The problem with districts

A San Francisco Chronicle article today applauds the “lively urban village” feel of a Jewish-themed mixed-use development in that city. But urban design writer John King says the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life is also “the latest local example of how when swaths of a city are rebuilt, the outer edge is the toughest part of the job”.

It’s a problem all too apparent in Dallas, where I live. This weekend the city trumpeted the opening of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, a vast leap forward in creating the city’s arts district. There’s little doubt that with this addition, including an opera house by Norman Foster and theater by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, Dallas now boasts a district of impressive architectural quality. But what about the edges? So far there is little to draw downtown pedestrians (what few there are) into the arts district – and even less to draw them out.

The best thing about the San Francisco campus is its mix of uses, King writes. The development converted a 100-foot tower surrounded by parking lots – the former Sun Microsystems headquarters – into a dozen or so buildings accommodating senior housing, a preschool and a community center.

“The problems lie where the new meets the old,” King writes. “Infill is a smart way to grow as our cities mature. The challenge for architects and planners is to make it neighborly as well.”

What are the prospects, then, for dedicated districts in urban infill areas? If the district has a dedicated purpose such as culture, it may be more difficult for its forms and uses to bleed into and mingle with surrounding neighborhoods. Dallas arts district plans do call for a mix of uses including housing. When the recovery comes, it will be interesting to see how this “blend and bleed” is achieved.

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