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Urban ReVision: Envisioning a Sustainable City Block in Texas

On December 5, our allies at Urban Re:Vision joined forces with the City of Dallas, Texas to host a planning session for an incredibly ambitious green building project. The day-long charrette brought together city officials, urban planners, master architects and green building experts in anticipation of a truly visionary project: the creation of a sustainable city block in downtown Dallas.

The charrette helped prepare guidelines for an international design competition called Building Blocks Dallas, which will kick off in January. The process began in August, when experts convened in San Francisco to determine the unified conceptual framework, a document that would guide the creation of a sustainable city block project in any community. The session in Dallas focused exclusively on translating that universal framework to Dallas itself, with the goal of creating a set of detailed data so complete that any contestant around the world would be able to create a vision for a sustainable block relevant to Dallas, regardless of whether he or she had ever set foot in Texas.

The winning city block design will actually be built, on what is currently an unused parking lot spanning two blocks across the street from Dallas City Hall. According to Urban Re:Vision, one of the two blocks will be transformed into public green space; the other will be devoted to the new sustainable city block.

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The designated downtown space as it looks today.

The lead developer for the project will be the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (CDC), a local community development organization. The CDC will be responsible for bringing in the developers and contractors that will turn the design vision into a living, functioning location. The non-profit developer is an arm of the Central Dallas Ministries, a faith-based community development organization whose mission is to build affordable housing, develop communities, and establish economic opportunities for the people of Dallas County.

But the big-picture goal of the contest isn't limited to sustainable development in Dallas alone, says Ian Bryan, media relations director at Urban Re:Vision. "The reason we're doing it is to create a model [for sustainable development] that's so well thought out that any city could replicate it in their own community."

The Building Blocks Dallas contest will officially launch next month, and Urban Re:Vision will accept entries until May 2009. Entries will be judged by a panel comprising a number of Dallas community leaders as well as several expert global architects and community planners. The winning design will be announced on May 27th.

What follows is a recap of the charrette, written exclusively for Worldchanging by reporter Jenna Aguilar on behalf of Urban Re:Vision:

After greetings from the Mayor and project leads, participants separated into various groups devoted to discussing specifics: community, transportation, construction, economic/policy and natural resources.
Some advisers warned that it could be a tough sell. With a City Hall looming, a convention center and eight lanes of freeway within a few hundred yards, noise and air quality concerns topped the list of issues that would require serious attention. Others expressed concern about the isolation of the block from restaurants and shopping.
To address these and other issues, breakout groups focused on the entire City Hall/Convention Center corridor, identifying needs the City must meet in order for the project to be successful. Possible solutions included turning one street into a pedestrian corridor, raising additional sound barriers, several proposed options for linking the new community to public parks, and the narrowing of streets to reduce through-traffic.
“Concerns like these arise with any well-thought-out development,” said Eric Corey Freed, principal of OrganicARCHITECT and author of Green Building & Remodeling For Dummies. “I think that Dallas will tackle them. What would be a nightmare is if this were developed like most other building projects out there: without considering the day-to-day needs of the community. We don’t want an island of sustainability. We want an expanding role model for integrated city living.
"When all is said and done, the success of the project will be determined by the quality of life we are able to facilitate for residents and businesses. If this community doesn’t work, it affects all similar projects, so we have to get this right the first time.”
The site’s benefits include easy access to public services and transportation, community benefits in walking distance such as the Dallas Public Library and Farmers Market, and an investment opportunity in a downtown corridor which many predict will become a vibrant living community over the next five years.
“It’s incredibly important that Dallas has been chosen for this project,” added Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity. “If this were done in Chicago or New York or San Francisco, people would just nod their heads to the news. But the world will watch Dallas because it’s a bold step for a city that is younger than many others [in moving towards sustainability].”
Throughout the day, Dallas collaborators were motivated by the thought of how the new block could intersect with and influence the creation of future sustainability initiatives throughout the city and region. If the community and economics of the block turn out to be successful, local planners commented frequently, a ripple effect could follow, spurring similar neighborhood projects all over Dallas.
“To build this right outside the window of local government has profound symbolic meaning,” said Brent Brown, principal of the Building Community Workshop (bcWORKSHOP). “And the best part is that it is not the city building it. This project is owned by the community and will be led by a nonprofit developer.”

Want to know what the entrants will be working with? Below, courtesy of Aguilar, are some details from the factsheet developed at the Dallas charrette. These parameters will help guide designers in developing their contest entries:

* The site is 2.5 acres, approximately 100,000 square feet, located adjacent to City Hall complex
* City regulations require 200 units of residential per acre (approximately 500 units)
* A portion of units must be micro-lofts with rent cap at approximately $450 (est. 350 sq ft)
* Maximum retail: 75,000 square feet.
* Planners are required to incorporate an educational component that serves all residents.
* No private office commercial for non-residents will be permitted at the site.
* There must be a minimum of 50 square feet of arable land per residential unit.
* Easy connection and pedestrian access to civic facilities.
* Site is to be carbon neutral in operations and produce zero wastewater, including run-off.
* Construction must achieve all published LEED points for new construction process

dallascharrettefinal.jpg
The plan drawn up by charrette participants.

Images courtesy of Urban Re:Vision.

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Comments

Minor nitpicks from someone with no architectural or town planning experience:

- while I like the droll use of 'young' in describing Dallas' state wrt sustainable practices, I thought 'sustainable' was considered in need of a replacement? Something like 'viable' that doesn't have the same passive 'just hanging on' aura (especially if you're eyeing off those 'development opportunities' on either side. Watch the 'growth habit' though!)
- Is the housing density figure of 200 units/acre a minimum or a maximum? A unit is how many people?

'Nuff said. Some folks are going to be having fun!


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 10 Dec 08

Suggestion: engage every high school and college possible so that the community participates in this step by step AND LEARNS from it. Don't let this be a cutesy project that Dallas residents opt into... make it a cultural phenomenon by engaging young people who are learning about these things.


Posted by: Gary M on 11 Dec 08

Gary M. in the earlier comment is exactly right. If you engage the high school students in the process, the charette participants get instant feedback from multiple levels of the community, and the kids gain practice at the idea of being architects, artists and urban planners.

You guys at Worldchanging are great, except for one thing — where's the stuff on how to change schools? If you change colleges, and make them sustainable, great— but you're still looking at a 30-year gap between when those college kids' minds get changed, and when they're empowered to do something about it. And life happens to them in the meantime. If you change lower school and middle school.... the kids change their parents, and the culture of the community changes. Now. When we need it. Not in 30 years, when it will be too late.

How do I change middle school?


Posted by: Andrew Watt on 29 Dec 08

One year later, the final design is announced! www.revision-dallas.com has the details. Designed in Portugal, built in Texas - a global model for urban sustainability.


Posted by: Ian on 8 Dec 09

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