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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: Suburban New Urbanism in Dallas

As Dallas spreads--so far north that people joke about subdivisions in Baja Oklahoma--a countertrend has emerged, centripetal instead of centrifugal. You can see it not only in the resurgence of downtown as a place to live but in the construction of mixed-use, compact developments sometimes at the periphery of the metro but also deep within the city and built on land cleared for this new purpose. The goals of this New Urbanism are a slower pace, a more sociable space, and a space that feels like a place, not just a geospatial location. Much to the disgust of many architects, the architectural style that comes closest to meeting these goals for Americans today is neo-traditional, as though Americans want places that look old, though with modern plumbing and plenty of air conditioning.

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Among the first cases in Dallas was Las Colinas, a 12,000-acre development on the east side of DFW. Too huge to satisfy most New Urbanists, it was a step in the new direction.

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It includes a three-building office park leavened by the artistic tastes of Ben Carpenter, the creator of Las Colinas. The towers sold in 2015 for $330 million to New York's Apollo Global and Chicago's Vanderbilt Partners. (Just repeat those names several times daily, and I guarantee you will be rich in 30 days. YMMV.) Tenants at the time of sale included Pioneer Natural Resources, Flowserve, and Accenture.

And the poor mustangs? Sculpted by Robert Glen, they've been trying their best for 30 years to clear out, but they're corralled. Besides, they belong to the city of Irving and the county's Utility Reclamation District.

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Carpenter was a veteran of the War in the Pacific, which explains why this channel in Las Colinas is called the Mandalay Canal. It's a popular photo venue, which is especially odd because the vaguely Venetian architecture masks a multi-storey parking lot. The shops on this side of the water have had a tough time, too; most of the space is vacant.

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Closer to the road that parallels the canal, this mixed-use development--shops down, apartments up--is more successful.

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The canal runs behind this apartment building, hence the name Canal Side Lofts. Office buildings bulk up in the rear.

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Water plays a big role in many of these developments, but here--the Delano Apartments at Las Colinas--the water is too big to be very welcoming, and life without a car is impossible.

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Despite the necessity of driving, parking is somewhere between difficult and outright illegal.

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Here, 30 years after the start of Las Colinas, is perhaps the most interesting New Urbanist experiment in the metroplex. It's Southlake Town Square, about three miles northwest of the busy DFW runways. The central feature is this City of Southlake City Hall, looking for all the world as though it belongs somewhere on the East Coast, where it should have been built sometime after the Civil War.

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Perhaps the design is most suggestive of the Pension Building in Washington.

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A couple of hundred yards to the east are these townhouses.

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Not what you expect in suburban Texas.

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In between the townhouses and the city hall is this instant-heritage commercial development, with offices above stores.

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The upstairs tenant here is an orthodontist; other buildings are thick with stockbrokers.

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The layout is authentic in at least this sense: higher buildings fringe the city hall; lower ones are farther out from that center.

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Parts of the development march to a different drummer, like this arcade along Grand Avenue.

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The developer, Cooper & Stebbins, has allowed some deviation from the strictly neo-traditional.

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The biggest screen in Texas, or so this theater boasts.

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Southlake's neighbor to the west is Keller, and here's Keller Town Center, again mixed-use.

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A companion building.

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We've drifted 15 miles northeast, to Legacy Business Park, which occupies 2,700 acres in Plano. This particular building, a prairie fantasy, is the home of Dr Pepper, which in 1885 was invented 100 miles to the south, in Waco.

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We've come to look at the Legacy Town Center, which surrounds this more managably-sized pond.

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Hotel on the right, apartments on the left.

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The pedestrians have spilled over from the mixed-use development behind the camera.

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Here's a view of Bishop Avenue, the development's instant Main Street.

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Again, uses are mixed.

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The design invites people to walk or sit outdoors, although most of the sitting space is for customers only.

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North of Legacy and still gathering steam in 2007, this is Frisco's town center, begun on a 400-acre site in 1999.

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It looks like it was built a century ago, but it wasn't.

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A close-up.

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The irony is that in five minutes you can walk from that new town center to Frisco's real town center, or at least what used to be Frisco's town center. This was a town of 1,200 in 1960. Since then, the streets have been repaved and the light poles have been replaced, but the main street shops have suffered.

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A bit of that older Frisco.

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Time to move on: here's the contemporary American imitation of urban life. We're in Garland, on the east side of the metro. This is Firewheel Town Center, a Simon Property Group undertaking.

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The plaza in the previous picture is on the right here. Those buildings on the left are apartment buildings, except for the garage about half-way down.

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The north side of the plaza has this mixed-use block.

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What used to be the crossing in a mall now looks like an old-fashioned streetcorner.

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The Macy's in the distance is a good reminder that this town has a lot in common with a mall that's lost its roof and paved its floor.

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A newer addition a few miles away: Watters Creek in Allen, where the street layout departs from the habitual grid and instead meanders like an English high street.

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Watters Creek has an actual creek, carefully tended and here with an overlooking apartment building. Unusually, it also has a supermarket pitched at the high end.

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The same creek, this time looking back toward the commercial area.

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Meanwhile, New Urbanist developments are being built close to many DART stations.

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Here's the Cedars Station.

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A few blocks away (and facing an old Piggly Wiggly, long closed but with a still legible sign) is this new apartment building.

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Even closer to the DART station is this huge old Sears catalog warehouse, now a combination of apartments upstairs and offices and studios down. The building looks a lot like the Higginbotham building shown in the Downtown III folder. That's because the architect was the same: Lang and Witchell.

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Here, close to NorthPark, is the Mockingbird Station, opened in 2001. In the background is an old Western Electric warehouse.

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The roof has been raised and the building turned into a combination of shops and lofts. These things don't happen by themselves, of course. In this case, the driver was a local architect/developer named Ken Hughes. A European investment group bought the development in 2005 and sold it ten years later to CBRE, a California group.

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A block to the east, an old Dr Pepper bottling plant has been razed and replaced with this retro apartment block, with shops on the ground level.

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Nearby, an apartment block from the 1970s awaits the wreckers.

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They've already been here.

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They're not quite finished here.

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The sign promises yet another town center. To accommodate the builders here, DART has amended its plans to include a Lake Highlands Station.

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It's hard to know how far the centripetal pendulum will swing in Dallas, but the New Urbanist impulse is certainly strong. Here's a final example. It comes from Bartonville and stands on what had been very low-intensity ranch land just west of Lantana.

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Maybe it will work; maybe it won't, but think of the towns that popped up on the plains a century ago. Some of those worked; other's didn't.


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