I'm going to review two by request today, Southlake Town Square and the Eisemann Center in Richardson, both of which have been built within the last ten or so years. Keep in mind the word integral mentioned above, because that is what gets lost in the majority of our attempts at these single-purpose, off the shelf, attempts at something loosely called "sense of place."
In other words, it has been completely bastardized for marketing purposes as our transportation, real estate, and placemaking, i.e. people places, have all lost sight of one another when they ought to be intertwined. That gets too in the way of the road builders and "efficiency" pursuers, even though the end result of their labor is the antithesis of efficient.
First up, Southlake Town Square: Suburban, OK.
The first thing I notice regarding the primary square at Southlake is its scale that would make emperor's blush. Three football fields side by side can fit within the building envelope. Likely intentionally large to allow for large gatherings, it isn't exactly designed to suit events, lacking a bit of flexibility in its intent. I imagine the large pond and fountain collects some of the runoff hence its relative lack of accessibility. If the water is purely functional, I imagine it could be collected somewhere else.
Sure, it looks nice, but the fact that you can't interact with it, get down to the level and touch it, detracts from its aesthetics. Furthermore, being that it is sunken creates a weird spatial environment in such a large open space, that I get a bit agoraphobic thinking about it. Of course, I'm open to corrections if you can get down to it.
The larger issue is the relationship between building height and the distance between building faces, i.e. the width of the space. Like it or not we're still cave people. We like feeling as though we are within confined spaces. The rough max building height to open space relationship where we still feel as though we're within an "outdoor room" is about 1:5, say two 20' tall buildings separated by a 100' wide space. The relationship at Southlake looks to be about 1:12, hence agoraphobia.
I also question what this does for the commercial environment, since cross shopping is divided by such a large distance. Contrast this with my favorite part of Southlake:
I give this space an A+, given its context. It feels nice, it doesn't try to do too much, it feels integral to its environment.
Perhaps that is another part of the problem with the main square, that it is divided by the large arterial Southlake Boulevard. This is rather natural, you want to get people off of that road, because duh, it's an awful road. So instead of improving the road (unthinkable!), you create a road side attraction and make the experience off-center from the road:
If you buy into the work of Bill Hillier and Space Syntax, you know that any/every deviation from the primary axis or energy source, that being the arterial, is realized by an incremental loss in value.
Except, they are improving the road according to the latest google earth aerial!...
Or not. Actually, it just looks like they are adding what I presume to be a grass median. This is "improvement." The road isn't being narrowed, still three travel lanes on each side. Traffic isn't being slowed. And perhaps even worse, they are blockading connections between the two sides of development. All through movement, no stick around movement. No gravitational pull.
Other than the arbitrary shrubbing and overly wide scale of the square, it's about as best we can do under the iron and ignorant fist of traffic engineers.
Eisemann Center, Richardson. Grade, Incomplete.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this yet. This has been a long time in the works, yet the development has filled out slowly. Very slowly. In fact, the plaza, I suppose, isn't even yet fully enclosed. That is, if the plaza is what seems to be more of a pedestrian promenade between the DART stop and the performing arts center.
It can look great with the proper framing and optics! Stepping back a bit is where the confusion sets in...
As you can see at the bottom left, the last site hasn't yet filled in. I'm confused as to where the center of this place is. Again, it is presumably the axis running left to right on this image. However, the placement of the garages and office buildings is clumsy. I guess the office buildings needed to interact with some abstract landscape rather than a potential people place. Meanwhile the garages occupy two corners of the primary junction point of the place.
However, even if the last parcel were to fill in, I'm skeptical the critical mass is there to bring the place to life. I think the scale and minimalist design of the plaza will be perfectly fine and nice. With the highway acting as a barrier on one side, less than a quarter mile in the other three directions, whatever they're trying to build here runs into awful suburban arterials and disconnected office parks, none of which have much of a relationship between each other. Precisely why the value will be sucked right out of all of them. Hopefully the Eisemann and its context can stay strong, providing the seed of regeneration when all else fails around it.