Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Long Time Coming...or...AT&T Plaza Renovation: A Step in the Right Direction

Fear not, it took over 30 posts, but I am finally doing my critique of the AT&T Plaza renovations. This space was one of the reasons I wanted to start doing a blog.

In 2008, AT&T's regional headquarters, located on Akard Street between Commerce and Wood began renovations on One AT&T Plaza and the plaza adjacent to One and Two AT&T. Around the same time, they also relocated their corporate headquarters to this site. It was completed well over a year ago.

Sadly, the pictures I took of the buildings prior to the renovation were burned to a CDRW and won't load now. But, I will instead post recent pictures and use that as a comparison to the past. Overall, this is a definite improvement over what was there. In fact, in several spaces, it is hard to improve on it at all. Sadly, it is not a 100% improvement and several spots could use a lot more work.

Let's begin with the transportation aspect. There was a bus built into the plaza behind a water feature that had the look of a '50's bomb shelter. During the redo, the bus stop was moved down the street near Field in front of the mostly empty retail spaces of Two AT&T.
The bus stop is much more light and airy than its predecessor. The major drawback is the impediment to pedestrian traffic flow. There is no shoulder-to-shoulder walking here. Most people walk around the back, but there is space in front as well. Had they moved the bus stop against the property, that would have made more room for pedestrians.

The former space looks a lot better. When I told a friend, he was surprised since I normally don't like setbacks and landscaping in urban areas. However, meaningful landscaping in a public space can be a quality to the urban area. This is right on the edge of quality. It has opened up the water feature behind to the front door, visible from the sidewalk.

The last picture not only shows the old bus stop location, but in the background is the revamped entrance to the former One AT&T Tower, now renamed Whitacre Tower when the company relocated. They raised the pedestrian-friendliness of this part of the plaza by leaps and bounds. They opened up the second level which had an amazing effect on humanizing the plaza. Just inside the entrance stands Golden Boy, the statue that has been at the AT&T headquarters (mostly) since it was commissioned in the mid teens in New York. Now, it is easily viewed from the plaza.

The addition of LEED informational panels over the first floor entrance really sets this area as the focal point of the plaza.

One of the most practical additions to Whitacre Tower fronts Commerce Street. Previously, there was a small convenience store with a chained street entrance with offices completing the block. Now, they added an AT&T store with a beautiful entrance that engages the pedestrian at street level.
The only thing I would have done differently is move the storage section, with it's blacked out walls, from the corner of Commerce and Browder toward the interior of the Tower. This keeps the valuable street level windows in the public view. Generally speaking, the corners are quite a bit more visible (and therefore more valuable) than mid-block windows.

On the other side of the main entrance on the Akard Street side is the final positive addition to the plaza. In the elevator wells, there previously was a blank wall. During the renovation, windows were cut and a former blank area was opened up, similar to the main entrance. Also similar, the area has been humanized within the plaza, creating a more inviting space.
Imagine the above area with the entire area a blank granite wall. Needless to say, prior, this area was for smokers who worked in the building and people passing through going somewhere else. Now, there is quite a bit more activity than before. Simply, the area is more interesting than before. And as I have said before, activity begets more activity.

Sadly, not everything hit the level thus far listed. The Browder Street side remained virtually untouched. Sadly, this area has some of the most potential of any area in downtown. There is a lot of existing foot traffic. Dogs are walked from DP&L Lofts across from Whitacre Tower. Across the street from DP&L is the Interurban Building. Here residents walk their dogs too. On the first floor are the downtown Grocer store and a cafe. Even on Sunday, there is a lot street traffic in this stretch. Browder serves as the connector for this area to the Main Street District.
There is a lot of people watching opportunity in this corridor. But unless AT&T undertakes another renovation, this will be just that, an opportunity. I hate walking by this area at times, because the street has such potential. DP&L on the left has an empty retail space fronting the mall. On the right is an Einstein Brothers with NO street entrance. Across Jackson is the Interurban with the Urban Cafe and Urban Market grocer.

This is the Einstein Brothers store. The real wasted opportunity comes from the lack of a door. This would be a great area for an outdoor cafe. A door, in the cost of the plaza renovation would have been miniscule. Perhaps there would have been extra costs in the landscape box around the perimeter, but the added value in the intangibles would have far exceeded any extra cost. That is something that a lot of property owners in downtown Dallas really don't grasp that well. Property values of "vibrant" buildings are generally higher than comparable fortress towers with no street activity. The real estate industry can quantify the gyms, parking ratios, space, concierge or other amenities, but have a hard time grasping vibrancy.

Across Jackson sits the final disappointment of the renovation. On the southwest corner was a stand-alone garage. I had my hopes high when the building was starting a demo. Sadly, in its place is a new stand-alone garage for the executives, and therefore has the smallest capacity of any garage in downtown.
Notice the blank wall. There is one person and he is obviously not using this piece of urban space, merely walking by going someplace else. The view from the other angle sets my final critique of this space.
Across Browder is the Interurban Building. This does nothing for the area. That is an absolute shame. Part of my anger in this is geared toward AT&T. They know what they have near them and absolutely ignored this part of their property, to the detriment of all downtown users. But part is directed towards the City of Dallas. They forced a downtown grocer to open here. When the developer applied for incentives, part of the deal required a grocery store here. Subsequently, the store has under preformed, simply because it is just a bit outside the established urban boundary. At a cost of 12 spaces on the ground floor of that garage, supporting retail could have gone in that garage space. Coupled with Browder Street improvements, that would have made a well established connection to the Main Street area. Instead, the City fumbled away an opportunity by approving this monstrosity.

In the suburbs, grocer stores are the anchors of strip malls. When a developer comes along, the first thing they do is look to get a grocer to attract customers and then bring in the supportive retail. In downtown Dallas, in comes the grocer, then elected officials pat themselves on the back and move on to the next thing. There is an absolute opportunity in this area, but the landowners are going to have to get past this type of isolated thinking.

This renovation can really be summed up by two corners. On the Commerce/ Akard corner, beautiful additions that help strengthen downtown. On the Jackson / Browder corner, an undervalued yet highly potential corner is wasted. If the same treatment could be applied here as on the other corner, there really could be a home run in this renovation. And this one would serve as the model for towers built in the '80's. As it is, the parts they touched are better, highlighting the parts that aren't.

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