Reviving an Historic District in Downtown Dallas

Context

An historic district in downtown Dallas, Texas that traditionally drew it vitality from tourism was struggling with 40% leasing vacancies, diminishing retail amenities, reduced tourism interest and an unengaged resident community.

Challenge

How to assist a neighborhood as it struggled to recapture the positive allure of its past achievements while simultaneously building a more sustainable and livable model of development not solely based on scarce and unreliable economic leavers.

Methods

Secondary Research
Ethnographic Interviews
Stakeholder Observations
Future Casting
Scenario Building

A resource workbook that provided contextualized research findings and strategic analysis, aspirational narratives envisioned to spark and frame community focused revitalization efforts, and specific suggestions for direct ‘ground-level’ interventions and activities. The workbook was created as a resource, catalyst and guide for all West End stakeholders.
Primary Objectives

1. To understand and then take action to address the unique civic revitalization needs of a designated historic district in Dallas, “The Historic West End.” Located immediately west of Dallas’ downtown business district, the area was struggling to recapture the positive allure of its past achievements while attempting to build a more sustainable future.

2. To invent, refine and codify a design-driven model of urban research, engagement and action that was flexible (i.e., generalizable) enough for use by other downtown Dallas districts.

3. To attempt to answer a simple but significant educational research question: Could graduate students—both designers and non-designers—without backgrounds in urban planning come to understand challenges inherent in a real civic problem, and then invent viable solutions to them?

Research Process

Research entailed a multi-stage process composed of nine interdependent phases. The research focused on contextual, historical and ethnographic discovery. Student investigators discovered that the district was laden with challenges that typically confront struggling neighborhoods: uneven use and living mix, high vacancy rates, and the costs associated with offering amenities tailored to diverse user groups (visitors, residents, workers and college students). These combined with stakeholders possessing no unified vision (or ways to invent one) regarding the district’s possible future(s). This fragmented self-awareness retarded efforts to thoughtfully account for physical and human resources, confused public perception about the district, and dissipated any efforts to create an authentic and inclusive rallying point around which the district’s stakeholders could unite.

Research Outcomes

Without relying on traditional urban planning scenarios predicated solely on brute physicality — e.g., infrastructure, economic footprint, transportation — students employed innovative strategy: recasting the West End as an experience rather than a place. The district became an ongoing, evolving ‘event’ shaped by interactions between the totality of its built environment and the unique dispositions of the district’s diverse user groups. This strategy led the students to create three distinct, aspirational narratives that shaped their experiential approach and its corresponding solutions. Thus, the final solutions offered were not only tailored to address the district’s current civic needs, but also sparked new thinking about the district’s possible futures.

Response 1
The Historic West End as Dallas’ Front Porch

An economically driven metropolis focused on the horizon, Dallas long ago plowed over much of its history and its founding culture. Constant progress, while welcome, has led the city away from the best of its authentic roots. This scenario reframed the Historic West End as the city’s ‘front porch’ — the living embodiment of the Dallas’ history and a physical and cultural bridge between its storied past, vital present and imagined future.

Response 3
The Historic West End as Connection

Connections are the essence of belonging and welcome. Once made, they can live, grow and create feelings of pride, place, and purpose. In this scenario, the thoughtful use of technology would enable the West End to become a place of connections: between past and present, place and people, memories past and those of the moment. Technology would help the Historic West End create a living history in which every visitor and resident knows they belong to a greater story.

Research Documentation

The West End Workbook provided contextualized research findings, strategic direction, and was presented to stakeholders as a playbook for community focused revitalization efforts. A copy of the West End Workbook can be downloaded here (60 MB).

Measurable Outcomes

1. The district was presented with an extensive workbook that contained hundreds of ideas for pilot projects all logically derived from, and categorized by, the three aspirational narratives. These ideas could be implemented as presented or function as catalysts for the district stakeholders’ own thinking and aspirations.

2. The workbook also contained sections that documented the research and innovation processes employed by student investigators. These sections explicated a meta-level, contextually transferable working model that other Dallas districts could easily adapt to their own, unique civic challenges.

3. The project gave strong credence to the idea that when designers and non-designers work collaboratively and unfettered by strict disciplinary boundaries, refreshing new insights and innovative outcomes can result.