Buttoned-down Dallas plans to loosen its collar, have more fun

Jack and Judy Feenstra's visit to Dallas fizzled. On summer vacation from Grand Rapids, Mich., the Feenstras came here looking for the Kennedy assassination site and any other points of interest the center of the nation's seventh largest city might have to offer.

But at 7 p.m. the downtown's wide, tidy streets are deserted. Mr. Feenstra says the only other attraction his family could find was a pioneer cabin on display in a nearby park. Mrs. Feenstra says the lack of activity makes her wonder if the city is safe.

But the joke about this all-work-and-no-play downtown is that the only danger the pedestrian faces is falling asleep.

The Michigan family left a day earlier than planned. But if they return in a few years, their experience may be quite different. There are signs downtown Dallas is beginning to wake up and loosen its tie.

Assistant city manager Jim Reid says a series of public-private ventures are purposefully transforming downtown Dallas into a vibrant, well-rounded center of what locals like to consider ``the queen of Sun Belt cities.''

The biggest draw for families may be a proposed ``Festival Marketplace'' by urban fun-spot developer James Rouse. The site is expected to draw 10 million visitors a year to downtown Dallas. Other major projects planned or completed in the 900-acre downtown include:

A municipal activities complex, including a new library, an I. M. Pei-designed City Hall, a convention center, a sports arena, and a Hyatt Regency Hotel.

The West End, a collection of old buildings that sat idle for years after initial plans were announced, but which has recently become home to more than 20 restaurants and night spots. And specialty shops are beginning to move in.

An arts district, anchored by the 18-month-old Dallas Museum of Arts and a 2,200-seat symphony hall, set for completion in late 1988. The spine of the district will be Flora Street, now running through parking lots and underutilized buildings, but which the city hopes will eventually rival Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive. City plans call for it to be transformed into a high-line retail street, with wide walks, lots of trees, and low building heights.

Mr. Rouse's Baltimore-based Enterprise Development Corporation plans to develop a three-story marketplace for restaurants, specialty shops, and outdoor entertainment. As its part of the bargain, the city would build an eight-acre park -- complete with waterways and peddle boats -- and a 1,000-car parking garage.

The project, which would tie in with an adjacent farmers' market, would resemble such nationally known Rouse developments as Quincy Market in Boston and Harborplace in Baltimore.

``No one used to go into Baltimore,'' says Mr. Reid. ``Now with their Harborplace they have 22 million visitors a year.''

Some city council members in this bastion of free enterprise are a bit unsure about the public's proposed share of the project -- one-quarter of the $100 million price tag. But Mr. Reid says the city's percentage of this venture would be much lower than the public shares in other Rouse projects around the country.

Reid says regular approval of bond issues for downtown projects indicate public support. Jerry Allen, coordinator of the Dallas City Arts Program, who moved here two years ago from Seattle, says he is convinced the city's ``can-do'' spirit and desire for a ``pleasant, interesting'' downtown will make it happen.

Why is so much coming together in the downtown just now?

John Johnson, chairman of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, says a major catalyst is the unabated ``boom'' in downtown development, including a doubling of office space in the past five years. Projections call for almost 50 million square feet -- and 150,000 downtown workers -- by the end of 1987.

And Reid says city leaders recognize that if the downtown is to compete with some of the new suburban office complexes, it will have to offer more than just office space.

``We may not have the golf courses and lakes,'' he says, ``but no place else will have a symphony hall or something like the marketplace. That's what downtowns are all about.''

Plans for a rapid transit system, with the downtown at its center, are also encouraging ``people-oriented'' development downtown, city leaders say. Roads around the city's northside shopping malls are now virtual parking lots many evening and Saturday mornings, so rapid transit is expected to boost downtown retail activity.

But Mr. Johnson says there is something more to it. He says many people traveling to other countries experience the world's lively, people-filled urban centers, and realize ``we can have the same thing in our own backyard.''

Johnson has done more than just talk about enlivening downtown. His law firm, Johnson & Swanson, has turned a turn-of-the-century warehouse into a showcase office building surrounded by a public park.

Asked why he undertook the renovation, Johnson says, ``It was fun.''

And fun is part of the idea behind the metamorphosis of downtown Dallas. Betsy Field, public relations director at the downtown Adolphus Hotel, says the hotel's efforts to attract downtown workers after office hours -- with free food, music, and art exhibits -- have met with great success.

``People will stay in downtown Dallas if you give them a reason to,'' she says.

And Paula Peters, programs director for the Central Dallas Association, says the city's wealth and maturity have allowed people to begin thinking more about amenities like aesthetics, pedestrian enjoyment, and outdoor entertainment.

``Downtown is unquestionably a business-oriented place,'' she says, ``but in the coming years I hope we start to see kids in tee-shirts and people carrying cameras outnumbering the people in business suits carrying briefcases.''

Mr. and Mrs. Feenstra: Are you listening?

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