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One Architect's Journey

Robert Meckfessel
DSGN Associates, Dallas


This architect’s journey into community involvement began when my wife and I moved back to my hometown of Dallas in 1992 after a four-year stay in New York. During my time living and working in Manhattan, I had come to greatly appreciate the joys - large and small - of a great urban center. The towers, bridges, and cultural institutions of New York tend to draw the most attention and the city is chock-full of wondrous examples. But what I came to truly love were the small things - the tree-lined side streets, sturdy brownstones, tiny mom-and-pop restaurants, and the pocket parks scattered up and down the island. While the big buildings and bridges get the glory, it was the smaller amenities that lend New York an often-overlooked subtlety and charm.

In contrast, the years I had been away had been hard on Dallas as the collapse of the financial, real estate, oil and gas, and construction industries had taken its toll. Lovely old buildings had been turned into parking lots for lack of tenants, downtown was empty and desolate, and the streets and parks were showing their age. The city had a gap-toothed, shabby air about it, and subtlety and charm were in short supply.

Thus, when asked to chair the AIA Dallas Neighborhood and Housing Committee by a very persuasive and persistent Executive Director, I accepted. One of the committee’s first projects was identification and mapping of the neighborhoods of Dallas, as a joint venture with Preservation Dallas. Surprisingly, this seemingly obvious task had never been done, and the resulting maps become highly effective tools for developing neighborhood organization and strategies. This initial effort led to a series of leadership positions with a number of other organizations, including the Presidency of Preservation Dallas, AIA Dallas, the Dallas Architecture Forum, and the Trinity Commons Foundation, a citizens group dedicated to realization of the Trinity River Plan, a city-transforming urban design initiative. The common thread among these disparate groups is that they are all concerned with the quality of our city, its neighborhoods, parks, environment, and livability.

At each of these organizations, I have had the opportunity and pleasure to work with dedicated citizens of the widest possible diversity of profession, ethnicity, income level, and viewpoints. At times, consensus has been difficult to achieve on what to do about a certain challenge, or how to do it, or who should do it. But I have come to realize that those giving up their time to take on these challenges are, for the most part, motivated by a true concern for the quality of their city. While we may differ on many things, all of these activists are united by a concern for the places we will leave to our children and our grandchildren.

However, there are far too few such activists. Someone once said, “90% of success is simply showing up.” The media regularly reports shockingly low voter turnouts at elections. But citizen involvement drops even further when one moves beyond the voting booth and down to city hall, where the action really is. As a result, a relatively small number of activists have great influence over elected and appointed officials. This is both good news and bad news situation; more involvement from the community is certainly to be desired. However, it does mean that those of us who do advocate our points-of-view can count on being heard.

The bottom line for me? I have met a incredibly diverse group of dedicated, enthusiastic individuals along the way, many of whom remain friends long after completion of whatever brought us together in the first place. I have learned invaluable skills from the best leaders of our community, useful not only in my advocacy efforts, but also in my own architectural practice. And I have had the pleasure of working with others to significantly affect planning decisions and policies with which we disagreed.

Most importantly, though, Dallas is looking a lot better these days, with an increasingly vibrant downtown, a visionary urban plan for the Trinity River Corridor, and a variety of newly invigorated neighborhoods. There is still far to go, but whatever effort it takes will be worth it as we build the city that our children and their children will inherit.

 

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