Suburban Renewal

North of Dallas, urban planners and developers are battling soulless sprawl with designs that aim to build a spirit of community.

March 1999By Comments

I’M LOOKING FOR THE FUTURE OF SUBURBIA, and I’m lost. I pull into the parking lot of an apartment complex in the North Texas city of Plano and unfold my trusty street map of Dallas and its suburbs. I’m looking for the site of a future development called Austin Ranch, a mixed residential and business neighborhood that its creator, the Billingsley Company of Dallas, describes as a “city-style hometown.” Plano is regarded as an “edge city”—a suburb that has grown so immense it is no longer a mere adjunct to or refuge from a city but has essentially become a major city itself. Looking up from my map, I notice my surroundings. New apartment complexes are all around me, but I see no people out and about. Granted, I’m in a residential area on a workday, but the physical desolation and anonymity of this environment is disquieting.

As American suburbs continue inexorably to expand, urban planners have been pondering how the phenomenon of suburban sprawl has affected our quality of life. Their unsurprising consensus? The combination of miles of anonymous strip shopping centers and our overreliance on cars is alienating us from the land, one another, and perhaps even ourselves. But there is good news. Urban planners, together with land developers and architects, have been testing alternatives to the entire concept of the American suburb. Dallas’ northern suburbs are especially notorious for their sprawl, so it’s fitting that this region is the setting for some innovative suburban developments—like Austin Ranch—that aim to reshape the way we live and work. All of them share the goal of restoring the sense of community and civic life that has been lost amid the cookie-cutter housing and strip retail centers, but each uses a different approach to accomplish it. And all of them want to transport suburbanites to another world that, paradoxically, feels familiar.

Austin Ranch, situated on 1,900 acres of land west of Plano, will adhere to the principles of the New Urbanism, the basic idea of which is the “walkable community”: Residential, retail, and civic buildings are laid out within walking distance of one another, thereby lessening dependence on cars. In some areas, land is not zoned exclusively for residential or business use, but rather the two are intermixed: Apartments can be set above stores in a two-story structure, for example. Parks and greenbelts—and the preservation of features of the natural environment—are encouraged.

If the ideal New Urban community sounds like an attempt to recreate the mythic American small town of yesteryear, it’s no coincidence. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do people really want and what do developers try to build?’” says Jennifer Farmer, a spokesperson for the Billingsley Company. “The answer was consistently ‘community,’ but very few developers succeed in creating this environment.”

Although the New Urbanism theory remains atypical of modern-day urban development, it has its notable examples: Florida’s eighteen-year-old Seaside community is one of the oldest and best-known (it’s where The Truman Show was filmed), while Disney’s Celebration, a small-town-like planned community in Orlando, is one of the newest. While the New Urbanism ideal is to bring together people of different income levels, most of these attempts have resulted in pricey, exclusive refuges from suburbia.

Burgeoning cities in the Dallas area have been slow to adopt the New Urban concept. Four years ago, Flower Mound residents killed a proposal for such a development—to have been designed by the Miami-based architecture firm of Andres Duany, a notable name in the New Urban movement—because, ironically, they felt that the relatively dense building layout and narrower streets typical of New Urban communities might worsen automobile traffic. There are, however, two New Urban developments to the east of Flower Mound: Austin Ranch and a Duany-designed town center for EDS’s Legacy Park corporate campus in Plano.

I eventually find my way to the entrance of Austin Ranch, where I meet Lucy Billingsley, the 45-year-old co-owner (with her husband, Henry) of the Billingsley Company. The first phase of the development, consisting of multifamily apartments, will be completed next January. The design of Austin Ranch’s residential master plan bears the name of another esteemed player in the New Urban community: Peter Calthorpe of Berkeley, California, who literally wrote the rules for the New Urbanism in his books, The Next American Metropolis and Sustainable Communities: A New Design Synthesis for Cities, Suburbs, and Towns. Billingsley, who describes the design philosophy for her development as “trees and technology,” points out the many trees that it will preserve. “The technology frees people from the routine, and the trees allow them the mind-set to concentrate on other important areas in their lives,” she explains. Part of the technology she refers to is Ethernet-speed Internet access, a high-priced telecommunications feature typically found in the corporate world that will allow Austin Ranch residents to telecommute more easily.

