest-growing in the country--McDowell's plan was for the 100-year-old city to start fresh. With so many new faces in Frisco, it was a fine time to try, and Frisco Square is the right place to do it.

"The vision is about building community pride and a sense of place," McDowell says. "I believe in building more than just financially viable office and retail developments. If you create the density and project tenant mix that keeps people from retreating to their cars to go to lunch or the dry cleaners, if you provide a venue for people to gather together for special events, then you get to know your neighbors. That's how you create community."

Celebration, the "city" Disney opened for business in 1996, tried the same thing. A residential development 30 miles outside downtown Orlando, Celebration was designed to mirror a pre-World War II small town. It was to be a model for how a town should work, where people knew their neighbors and everything was in walking distance: stores, city services, entertainment, whatever. It would be racially and financially diverse, less a community than another Magic Kingdom.

Celebration turned out to be as white as a sheet of paper and just about as blank. Residents didn't sit on their front porches visiting with neighbors; they sat inside watching television. People still used their cars because they had to: The stores on Market Street seemed to cater more to tourists than to Celebration's citizens. The city was too insulated, and Disney and the "town fathers"--the city's informal leadership committee--were too controlling. As Bill Potts, a retired home builder and father of one of Celebration's disgruntled residents, says at the end of Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney's Brave New Town, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins' 1999 book documenting the community's first three years: "[Disney] may be able to build an amusement park, but they can't build a town." A sense of community developed in Celebration, but it was in spite of the town's planners, not because of them. The same thing could happen to Frisco Square, says writer Alex Marshall.

"Because they're built around the car and they really have to be for people to have access to them, then the normal routine of daily life really doesn't change very much usually," Marshall says. "People usually still have to drive to get to the supermarket. It's very difficult to get any kind of commerce going in these places, because for a store to work, they need exposure to traffic. So, you can't have a town square in the middle of a subdivision be successful commercially. You just don't have the density. You don't have enough traffic, so they tend to be problematic.

"The neo-traditional subdivisions outside of town...I'm pretty skeptical of," he continues. "They tend to say that they are a return to traditional small towns, but I think it's kind of fake. Traditional small towns don't stand for exclusivity or privatization. These subdivisions, they're typically governed by a homeowners' association. That's not a real town; that's a private real estate venture. Basically, they tend to be just another subdivision, but they tend to try to hide that."

Frisco Square is managed by a homeowners' association; it's a selling point, in fact, a way to attract people who want the maintenance-free lifestyle the homeowners' association will ensure. And Frisco Square's price structure naturally guarantees exclusivity: The homes range from 2,900 to 4,200 square feet with prices as high as $500,000. The apartments aren't much cheaper, and with their granite countertops and high-end fixtures, they can't be. Lower-price-point homes are next on the agenda, Hanson says, but don't expect them to be that much lower.

So you won't have to worry about who's living next door to you at Frisco Square. They'll be well-off, upper-middle to lower-upper, just like you. They might even make good neighbors. And McDowell may yet succeed at building a community where he's building his development. Most likely not the one he's selling.

If you want an even better idea of what Frisco Square eventually will be, get back on state Highway 121 and drive another 30 minutes west and south, and you'll end up in Southlake. This is where the model for mixed-use developments exists. Literally. Southlake Town Square is on the cover of the Urban Land Institute's Mixed-Use Development Handbook, a how-to guide for city planners.

It's not Frisco Square, either. Not exactly, not yet. But it's closer to it than Parker Square is: After a protracted dispute with the city and some of its residents, Cooper & Stebbins--the project's developer--is building its first phase of 29 brownstones around Southlake Town Square (35 people are on the waiting list to buy one), with a second phase of 39 following soon after. The number eventually will be 155.

Once the new homes are in place, the development will be much more comparable to Frisco Square, the kind of place where, ideally, you can live, work, shop and play. Right now, three out of four ain't bad.

On a Friday afternoon, Southlake Town Square looks exactly like the photo on the cover of ULI's handbook. The imposing columns of Southlake's red-brick courthouse overlook a cozy park with a pair of fountains and dozens of children at play. A grandmother and her grandson share a snowcone. Another kid shares a scoop of ice cream with his shirt. The demographics are perfect--multiple ages, races, the whole bit.

More so than Parker Square, Southlake Town Square is a real mall, only with a courthouse as the main anchor store. Tenants include The Gap, Eddie Bauer, Bath & Body Works, Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and, of course, a Starbucks. It's slightly upscale, but then, so is Southlake. It's as though someone chopped the top off NorthPark and made it a convertible.

