Jon Gaskell: Less is more

Sherman has right plan for Court Avenue

Court Avenue has always seemed to need saving. It has been underdeveloped. It has been underappreciated. It has been under the thumbs of many of the wrong people. And, most notably, it has been underwater. Court Avenue has also lived for decades at the end of a question, as in, "What should we do with Court Avenue?" Many have tried to answer this question, of course, offering up big, shiny ideas to pull the district from its perceived cross, to help sweep up the supposed tumble weed. And many have failed.

And while the jockeying for public funds and the bitching and the fighting has come and gone again and again, what has not come and gone are the people who have tirelessly toiled to keep Court Avenue chugging along. They have an answer to the question of "What should we do with Court Avenue?" And the answer is this: "nurture it like one would any neighborhood."

Court Avenue is not West Glen. And Court Avenue does not need a rollercoaster or a strip club or a casino to stay alive, because Court Avenue is already alive. Are empty buildings depressing? Yes. Could better people be involved? Obviously. Does Larry Smithson ever run out of paint and names for bars? No. But drastically altering the dynamic of Court Avenue would go a long way toward killing Court Avenue. Jordan Creek was built in eastern Dallas County not because it was an attractive area but because it was flat and nothing was there.

For certain, five, 10, 20 years ago we needed big thinking for Court Avenue. Nothing much was going on there. And nothing much was going on around it either. "Dead Moines" is what people called it, and they were pretty much on point. Court Avenue needed some Jordan Creek-type saving.

However, that's simply no longer the case.

And while city and downtown leaders begin to decide which of the five proposed plans for this historic district should be chosen for the empty city-owned block between Fourth and Fifth streets, they need to keep the following in mind: less is more. Court Avenue needs to be enhanced, built up by thoughtful people who do not want to disrupt the good things happening there and the history that has preceded those good things.

Thinking small is rarely a popular notion. But thinking small is exactly what Court Avenue needs. The people who have brought it this far, the small business owners, the downtown neighborhood leaders, have done so by biting off small pieces, by writing small checks, by investing years of elbow grease. And like anything that is cared for, it has affected deeply that which exists around it. People have taken notice. People want to be involved. People see an opportunity.

But the opportunity should be only about doing what's best for Court Avenue and downtown. I've examined the plans by the five developers in the running, and it doesn't take but a second or two of reading before one begins to wonder if some of the individuals who want in on the action have ever bothered to take a look around, much less ever set foot on Court Avenue. Mike Whalen may make one hell of a chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes blue-plate special, but plopping one of his Heartland Inns down in the middle of Court Avenue with its corporate meeting space and executive exercise room makes about as much sense as his running for Congress. The name recognition is obviously there, but do we want it to represent us?

The same can be said for the Nelson project. A 24,000 square foot inPlay Gaming Center? Fifteen-hundred square foot inPlay Party Rooms? A 4,000 square foot inZone Sports Bar? A 25,000 square foot banquet and conference facility? Very ambitious. Very interesting. If it's in Clive.

The Ryan Companies and 5C both have decent, well-thought-out ideas that observe the historical significance of the district, but again, do we need more quarter-million to half-million dollar condos being built downtown, and do we really need hundreds of hotel rooms on Court? Is it the Riverwalk or family members in jail that will be packing these rooms night in and night out? Ryan and 5C, I would say, are simply a little too bold for what Court currently needs. Players for both these groups have demonstrated their value to the community, yes, and both have brought ideas to the table whose time had undoubtedly come. But what they propose now for Court is akin to what would have been a winner five years ago: a life preserver, huge ideas, more form than function.

Which leads me to the Sherman project.

The Sherman project has behind it a group that stuck around after the fire, much like the people who stuck around after the floods. George Sherman rebuilt the Waterstreet development after it was reduced to ash and he could have quit. Sherman is a settler. And Sherman knows the neighborhood well enough to understand that a four- or six-screen movie theater, small grocery store, a little retail and 60 market-rate apartments is enough. Sherman, or so it seems, understands that you don't need to land a spaceship in the middle of everything to get people's attention; you need milk and eggs.

Big thinking has its place in the history of all great cities. But Court Avenue has always been a game of inches - whether it was what was best for the district or not. Five years ago, 10 years ago, we needed lazer tag. We needed an attraction. We needed bodies. Now we need to carefully look at what we have and build on it. Don't be seduced by the next big thing. Court Avenue is already it. CV

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