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Dallas Theater Center's plans for the Kalita Humphreys Theater face pushback over "sticker shock"

Kalita presentation (2).jpg
City of Dallas TV
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Dallas City Council live meeting broadcast
Presenting the Dallas Theater Center's plan to the Qualify of Life, Arts and Culture committee of the Dallas City Council were DTC chair, Jennifer Altabef, project architect Duncan Fulton and DTC executive director Kevin Moriarty. Not seen but present via video connection was architect Charles Renfro of Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, the plan's designers.

The $308 million price tag for the Dallas Theater Center's new plan to renovate the Frank Lloyd Wright landmark and upgrade its surrounding park gave some on a Dallas city council committee pause

Dallas Mayor pro tem Omar Narvaez brought up the issue of "sticker shock" at the very start of the meeting early Tuesday. In 2010, a master plan put renovating the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed theater at $25 million.

"Which I don't think there's anybody opposed to that," he said. "But there was never a mention of a massive Dallas theater campus in the park. So I kind of feel like there was a bait and switch."

Actually, councilmember Narvaez reminded the DTC representatives he was "proud and glad" to have been the sole dissenting vote on the 2010 plan, predicting then that it would balloon like this.

Narvaez and the DTC reps were speaking at a meeting of the Dallas City Council's Quality of Life, Arts and Culture Committee. It was the first meeting of what may be six public sessions before the plan is put to a vote before the full city council. Other committees include Parks and Recreation, Landmarks and Arts and Culture.

kalita.jpg
Wikimedia Commons
Frank Lloyd Wright's 1959 design for the Kalita Humphreys Theater clearly resembles his work on such projects as the Guggenheim Museum and the famous Fallingwater residence. But the horizontals also reflect limestone bluffs on which the theater stands.

In fact, several of the Quality of Life committee members expressed the wish that the Theater Center had presented its plan to other committees first. That way, some of the issues would have already been vetted. The Quality of Life meeting ended with a unanimous vote of members present that the DTC return with a revised plan — before offering it to the city council for a vote.

The 2010 master plan was never fully adopted by the city because the economy at the time caused a drastic drop in tax revenue. The plan focused on restoring the venue to its original 1959 state, as designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Its motivation was architectural preservation — to remove additions that, for good or ill, had attempted to address some of the building's weaknesses (the tiny lobby and the lack of rehearal or education spaces).

In 2019, because the city was on the hook for maintaining the decaying structure, it tasked the Dallas Theater Center with coming up with a new plan. That's why, the DTC representatives said, the embellishments to the 2010 plan came about: The city encouraged the DTC to address the concerns of the larger theater community and the neighborhood around William Dean Park, where the theater is located.

Designed by Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, these new additions include underground parking garages, a cafe and restaurant and more access from the Katy Trail. Charles Renfro of DS+R, who addressed the committee via video, stressed that most of these did not represent "additional" facilities at all but were, essentially, spaces that would be removed from the original Kalita and the nearby Heldt office building (such as a rehearsal room, lobby space, black box theater) and re-distributed around the park.

Plus, Dean Park would be made even greener — because of the loss of a lot of the parking spaces which would go underground.

Charles Renfro presentation at Kalita (2).jpg
Dallas Theater Center
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Architect Charles Renfro of Diller, Scofidio+Renfro presenting the new Kalita master plan at the Kalita, December 7, 2022. The white shape in the center is the Kalita Humphreys.

Committee member Paula Blackmon was echoed by a number of others when she said she is an arts supporter and a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. ("We're pretty lucky to have one [of his buildings] in our city.") But she suggested the Theater Center should devise several different options. The current plan was being offered as seemingly an all-or-nothing proposition. Add all this or — what? Let the Kalita fall apart?

"I guess when you design anything, you do put everything in there," Blackmon said, "and then you start working down to what do you need versus — what is the Cadillac version? And you kind of just start that negotiation."

She added, "And I don't want to be the city that tore down a Frank Lloyd Wright."

Part of the pushback from committee members came from the already-competitive environment for the city's 2024 bond issue. Backers of the Kalita plan see that as a prime source for the city's part in funding the project. Jennifer Altabef, chair of the board of the theater center, said that private sources would make up the difference, though she didn't not specify how much that would be. Altabef is also a member of KERA's Board of Directors.

But committee members cited the Trinity River Park, Fair Park, Klyde Warren Park and the Southern Gateway Deck Park as also vying to be part of that bond package.

"I'm a huge advocate of the arts," said committee chair, Adam Bazaldua. "I never want to take away money from it that isn't needed. But . . . I still have not heard a compelling enough argument to why this would need to take precedent over other much more dire needs when we start crafting our propositions when it comes to the bond."

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.