We’re all familiar with the concept of the McMansion: a large well appointed home on a generous parcel of land on the far edge of a metroplex. Very often these comfortable homes are organized inside a private community in a walled compound. I’ve noticed a recent trend in urban infill development that mimics this model in city centers. I find this deeply puzzling and I’m tempted to call these neighborhoods of clustered gated residential apartments “McCities”.
This upscale apartment complex in downtown Dallas is smack between the Perot Museum of Nature and Science and the super trendy W Hotel. The people who built this complex (and presumably the people who pay high rents to live there) are aiming to capture the value of urban amenities. But the complex is made of the same components as a hermetically sealed North Dallas gated community. It has no interest in interacting with the city it sits in. People drive in and drive out – even if they’re only going two blocks away. The place repels pedestrians on all sides. And inside is a miniature world of grassy berms designed to reassure residents that this is, in fact, a respectable establishment with a tidy lawn and flower beds. It’s profoundly suburban.
The larger context of the neighboring buildings reflects the same indifference to the city. These structures have no particular interest in engaging humans. They either present blank concrete walls to the street or are massive sculptural monuments – also made of blank concrete walls.
This building is bland, but serviceable enough – except for the way the ground floor interacts with the street. I want to praise it for coming right up to the sidewalk and actually having doors and windows rather than a dead facade, but this place gets the important details so wrong.
In a suburban location this sort of “garden apartment” half-assed balcony and shrubbery arrangement is tolerable. But in the city it’s just bad. The inhabitants of these ground floor apartments will almost certainly feel overly exposed to the street while the view out toward the massive parking garage or surface parking lot through security gates is uninspiring. Notice the garage is the same size as the apartment building itself. People simply don’t know how to design and construct good urban buildings anymore. We just seem to have forgotten over the last few generations.
It wasn’t all that long ago that people in Dallas regularly built great buildings that contributed to a vibrant street culture and quietly added value to each other and the city as a whole. It wasn’t rocket science. If we’re going to re-inhabit our city centers again after decades of flight to the suburbs we’re going to have to relearn these basic skills. Otherwise we’re just going to end up with a string of caged-in car dependent pods in a McCity.