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Crowdus: Reviving Deep Ellum in Downtown Dallas

This post is part of our series on Vibrant Communities.

Drugstore Cowboy sits at the junction of Main Street and Crowdus. When it rains, silver edged light filters through painted window panels saturated with color. Against the bruised skies on an early weekday morning, soaked brick buildings and graffiti spattered walls give life to mostly deserted streets. Inside the coffee bar, a small group of designers and activists from Gensler, Studio Outside, Design Future Dallas, and the Deep Ellum Foundation have pushed a couple of weathered wood tables together. Site maps, plans and process renderings cover all surfaces; a cohesive design begins to emerge and take shape.

History is inescapable in Deep Ellum. The telephone poles on Crowdus Street are visual markers of the passage of time. Studded with rusted staples and papered with countless layers and ripped scraps of old concert posters, they line either side of the street like grizzled sentries, and stand true testaments to Deep Ellum’s character: a culture shaped by its factory roots, and driven by the creative community at its heart.

Located on the east side of Downtown Dallas, Deep Ellum in the early 20th century was a thriving industrial neighborhood featuring factories for the Continental Gin Company and Ford’s Model T. With the onset of the Roaring Twenties, the neighborhood became the legendary home of early jazz and blues giants. Over time, the country saw the rise of the automobile and slow death of the railway. By 1969 the Central Expressway cleaved through Deep Ellum, erasing an entire block, and expediting business and residential abandonment of the neighborhood. This is a familiar tale of urban decline. What is less familiar, however, is Deep Ellum’s grassroots-fueled journey of revival.

Neo-Native enhances the existing character of Deep Ellum to transform the street into a pedestrian park. Image © Gensler

Battling its misleading reputation as a crime-ridden neighborhood, Deep Ellum is now growing into one of Dallas’ celebrated, authentic cultural centers. Home to large scale murals from local artists, new residential construction, music venues, bars, and eclectic restaurants, the neighborhood thrives with visitor activity from across Dallas, and hosts a tight-knit community of residents, creatives and local business-owners.

In 2014, Gensler’s Dallas office developed a Master Plan for Deep Ellum. Citing Brooklyn (New York City), the French Quarter (New Orleans), and the New Pathways District (Memphis) as references, the vision transforms the neighborhood into a series of smaller, unified areas that enhance the existing character of each. The master plan focuses on revitalizing the existing disparate properties, developing a parking plan, and, most importantly, enriching the pedestrian experience. As a city, Dallas has long struggled with a dearth of public spaces. In a 2016 ParkScore ranking, Dallas ranks at 54 out of 75 of the largest cities in the U.S. Recognizing this need early on, Gensler proposed to shut down the entirety of Crowdus Street and turn it into a pedestrian corridor and park, along with two additional urban parks incorporated throughout.

In February 2016, Design Future Dallas – a non-profit collective of creative thinkers passionate about urban development – hosted an international design competition, Crowdus 2.0. Calling for a two phased design proposal for Crowdus Street as a pedestrian thoroughfare, the competition solicited ideas from around the city, country and world. As seen on the competition website, designers were asked to prioritize three things:

  1. Preserve the cultural heritage of Deep Ellum.
  2. Protect the neighborhood’s history and authenticity while allowing room for its identity to evolve.
  3. Create a practical framework and provide real useable space to residents and visitors.

Sixty-seven designers from over 26 teams entered the competition, and design proposals came from 10 different countries. A small team of passionate designers – Ryan Jensen, Ellie Hopen and Matt Robinson of Gensler Dallas – won first place.

The Beasts form the spine of the park. Image © Gensler

Named Neo-Native, their award-winning design built upon an unwavering fundamental philosophy to stay true to the rich character of Deep Ellum. With the visceral layers of history and time as a starting point, the design takes form in a flexible, evolving architectonic language of steel and wood. Reflective of the authentic, grassroots community revival that’s shaped Deep Ellum’s development so far, these anatomical structures, or Beasts, form the framework of the park, running the north/south axis of Crowdus. Evocative of the Loch Ness legend, the Beasts roam down the street, weathered, tactile, and earthy. Movable furniture, planters, lighting, wayfinding elements, and shade structures populate the skeletal forms.

Unlike most other urban parks, Neo-Native accounts for cars running along cross streets. To slow vehicular traffic, the Beasts raise pristine chrome rings above each cross-section. Representing the timeless purity and irrepressible spirit at the heart of Deep Ellum, each reflective ring dissipates and grows steadily more fragmented away from Main Street, providing subtle wayfinding cues. At night, the modular, infinitely reconfigurable furniture can transform into a stage under one of these rings for planned and impromptu concerts and performances. The space is programmed to accommodate all manner of installations, art forms, gatherings, markets, and pavilions. Existing businesses are provided extra space to spill into the street, extend their services, and create shaded outdoor gathering spaces. To celebrate the surrounding’s rich colors and vibrant graffiti, the material palette is neutral and natural: wood, steel, and chrome.

The truth of Dallas’ evolution has long been obscured by stereotypes. Although there is basis to the formation of this reputation, passionate, creative designers are working to slowly transform the city. While Gensler enjoys a global reputation for excellent design, in truth, our firm is composed of talented individuals dedicated to improving our cities. In this moment, all the right ingredients have come together: the award-winning Neo-Native is about to go live. Partnering with the competition hosts – Design Future Dallas – as well as the Deep Ellum Foundation and landscape architecture firm Studio Outside, Gensler is part of a strong team seeking to turn the vision of Crowdus into a tangible reality.

Sadia Quddus is part of the Texas PR team. Educated as an architect, she chose to follow her passion for expressing the beauty of thought that drives the design process. Paired with her curiosity and an insatiable love for people, her skills have equipped her well as a storyteller. Vulnerable to wanderlust, her broad international travel experience has engendered a healthy obsession to constantly seek and learn. She also really, really loves words. Contact her at sadia_quddus@gensler.com