Dallas arts district going up amid forest of office towers

Will the highly touted ''arts district'' now under construction in downtown Dallas - ''the only one in North America,'' urban planner Vincent Ponte says - really work?

All around the 17-block arts district, where not long ago sleepy businesses and run-down houses stood, lavish office towers are racing one another to the sky. Also nearly completed is the barrel-vaulted Museum of Fine Arts, designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes.

Construction will soon begin on the I. M. Pei-designed Concert Hall, another beneficiary of bond issues in 1979 and 1982 toward the realization of a downtown arts district. The district was first recommended for the city in 1977 by Carr-Lynch, a consulting firm.

So why all the doubts? Why the suspicion that the long-envisioned arts district could turn out to be another ''architectural mausoleum'' after office hours, as workers go home to the su2urbs except during special museum exhibitions and the anticipated performances at the Concert Hall?

After months of discussions, meetings, coaxing, and persuading by the arts district coordinator, Dr. Philip Montgomery, and outgoing Mayor Jack Evans, the district is advancing beyond the land swaps and agreements among developers, owners, the city planning commission, civic leaders, and the directors of arts institutions.

But will the envisioned boulevards, fountain areas, and wide, landscaped pedestrianways teem with people if there are no small-craft shops, local artists , appealing restaurants, and street entertainments to enliven the area?

Also, can the merchants afford, without subsidy, the cost of space in developments that are built on land now going for $150 a square foot instead of the recent $25?

The area design for one of the largest commercial, residential, retail, and arts facilities in the country has been approved by the Dallas City Council. It is designed by Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass.

To help ensure its success, an additional ''threshing out'' was sponsored by Northwood Institute, a private business and management college in Michigan which each year brings together business, civic, and arts leaders. This year's conference was titled, ''A City Says Yes!''

Richard Huff, former arts coordinator for Dallas and now executive director of the Texas Commission on the Arts, says: ''Success of the arts as 'co-habitant' with the business development in the northeast quadrant of downtown will hinge on the development's success in attracting patrons to the planned hotels, restaurants, specialty shops, and other suitable businesses.

''With the high cost of retail and office space, these developers and businesses will want a very positive identification between the arts and other space occupants.

''Artists are not seen working in three-piece suits. It is grossly unfair to condemn the district for not providing opportunities that are, realistically, unfeasible.''

As keynote speaker, Mr. Ponte - a frequent consultant to the city on streets, pedestrianways, and landmark developments, such as Thanksgiving Square - commended district planners for their concern with spaces for artists and craftspeople to work and even dwell in.

''However,'' he pointed out, ''there are two worlds of art, interdependent but vastly different.

''One is the world of museums, institutions, chic galleries, collectors, and scholarships. The world of'the creative artist is untrammeled, anarchic, where life is lived in disregard of the 'niceties' embodied in an environment such as the arts district.''

Noting that Dallas now has the nuclei of ''Soho-type'' areas that are more the milieu of such artists, he recommended the alternative of emulating Rome, with its flower-banked Spanish Steps, or New York, with its dazzling, three-season flower display on Park Avenue.

Yet with all of this, a concern still lurks.If the two camps do not meet, melding colorful artists and artisans, ethnic food vendors, and street life with the corporate-world inhabitants of the elegant office towers, will the arts district become another after-hours ''ghost town''?

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