Saving trees is nice and so is surfing the Net at blazing speeds. But Austin Ranch is being built to satisfy the curious desire of many Dallasites to be someplace in the Dallas area that won’t remind them of Dallas. To this end, it will preserve and emphasize the land’s rolling topography, replicating the Texas Hill Country—hence its name. Indeed, the hilly landscape, unusual for North Texas, passes as a reasonable facsimile of the terrain around Austin, and I find it hard to believe that just beyond the trees is Plano.

Another kind of suburban experiment is being conducted northwest of the Dallas–Fort Worth airport, in Southlake. Here, developer Brian Stebbins and his partners are using the rules of the New Urbanism to create history. Today, not much about Southlake comes across as particularly interesting. Its strip shopping centers and new neighborhoods of $300,000 houses make this community of 21,180 residents blend in with neighboring cities. Unlike most suburb-cities in the Metroplex, Southlake never had a chance to start out as a small town in the traditional sense; it was sprawled over from the start. It never had the redbrick courthouse and town square with shops and restaurants to serve as the focal point for its community and growth, and these elements are what Stebbins and his partners feel their city needs. They’re building a downtown for Southlake on 130 acres of what used to be a family farm on the east side of town, within walking distance of the surrounding residential neighborhoods. When the first phase of Southlake Town Square is completed this month, its look and architecture will span one hundred years.

“We want it to be a real downtown,” says David Schwarz, the town square’s designer (who also created the Ballpark in Arlington and downtown Fort Worth’s Sundance West multi-use complex and Bass Performance Hall). “Downtowns don’t spring full-blown. In Southlake we’re trying to create an initial fabric that can grow and change over time.” Southlake Town Square will, Schwarz says, give Southlake residents “a place to celebrate and come together as a community.”

Concept drawings line the walls of a conference room in Stebbins’ Southlake offices. They show a hodgepodge of buildings in various architectural styles. The first floors of these buildings will be occupied by stores including chain retailers like the Gap and Starbucks, and the second floors by business offices. The town square’s center will be the courthouse, a redbrick building with white columns and tall arched windows. In the drawings, people sit on park benches, ride bikes, or window-shop. Lovers clasp hands; parents hold on to their little children or push baby strollers. Automobiles are present but neatly parked along the streets.

Yet these illustrations don’t look much like the traditional Texas small town—which is the point, Stebbins tells me. Since most of Southlake’s residents are from other parts of the country, Southlake Town Square will reflect a broad range of styles. “The goal is to evoke small towns across America,” he says. “It’s not meant to look like a Midwest small town, Texas small town, Colorado small town, or North Carolina small town. It’s meant to have pieces of all those towns.” Photographs on the conference room’s walls illustrate this patchwork concept. There are snapshots of downtown storefronts, water fountains, city parks, and such, but you’re not sure where each is actually located. One is a sentimental favorite of the 41-year-old Stebbins: a courthouse in his grandparents’ hometown of Washington, Iowa.

The illustrations lining Stebbins’ office walls suggest not only Southlake’s future but the past it never had. A real downtown consists of many buildings, each built at a different time, each aging differently, each with its own history. Stebbins proudly presents me with samples of the bricks that are being used to construct the town square’s facades. Each will have its own type of brick, furthering the illusion of history. “We don’t try in our design of the buildings to ape history,” says Schwarz, “but rather to combine a series of forms that people can recognize and embrace.”

When Stebbins gives me a tour of the town square’s site, the facades of some of the buildings have just been put up. The effect is of many separate buildings, equal parts Hollywood set and Old West town. But in reality, the town square is mainly made up of several large buildings with multiple facades. I comment that a corner art deco–style facade is my favorite. Stebbins smiles; after all, there’s supposed to be a building to suit every taste.

Way north of Dallas-Fort Worth, on 900 acres of prairie near Denton, the people behind the Big Sky development want to present a reality that is far removed from the suburbs—a concept that could be called the “new ruralism.” Big Sky’s developers are banking on the preservation of the North Texas prairie as the foundation for a new community, many of whose members will buy an acre of prairie (for approximately $50,000) and build a house in the middle of it. “The layout of the prairie preserve was done very sensitively, to allow each person a direct view of the horizon,” says the development’s 40-year-old landscape architect, Kevin Sloan. “If residents prefer a more townlike setting, they can buy a house or townhouse in the town [portion] of Big Sky.” Everyone will help decide how the community property will be used throughout the seasons—whether crops should be grown on it, for example, and what kind.

