Hot Spots

Hot Spots

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Contributed by:
Marcel Quimby
FAIA

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Hot Spots: Emerging Neighborhoods Make Dallas Stronger

Dallas is experiencing a most remarkable growth of its inner city and close-in neighborhoods. It is, in fact, the greatest growth in a generation. The benefits are plentiful and evident: an influx of younger residents; more housing (including affordable, two-income family units); greater appearance of retail; and a general viability and vibrancy of street life that has been lacking and sorely missed. However, the most remarkable (and rewarding) result has been the emergence of small restaurant, retail, and entertainment districts that bring life to the neighborhoods. These are the “hot spots” of the future.

The city has always had neighborhood shopping areas—from the many small, unnamed trolley stops of the 1920s and 1930s to the large, established centers such as Highland Park Village, Lakewood, the linear Greenville Avenue and Mockingbird Lane centers, and Deep Ellum. However, these have had alternating success over the past years, depending on the viability of the adjacent neighborhood, ownership, and quality of support by the city through planning and action. One of the least successful ventures was the re-routing of Abrams Road in East Dallas, which had an adverse effect on Lakewood. The physical scars are still visible in the otherwise vibrant shopping area.

What is unique now in Dallas is the emergence and resurgence of such neighborhood hot spots. Many of them have been dormant for decades while others are growing in ways that were not even imagined 10 years ago.

“The City of Dallas is committed to strengthening neighborhoods and investing in creating vibrant places,” says Luis Tamayo with the City of Dallas Planning Department/Complete Streets. “We believe in working hand-in-hand with neighborhoods to make streets and the public realm accessible to as many users and modes as possible and to leverage that to make great places."

Successes include the Bishop Arts District and Kings Highway at the Kessler Theater. Other areas that are in their redevelopment infancy include the eastern end of Gaston Avenue (which is expanding its restaurant base and adding clubs) and Junius Street, whose major occupant is the Garden Cafe with its outdoor vegetable garden and dining.

The recent and ongoing transformation of Henderson Street is also noteworthy. According to Diane Collier, AIA, 2013 president of the Henderson Neighborhood Association, the Henderson neighborhood has undergone drastic changes in the past five years. “Rising from a dark center of crime and vacant properties with pockets of close-knit neighbors and families, it is now home to great nightspots.”

How Re-birth Happens

What are the traits that contribute to the success of re-birthed city hot spots? Here are some that are common to most:

  • A defined location and boundary (although the boundary may be fluid)
  • Identification with one or more distinct residential neighborhoods (which typically become strong advocates)
  • Surrounding neighborhoods with a mix of single-family and multifamily residence options
  • A combination of unique shops and services—retail, restaurants, entertainment, etc.
  • Locally owned or “one-of-a-kind” restaurants—not the typical chains
  • An organic or “ground-up” development that often begins in a collection of under-utilized or vacant buildings
  • Pedestrian-friendly with ample sidewalks, green spaces, and gathering areas
  • A unique character that defines the district and is recognizable to visitors and residents alike
  • An interesting, stimulating urban environment, which can range from gritty to charming

Architecture is of less importance than the other traits identified above. This can be difficult for an architect to acknowledge. Most of these hot spots are about the collection of the built environment and what has been done with it, not the architecture itself, although interesting, often historic “architectural bones” are a good place to start. Bishop Arts is graced by street trees (planted in the early years) which now obscure the buildings, but these provide shade during the day. Plus, the community installed gentle lights in the trees that add a sparkle at night, making a delightful sidewalk experience. You barely see the buildings, but it's the sidewalk where the action is, so who cares?

Another trait that is hard to define is the mix of the uses. Successful hot spots seem to have the right mix of restaurants and clubs to ensure the nightlife, retail for daily visitors, service businesses to attract neighborhood residents, and casual coffee shops and cafes. How this mix evolves varies: from an awareness of the marketplace to encouraging unique tenants. Sometimes the mix evolves organically and its success has more to do with luck than planning.

Success happens when the traits outlined above are embraced by the owners, tenants and their constituency and are used as stepping stones to become more than the sum of their parts. Each “hot spot” has neighbors who walk or bike to it, as well as attract people from a much larger geographical area. For many, the intent of their visit is not to frequent one particular restaurant or business, but to visit the hot spot itself to just experience it. Once they get an impression, that drives their future behavior. Truly the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. 

So what's the secret to maintaining the vibrancy and relevance of these hot spots? Once a place has achieved this level of success, how does it maintain and sustain success? I cannot presume to be able to answer this larger question from a business or marketing viewpoint and have already noted that the architecture and design may not be significant. I can offer the perspective of someone who has lived in Dallas' inner city for much of my adult life and who has studied our inner city and historic places. It is critical that a hot spot be true to its unique character, whether it be its uses, the built environment, programming, or something else. Its identity should be closely monitored and protected.

Changes—whether physical, cultural or managerial—must be thoughtful and considered carefully. There are times when a new use can have a profound effect on the surrounding area. The success of the Kessler Theater has jump-started adjacent redevelopment on Davis Street. There are a myriad of other examples where changes have adversely affected commercial areas, such as Abrams Road, which may take decades to recover. The ups and downs of Deep Ellum offer lessons for any commercial development about the consequences of single uses, negative events, and the need for public relations responses, not to mention how the global economy can adversely affect the entire area. The statement that “the only constant is change” applies to commercial developments in Dallas and especially in our inner city areas. While diligence is necessary, stakeholders should be comforted that there are examples of thoughtfully managed commercial centers in Dallas that have been successful since the 1930s.

A current issue relative to Dallas' inner-city and close-in neighborhoods growth is that newer developments have recently been built and more are planned that provide these combinations of uses—restaurants, retail, and entertainment. These developers acknowledge that the existing hot spots are working, which of course is the ultimate compliment. However, can these developments become unique, meaningful centers that achieve the level of success the existing inner-city hot spots have?

The answer is multi-faceted with not only planning and design responses playing out as part of the mix. Ultimately, the answer will be defined by each new development. Each must respond to important questions such as: Are they located to take advantage of adjacent neighborhoods that can support day and evening uses? What traits of existing hot spots can be applicable to new developments and can these traits be transferable? What role will design play? Will they become yet another retail and restaurant center that depends on the automobile? In the coming years we will be spectators (and occasionally participants) as these developments evolve. It promises to be an interesting show!