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Dallas finds its $2.6 billion Arts District is good for business

By 'Cele BerkmanSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 1983


By now, business knows that the cultural assets of a city are good for the business climate, too. Amid soaring new office towers in northeast downtown Dallas - not long ago a decaying area - the $2.6 billion Dallas Arts District, the largest urban development in the United States, is under way. Completion is expected in 10 to 15 years.

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On the 60-acre project, designed by Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass., the block-long Dallas Museum of Art, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, is already completed and will open officially in late January.

A new Symphony Hall, designed by I. M. Pei with acoustics by Russell Johnson, is to be completed in 1986. Surrounding the ''anchor'' museum and concert hall will be hotels, offices, galleries, boutiques, shops, fountains, walkways, downtown housing, a projected opera house, landscaping, and handsome ceremonial boulevards on streets realigned from dusty, hidden little blocks.

In recognition of the awakened concern for the city's vanishing historic buildings, the arts district is to incorporate the Arts Magnet School, the historic Belo Mansion (now headquarters for the Dallas Bar Association), St. Paul United Methodist Church, and the Gothic-style Cathedral Santuatrio de Guadelupe.

Dreamed of and agonized over, pushed and prodded by civic and business leaders and city officials from conception to approval, the project was a snarl of soaring land prices, land holdouts, land swapping, developers' wariness about building restrictions, and citizens' concern over whether there would be enough room for the ''little'' artists and craftspeople needed to make the area come alive.

All of it was ultimately coordinated by Dr. Philip Montgomery, associate dean at the University of Texas Dallas Health Science Center, a volunteer with a successful record of mediation.

A consulting firm, hired by the Central Business District Association (a coalition of more than 200 downtown businesses, developers, and banks under the direction of James Cloar), reported to the city on its choice of a location for the arts district: a piece of land already purchased land before the recent years of booming prices by farsighted Dallas Museum of Art trustees.

Major landowners in the area funded a study to help set guidelines for the new district. One important question was whether it should be self-contained, like Lincoln Center in New York.

Sasaki's winning design for an open ''district'' led to the recognition that the I.M. Pei concert hall, to include open space, would require more land, owned and eventually donated by the Borden Company.

But millions more were needed beyond construction costs ($29 million for the museum alone), and the leaders of the city who pride themselves on a ''can do'' attitude, swung into action. Contributions ranged from Arco's $1 million for the museum and $500,000 for the symphony hall to $100,000 from Texas Industries Inc. and Bozell & Jacobs, public relations and advertising.