Why would anybody, especially a suburbanite, want to sign up for this? To experience the beauty and tranquillity of the open range, say the developers. “Big Sky is about owning your horizon,” says Peter Malin, a 47-year-old economist and developer who is one of its creators. “We were looking for a solution to the question of how to preserve the native Texas landscape and at the same time develop it.”

Sloan’s partner, Dallas architect Max Levy, is responsible for Big Sky’s architectural guidelines. “We drive through north-central Texas, through prairie lands, and most of us, whether we realize it or not, are touched by a sense of yearning and loss,” Levy says. “We yearn for this landscape to succeed in some lovely way, but we’re overcome by a sense of loss, having seen this landscape bulldozed away.” His attachment to the Texas prairie has its roots in his childhood. Though Levy, who is 51, grew up “in a typical Leave It to Beaver fifties neighborhood” on the western edge of Fort Worth, his family’s house looked out onto undeveloped ranchland. “That view out the kitchen window, of the distant ranchland, was mesmerizing,” he recalls.

But does “owning your horizon,” the polar opposite of suburban sprawl, have any practical appeal? After all, Big Sky residents will have to drive to Denton or Decatur for most of their shopping needs. And for many, the prairie evokes images of isolation and loneliness. “I think it’s possible to achieve the same housing density in a prairie setting that you typically have in a residential neighborhood and yet still preserve a sense of prairie,” says Levy. Adds Sloan, “The town is going to be much more tight than what you find in your usual suburban sprawl. That’s compensated for by the more rural lots out in the prairie.”

Levy’s design guidelines for Big Sky’s one- and two-story prairie houses aim to keep them small and their style spartan: White and gray are the dominant colors, and the materials are brick, limestone, wood siding, and for the roofs, corrugated sheet metal—in essence, the materials used for building barns. Big Sky’s architectural philosophy is “to build simply in a simple landscape,” Levy says. “Out on the prairie, anything you build is silhouetted against the horizon. When you build a complicated form, your pleasure in looking out at the horizon gets tangled up.”

Levy, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, had his graduate architecture students design houses for Big Sky; their models were exhibited at the Arlington Museum of Art last summer. Some of them look, as expected, like barns, though larger and with a modern feel. Others, with their use of trees and small outbuildings in addition to the main house, are adept examples of achieving harmony with the prairie environment. In some of the models the bedrooms, kitchen, living room, and garage occupy separate buildings, connected by breezeways. And all of the models adhere to Big Sky’s credo that no building should distract the viewer’s attention from the prairie landscape.

Malin has invited me to a dinner party he’s throwing on the Big Sky prairie for a couple who will be the development’s first residents. On the ten-mile drive from Denton, the surroundings become increasingly desolate as buildings give way to expanses of open prairie. Once I arrive, standing in the midst of the prairie, I notice how remarkably pleasant the weather is. Despite highs in the upper 90’s, the breeze cools things down considerably.

Jim and Carolyn Clark, a Dallas couple approaching retirement age, are Big Sky’s pioneers. At the dinner party, Jim Clark, a businessman who runs his own company, tells me about his vision for their new house on the prairie. The Camp, as he likes to call it, will be designed by Levy and consist of separate buildings to afford maximum privacy for its residents and their guests.

He describes their main house in a tony Dallas neighborhood as “international style, modern, very reminiscent of the Bauhaus and European architecture of the thirties”; it sounds fairly high-maintenance. Their second home at Big Sky will be its antithesis. “It will be extremely modern but have influences of traditional Texas farm- and ranch-type architecture,” Clark says. Most important, the Camp will expose its residents and guests to the outside elements. If it’s raining, you’ll get wet as you move from the bedroom to the kitchen, because, he says, that’s the way things should be out on the prairie. Suburban life in North Texas is too insulated, he feels—people move from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned office building. It’s not going to be that way at the Camp, Clark tells me, sounding almost gleeful.

I’m not sure whether I can see the future of the North Texas exurban landscape as prairie dotted with “camps,” but Malin and his partners are right about one thing: The view out here is beautiful. Sitting in lawn chairs, we watch the sun set, and as the stars come out, I have a sense of isolation. This time, though, it’s not a feeling of desolation but one of calm.

Dallasite Howard Wen has written for Wired and Salon.

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