Monday, October 7, 2013

Victory Elusive in Dallas High-Rise Project

It's easy to see.

It's clean, safe, modern, and located next to a glitzy downtown business district.  Its main attraction is a popular indoor arena serving major league basketball and hockey franchises.  A ten-lane interstate freeway runs alongside it, and it boasts quick access to other well-traveled freeways.

It has a trendy W hotel, hundreds of luxury apartments in a handful of mid-rise and high-rise towers, a couple of nightclubs that attract big-name celebrities, and plazas designed to host large-scale public events.  It anchors one end of a heavily-used hike-and-bike trail.  And all of it is less than twenty years old.

And a lot of people consider it to be a failure.

What is it?  And where is it?

It's Victory Park, a multi-purpose urban village in Dallas, Texas, conceived in 1998 and executed by some of the city's most powerful and successful real estate developers and businessmen.  It was supposed to provide a luxurious lifestyle at its urban - and urbane - best.  Yet this week, Dallas' city council will be officially reviewing plans for $100 million in upgrades to what was already a high-cost, high-profile, high-class project in America's ninth-largest city.

Taxpayers are being asked to foot three percent of the cost for those upgrades.  A piffling amount, to hear Victory's backers put it.  That's for rebuilding some sidewalks and crosswalks to make them more pedestrian friendly, redoing some stormwater drains, and adding some street lights.  The official owners of Victory Park, a private company based in Germany, will pay the vast bulk of expenses, mostly in the form of new parking structures and yet another residential tower.

Even though they've still got apartments going begging in what's already been built.

Big Dreams Can Bust Big in Big D

Granted, considering everything that's been done to get Victory Park to where it is today, the development can't really be described as a complete failure.  The land upon which Victory Park has been built used to be a mucky industrial brownfield where a power station used to be, sandwiched between the sprawling parking lot we call Interstate 35 and the once-gritty McKinney Avenue neighborhood.

Today, that 'hood just east of Victory Park has become a highly desirable urban district of expensive condominiums, boutique shops, high-rent office buildings, gourmet restaurants, the AAA's only five-diamond hotel in Dallas, and two other Forbes five-star hotels.  In other words, everything Victory Park was supposed to be.

Ross Perot Jr., son of a former presidential contender and the primary force behind Victory Park, thought he could combine the mass-market appeal of a sports arena with the gravitas of an all-new cosmopolitan village.  And he was off to a good start.  The American Airlines Center (AAC), an attractive and versatile arena paid for in part with $140 million in taxpayer funds, hosts over 200 events a year.  The neighborhood also recently scored two more big successes that have been in the planning stages for some time.  An imposing new nature museum named after and partially funded by the Perot family recently opened to rave reviews, and the city just finished constructing a lush new park - this one with real grass and trees - over a nearby freeway.

Yet all of this has happened on the fringes of - but not in - Victory Park itself.

Over the past decade and a half, as its 75 acres were being designed and built, Victory Park was supposed to do two things:  serve as Big D's answer to Times Square, yet attract Park Avenue homesteaders.  Dallas wages an interminable - and unilateral - rivalry with New York City, and sometimes it bubbles over into such giddy assumptions as social elites actually enjoying bourgeoisie seductions.  Well, it doesn't happen in Gotham, and as Dallas is learning, it's not happening here, either.

We commoners in north Texas were told by the city's big-ego developers that Dallas would finally have the sophisticated, irresistible mecca over which visitors would crow, and to which residents would flock.  It would have jumbotrons towering over the sidewalks streaming music videos, impromptu concerts, trendy shops, the best restaurants, and people would enthusiastically rent or buy its apartments at ridiculous sums of money just to be part of it all.  Even if it meant having to share noisy, congested sidewalk space with boisterous hockey or basketball fans.

Actually, some jumbotrons did get installed, but they loom over empty fields of concrete.  The apartments got built, but similar digs are being built in fashionable neighborhoods all over town.  The pricey restaurants and shops came, too, but hardly any of them remain open today.  It's hard to get oil and water to mix, especially in a city as socially, ethnically, and economically stratified as Dallas.

So far, about $1 billion in private money has constructed a mini skyline of new residential and commercial space, but in terms of being a dynamic urban neighborhood, it's been a bust.  The crowds do come, but they surge through, on their way to or from events at the AAC.  In fact, the development's streets and sidewalks are being reconfigured in this proposed revision, not so much to attract new pedestrian traffic, but to better accommodate the sporadic demands of the arena's ticketholders.

A local television station moved their broadcast studios to Victory Park, and set up their anchor desk with one of the development's streetscapes as its backdrop.  But it's only the rare occasion when a pedestrian - or even a motorized vehicle - is seen on what could otherwise be mistaken for an oversized photograph.

Victory Park's promoters like to say that their office space is 95% leased, but not much of their development is office space anyway.  In fact, all they did was help weaken what is already a sad state of affairs across the rest of downtown Dallas, where occupancy rates have been depressed for years.  Victory Park's signature corporate tenant, an accounting firm, simply moved over a few blocks from an older downtown tower.

Some new urbanists have complained that Victory Park is cut off from most of downtown by the Woodall Rogers expressway, perpendicular to I-35, and forming the development's southern boundary.  At Victory Park, Woodall Rogers is a viaduct, sitting atop concrete columns, with parking underneath, creating what some claim is an aesthetically inferior environment for pedestrians to pass under.  The problem with this accusation is that the neighborhood immediately adjacent to Victory Park's southern border, an old warehouse district, is itself dead, making the congested freeway overhead a lively neighbor by comparison.

Remember the West End

It used to be what Victory Park was designed to be:  a bustling downtown meeting place of restaurants, shops, lofts, and even a hotel.  Except without all of the pretentiousness.  Back in the 1980's, developers successfully rechristened an aging collection of warehouses into what they called the "West End."  For a while, it was a big hit, and included a Planet Hollywood restaurant, several nightclubs, a five-plex cinema, and compact shopping mall.  Unfortunately, street gangs and roving bands of teenagers discovered it was a great place to rob unsuspecting tourists and generally make suburban locals feel uneasy about urban adventures.  Today, tourists and some downtown office workers keep the West End on life support, at least during the lunch hour.

Victory Park's developers told Dallasites that they'd learned their lessons from the West End.  Security has never been a major problem in Perot's newer development, and indeed, its sterility may be one of Victory Park's biggest problems.  Everything - from the buildings to the streets - is new and contrived.  Which makes it all formulaic and bland, with no history or local flavor.

The West End benefited from a nostalgic ambiance of old brick buildings with wooden floors and wrought-iron staircases.  Its commercial establishments also featured a variety of price points and target audiences to attract a diversity of customers, whereas Victory Park's market is strictly the affluent.

But even in Dallas, money can't buy everything.

Maybe Victory Park really is just an overblown, over-hyped apartment complex with a couple of office buildings and restaurants as filler.  In that regard, it would be no different than any number of similar projects, not just in Dallas, but in other large metropolitan areas across North America.  Doubters scoffed in 1998, and we now know:  Victory Park never will have even a fraction of the year-round vibrancy of a Times Square, or probably even a regional shopping mall.  It is what it is:  a pleasant yet uninspiring collection of new buildings that will age together as a testament to big egos and hubris flying in the face of reality.

Besides, there are probably more people in north Texas who are quite glad we've got nothing to rival Times Square than those who are disappointed that we don't.

Update, February 2015:  Interest is rising for more residential and office construction at Victory Park.

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