Brent Brown, Head of City Hall's New CityDesign Studio, On Redesigning Dallas

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Brandon Thibodeaux
Brent Brown, Mary Suhm's choice to head up the Dallas CityDesign Studio
Even after having mentioned the Dallas CityDesign Studio -- which the Trinity Trust is paying for, thanks to Rusty and Deedie Rose's $5 million donation -- a few times, we still didn't know what the what it's supposed to do. After all, its mission statement seems awfully vague: "This resource center will engage, advise and support work focused outside the levees, particularly as potential development occurs, as well as on the Trinity River Corridor Project itself." Then, earlier this week, it was mentioned in the Complete Streets briefing that the DCDS would also be involved in shaping the Context Sensitive Design manual that'll be used to reshape the city's streets for all comers.

Which is why I asked Brent Brown -- head of bcWORKSHOP and one of the men charged with building that self-sustaining block behind Dallas City Hall -- for a further explanation. Though, truth is, specifics are still hard to come by: Last week, Brown was still having trouble finding an appropriate set-up in City Hall ("Even though you think the city's in a downturn, they have a lack of space"), and he's only now beginning the national search for two full-time architects and planners, as well as someone responsible for "community engagement and office support."

But Brown -- who was approached about the job by City Manager Mary Suhm following the May affordable-housing forum at Temple Emanu-El -- does his valiant best to explain the studio's mission. In short: It will offer a venue for West Dallas "investors, developers,  residents, nonprofits and government entities such as the Dallas Housing Authority" to plot future development without stepping on each others' toes, simple as that. Well, perhaps not so simple ...

Jump for a very lengthy Q&A. You say you're having trouble finding space at City Hall. What kind of space do you need?

We told them, 'This is a creative environment. We don't want cubes.' They got excited. The space has to be that way -- it needs to be as public as possible, accessible. It can't be six floors up in the back corner with shades on the door. We need to be as open and as accessible as we can be. The CityDesign studio is about putting the city in a position of convening dialogue between developers, investors, residents and property-owning and non-property-owning stakeholders outside the levees and thinking about things holistically, sustainably --all those buzz words. [He laughs.] But in West Dallas, if you have a neighborhood in the shadow of downtown, you have to be able to have an open dialogue and engage residents and allow them to influence decisions that will impact their lives.

We tend to over-complicate these things. We need people around the table before they've done something, and we have to say, 'Fine, but there's another group that wants to do something else.' As a city the way things happen is in a hodgepodge. This isn't going against the free market; this isn't the city as developer This is city as a vehicle by which to help encourage much broader conversation about how to byild our city, which has to get down to the real context of doing development.

Where did the idea for this come from? And how did Larry Beasley get involved?

This "dream session" we did in August was the beta version to see if there was merit for this approach. People have these design charettes, and they go away. This is an interactive process, a continuing dialogue. I am not going to talk about doing master plans, because in my opnion, as soon as it comes out it's old. This is an interactive, organic process. But when you talk about West Dallas, you've got investors, developers, existing residents, nonprofits, government entities such as the Dallas Housing Authority. So all that's happening, but are people talking to each other? Are you coalescing all those interests into a broader discussion about the future of West Dallas?

At the end of the day they have to deal with their own turf. They have property they own, and they'll have their own consultants. We won't do design work for then. But we will be in a position to help set up frameworks in a very logical way to develop what can happen and guide their developments toward what can be successful based on what what we hear from stakeholders. The word "vehicle" is a nice term.

Yes, but if you're not going to master-plan, and if you're not going to develop, then ... what, exactly? It all still seems vague to me -- right now, it seems like you'll mediate, but in the end, people will do with their properties what they want.

Let me just say, we're talking about three things the studio has to do. It has to assist and be an education about urban design and raise urban design consciousness inside and outside City Hall. We have to engage the AIA Dallas, the American Planning Association and engineers who make decisions every day, because they affect people. And this is about people. It's about community. We need to be building a city that's sustainable from a social, economic and environmental view. Design and design thinking is a way of balancing and weaving those together to build a more livable, viable place for people.

Then there has to be engagement. That's about bringing people together and doing activities like the West Dallas dream session. And the third element is all about design. We'll have staff. We have to get them in place. We may get temps in place while we do a national search for the best and brightest.

What about bringing in some of the work they're doing down at the University of Texas at Austin in the Dallas Urban Lab? Will there be a relationship with them, given that director Dean Almey is looking at some of the same things you are, at least from a theoretical distance.

It would be a natural fit to reach out to the lab and to Dean and say, "Hey, if you're doing a project in Dallas, the studio can be of assistance." I taught in a university environment, and they have to engage their client and dream, but we need their work to be relevant. They need to do R&D stuff. Universities need to be pushing the envelop. They need to do things the private sector can only dream about. So they need to push it.

But from a design standpoint, one thing we'll get involved in quickly is the Continental Bridge. Can we engage the local professional community? It's not confrontational from a design standpoint. it's liberating, because it helps to get good questions to ensure we are being as thoughtful as we can.

Obviously we've seen some of Wallace Roberts & Todd's conceptual renderings for the Continental Bridge. How close is that to what it'll end up looking like?

That is not an easy project. When you move from downtown to West Dallas, both ends are equally important. They're building a place in between that used to be for cars. And what's going to happen on either end? We hope to connect the dots. The Continental Bridge will happen, and we need to get cars down Singleton, and we need to reevaluate the experience of people on the bridge and what happens to the other side.

You'll answer to Mary Suhm. What, then, does she expect from you?

Our city manager has been a leader in thinking design will make a big difference in the city. There are a lot of good folks in City Hall, and how do we assist them? They make design decisions every day, and that's where this design consciousness within City Hall and the city at large comes in.

We cannot look at this as a studio. One reason it's called a studio and not a center is it's about work. A studio is about processes to get to an answer. I don't know what the answer is. I won't ever say I have 'em. Using restraint and working humbly are core values we have to employ. And we have to engage the AIA. We need them and can't do this without the local professional community -- the architects, the planners, the architectural landscapes, the engineers. It's an issue of place.

If you're thinking about West Dallas, it's really the area bound by the Trinity River, Loop 12 and I-30. Those are all man-made boundaries of West Dallas, all almost impassable. We also have to bite it off in pieces that can be worked and engaged. Sylvan, then Hampton, then Westmoreland. And we roll it forward. This is because, yes, the Calatrava bridge will get done. You have investors and developers and nonprofits working, and we're already behind, because we're reacting to the fact the bridge will be finished. So now, how can we get ahead?

The Continental Bridge encourages us to look on both sides of the levees, and from a transportation standpoint you can't stop at I-30. You have linkages that run north-south to the medical district and Love Field. We'll advocate you look at both of those levels simultaneously -- crazy. Let's don't do a transportation plan as a city and then try to figure out how do you think about West Dallas from a framework of use and development. You have to do it at the same time, and do it small, big, small, big.

These are complex issues. It's going to take time. It's iterative, and it never stops. We'll never be done. It's a city, and Dallas is a very young city when you really think about it. Think about where we were 50 years ago compared to other cities people compare us to -- Chicago, for instance. When John Neely Bryan was camping, Chicago was rebuilding yet again. We're just getting started.


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