In Dal­las, de­sign choices are ev­ery­one’s busi­ness

Your city says some­thing about your val­ues, ac­com­plish­ments and as­pi­ra­tions,

The Dallas Morning News - - World / From The Front Page - Roger Har­ris is an ar­chi­tect in Dal­las. He wrote this col­umn for The Dal­las Morn­ing News. Roger Har­ris says

Over much of the last five years, I was in­volved as a neigh­bor­hood rep­re­sen­ta­tive on a mu­nic­i­pal in­fra­struc­ture project in North Dal­las, the $50 mil­lion re­place­ment of the ag­ing Wal­crest wa­ter reser­voir by Dal­las Wa­ter Util­i­ties.

Ini­tially my con­cern was the neg­a­tive im­pact this 150,000­square­foot struc­ture would surely have on my neigh­bor­hood.

There was merit in that con­cern, but it soon be­came ap­par­ent that choices could be made to not only min­i­mize that neg­a­tive im­pact, but per­haps im­prove upon the ex­ist­ing con­di­tion.

And while the some­times tense coali­tion of City Coun­cil mem­bers, plan com­mis­sion­ers, Dal­las Wa­ter Util­i­ties and neigh­bor­hood rep­re­sen­ta­tives did ac­com­plish some im­prove­ment, for me the ex­pe­ri­ence rep­re­sents a lost op­por­tu­nity for the neigh­bor­hood and the city

Con­trast this ex­pe­ri­ence with an­other mu­nic­i­pal project: a salt shed (a build­ing for stor­ing road salt) in the Hud­son Square neigh­bor­hood of New York City.

Like the Dal­las project, this san­i­ta­tion depart­ment project in­cluded in­put from elected of­fi­cials, de­sign con­sul­tants and the neigh­bor­hood. But it also had help from men­tors, crit­ics and cham­pi­ons.

A for­mer mem­ber of that com­mis­sion pushed back on early de­signs as not good enough. This was a mu­nic­i­pal project that was el­e­vated by a de­sire to make the city bet­ter.

The re­sults? A project within bud­get that does what it’s sup­posed to do, and that also won mul­ti­ple city, state and na­tional de­sign awards.

So, what hap­pened in Dal­las?

Two coun­cil mem­bers took an in­ter­est in our project, and one re­mains en­gaged. Plan com­mis­sion­ers at­tended meet­ings and were gen­er­ally re­spon­sive, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all nearby neigh­bor­hoods were ini­tially in­volved. And of course, there were pro­fes­sional de­sign con­sul­tants.

All the play­ers were there, but the re­quired de­sign lead­er­ship was not.

The neigh­bors voiced un­der­stand­able con­cerns, but elected of­fi­cials and neigh­bors alike ap­peared to have lit­tle in­ter­est in the ac­tual de­sign.

In fact, lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of de­sign. Add low ex­pec­ta­tions and wan­ing in­ter­est to the mix, and you get a project that might not em­bar­rass, but will not lift up the city.

I used to won­der whether the project might be Dal­las’ salt shed. Now I’m think­ing it may be just Dal­las.

Why should you care? Be­cause your city says some­thing about you — your val­ues, your ac­com­plish­ments, your as­pi­ra­tions. And the city you see speaks loudly.

Dal­las is not blessed with nat­u­ral won­ders. We don’t have a coast­line or moun­tains on the hori­zon, nor do we have much re­main­ing ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage to speak of. We need all the help we can get if we are to over­come the ob­sta­cles of our lo­ca­tion and lin­eage.

Sig­na­ture bridges and Klyde War­rens may pro­pel us in­cre­men­tally for­ward, but with ev­ery missed op­por­tu­nity the ratchet slips and we fall be­hind.

We may never over­come the head start of cities like New York, Chicago or San Francisco, but we shouldn’t keep giv­ing ground to cities like Hous­ton or At­lanta, Fort Worth or Des Moines.

If that’s to change, you must un­der­stand and em­brace the fact that you de­sign Dal­las. With your good in­put and your bad, with your ac­tion and your in­ac­tion, you set the bar. You are the men­tor, the critic, the cham­pion, if not di­rectly, then through the rep­re­sen­ta­tives you choose or ac­cept.

Get in­volved if you have the time and the tal­ent, or de­mand rep­re­sen­ta­tives who can lead the de­sign or seek out ex­per­tise. Chal­lenge them to choose the most ca­pa­ble and mo­ti­vated de­sign con­sul­tants and to push back if the de­sign is not good enough.

Elect a mayor or coun­cil mem­ber or choose a com­mit­tee mem­ber who makes de­sign qual­ity a higher pri­or­ity not just for sig­na­ture projects, but for all projects. Reser­voirs, side­walks, land­scap­ing and util­ity poles — ev­ery el­e­ment of our built en­vi­ron­ment is an op­por­tu­nity, and ev­ery good de­sign de­ci­sion el­e­vates our city. You de­sign Dal­las, and Dal­las needs your best work.

Staff Photo

Cit­i­zens set the bar for good de­sign in Dal­las through their in­put and through their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, says Roger Har­ris.

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