Once again, Schwarz's hand is evident right away: another mess of nostalgic storefronts, separate but equal, different but the same. This is what suburban cities look like, if you forget 60 years of history. Or that none of this was here a decade ago.

Today, it's bustling. You have to circle a bit to find a parking space, and even then, you have to engage in a bit of defensive driving to get it. When you circle, however, the most distressing aspect of Southlake Town Square pops up: The development already has an adjacent strip center, a one-story complex around back called The West Side District. Euphemisms aside, it's a strip mall. But whatever.

"For Southlake it creates a downtown core that we did not have," says Greg Last, the city's director of economic development. Since it opened in 1999, he's given tours to city leaders from all over the country, most recently the mayor of San Antonio. "In order to hold a homecoming parade, we had to go to Grapevine and borrow Main Street. When Town Square was finished, they had their first homecoming parade actually in Southlake. It was phenomenal--people pushing baby carriages and kids in the parade and bands playing and antique cars going down the road."

Southlake had an instant history. Thanks in large part to Schwarz, it doesn't seem so short-lived. This is why many of his critics accuse him of being little more than a nostalgia rapist, pilfering from the past to create his vision. Instead of lending authenticity, they say, it adds the fakeness of which Marshall speaks.

Schwarz believes he's doing things the right way and doing right by the people and cities that hire him. In Frisco, in Flower Mound and here in Southlake, there is a development war going on, and he wants to be on the winning side.

"There are those people who are building big-box retail in a fashion that defeats pedestrianism," Schwarz says from his Washington, D.C., office. "It doesn't even deny it--it defeats it, makes it impossible and really locks you into development patterns that have been postwar development patterns throughout the Sun Belt. And there are those forces that are pushing to look at Texas traditions of towns from the 1890s until some time in the 1940s and say, you know, Texas has a great tradition of pedestrianism and town-building and actually has some of the finest towns in the United States, I think, and trying to build on that."

Barb Cominoli has already drunk the Kool-Aid that Frisco Square is offering, so to speak. The company she works for, Quantum Custom Homes, is one of the companies that has signed on to build homes in the development. Quantum believes in the project so much, it doesn't sell homes anywhere else. Cominoli is, let's just say, enthusiastic.

"That's where we want to be," Cominoli says. "We've decided that we want to be a part of that community, and we've got both feet in there. We're staying for the long haul! It's getting back to where neighbors know neighbors. Kids can play stickball in the street. The neighbors are on the stoop and hi-de-ho and having a barbecue. It's everybody being around in a community, being able to sit in parks together and take long walks to the library, and you can walk to a restaurant and meet your friends and walk back home and not have to keep driving in your car and messing with traffic."

If Marshall is correct, you would have to keep driving. But that doesn't deter Cominoli; if this were a Bond movie, she would be the Oddjob to McDowell's Auric Goldfinger, making sure everything goes according to plan, keeping everyone on message. Except she's not sinister, just committed. Nor does it bother people who have no real business interest in Frisco Square. Residents such as Lisa Feldman, who bought a townhome in December 2002 and is one of what Debby Hanson calls the "true pioneers...willing to live without landscaping and sidewalks because they see the potential."

Feldman is here for "what it will hopefully be in three to five years. I'm originally from back East, and my boyfriend is more of a downtown person, so we were hoping to get the downtown feel but in Frisco and not have to pay the downtown prices."

That this downtown feel is achieved to this point in what is largely a suburban field does not deter true believers like Feldman. One or two days a week, she baby-sits one of the model homes on the property, selling the space to potential residents. At the moment, she has only five neighbors.

Hanson and Five Star know that number won't stay so low for long. When things get up and running and people see how it really works, there won't be enough room for all the people who want to live and work and shop and play at Frisco Square.

"I think it will flip-flop depending on the person, but I think you'll get somebody who offices in here and maybe drives 10 or 15 minutes every day and says, 'This is crazy when I could live in Frisco Square and walk to my office,'" Hanson says. "Same for--we have a lot of retailers that would love to live above their retail space, which is a concept that is not unknown in New York or Chicago or any other city. I think it will just really depend on the amount of buildings that are here."

And not necessarily how the buildings look, either. McDowell wants a 1920s-style town center whether it ends up looking like one or not. He just needs a place for the traditions to start.

"Yankee Stadium is not necessarily a great feat of architectural vision," McDowell says. "But if you ask people about it who live in the community, they will tell you that it is. That's because it's been there for so long that they have memories tied to it. That's the business I want to be in."


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