From the air, Victory Park looks like a long thin island off the mainland of downtown, with a scattering of towers, acres of parking and a freeway running in the distance like a shoreline.
For developer Ross Perot Jr., Victory is the beginning of a new city within a city, urbanism luxe, that will revitalize downtown and help shore up its wobbly tax base.
“In today’s world, people want something special,” he says. “Just to go to the usual stores has no great appeal. That told us what Victory ought to be – something new to Dallas.”
Yet others wonder whether this eventual $3 billion concentration of hotels, condominiums and chic shops and restaurants will permanently skew the redevelopment of downtown, siphoning off its best resources and leaving the rest to fend for itself.
This is probably not the question people will be asking this week, as Victory pops the cork on the new W Hotel, but it will come up regularly in the future as downtown Dallas struggles to find a new center of gravity after listing perilously for decades.
“I was skeptical at first,” says University of North Texas economist Bernard Weinstein, “but there is obviously a lot going on. My question is how many destinations can downtown support? Will Main Street be a destination? The West End and the Arts District? A lot of bets are being placed, but it’s still a thin market.”
The most impressive thing about Victory is its density, a dirty word in Dallas but the key to success in most great cities. Instead of scattering individual buildings across the landscape like confetti, it tries to cluster them in nodes so that serendipity has a fighting chance.
This, of course, is not the Dallas way. We like iconic objects in space, flashy stunts on the freeway and the skyline that look terrific at a distance but less convincing up close. Victory aspires to be different by emphasizing streets, blocks and squares, where individual buildings talk to one another in a shared language instead of shouting at the top of their lungs.
Victory was launched in the late 1990s with a plan from the Palladium Company for a low-rise development reminiscent of Boston’s Back Bay, with plenty of brick and a very traditional retail plan. The tech bust and 9/11 took care of that, and when Hillwood returned to the project it had a radically different plan that called for more height, more density and a very different retail mix.
The new plan by Elkus and Manfredi is very solid on urban design issues, laying out a network of major and minor streets, lining them with understated residential buildings with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and dropping in a park or two that residents can actually use. It’s basic stuff, yet so rare in Dallas that it seems exotic.
Architecture is part of the mix, too, and except for the steroidal American Airlines Center, things look promising. The W Dallas-Victory Hotel by HKS is a slick and smart exercise in classic modernism, while the forthcoming Victory Tower by Kohn Pedersen Fox, who got stiffed in the original arena competition, could be a handsome companion.
The centerpiece of the development, the place where things come together, is Victory Plaza, in front of American Airlines Center. Mr. Perot calls this Dallas’ future “Times Square,” which makes sense only if you consider Times Square as little more than electronic advertising.
Yet it could be an extraordinary public space, a grand outdoor room, with moving billboards and the latest LED technology – Blade Runner comes to Big D. It is also a public space created by buildings rather than in spite of them. The sleek modern wings that wrap it, by Orne Associates, frame views back to Victory and to the downtown skyline in the distance, intensifying the appreciation of both.
“Victory had an inauspicious beginning, with a bad master plan and a bad piece of architecture in the middle of it,” says Lance Josal of RTKL Architects in Dallas. “Considering that, they’ve done a good job.”
Victory is designed to be an island of privilege, focused on high-end shopping and entertainment, and inhabited mainly by professionals with expensive tastes and salaries to match. It’s not a mix that most urbanists like, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to John Fregonese, author of Dallas’ new comprehensive plan.
“Downtown is not dormant, but it is sleep-walking,” he says. “It needs a concentration of things that people can’t get anywhere else, and you probably have to be a bit more laissez faire about what that is.”
In his view, the concentration of wealth is less the issue than whether the wealth filters to other parts of the city, following the rising tide lifts all boats philosophy.
Mr. Perot believes it will.
“Victory and Uptown are where the money is going to come from to save downtown,” he says. “This is a product that works today, whereas downtown ownership is so fragmented that you can’t get enough critical mass to make things happen.”
If Victory flourishes, the energy will likely spread across Stemmons to the Design District, already abuzz with plans for residential development. Here’s where the affordable housing that Victory and Uptown lack may begin to appear.
But Victory’s success will also increase pressure on fragile parts of downtown such as the West End, which has been slumbering for a decade and with the loss of the West End Marketplace and several key restaurants is on life support.
That might not be so bad either.
“Many cities are struggling just to maintain the status quo downtown,” says Dallas Planning Director Theresa O’Donnell, “whereas downtown Dallas is growing. Victory could scare downtown businesses into becoming more competitive and invest more in their properties, and in the long run that will fertilize downtown rather than drain it.”
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
• Half-a-dozen steel, stone and glass towers are rising above what was once industrial wasteland – $850 million in construction now, $3 billion more over the next decade. The W Hotel is a 33-story exclamation point for Victory Park, but it’s just the first one.
• Victory is a rarity for Dallas. It embraces density, clustering buildings together that relate to each other and to their surroundings.
• The W epitomizes that strategy. One facade responds to the curve of the development’s main street, the other to the downtown skyline.
• Inside, the W is a design hodgepodge, but its renown as a repository of hip means it will have a major impact on Dallas’ dining and social scenes.