Contributed by:
Ben Reavis

Coffee & Conversation: Kalita Humphreys Theater Master Plan

The AIA Dallas Public Policy Committee kicked off our 2023 Coffee & Conversation series with a presentation and panel discussion highlighting the newly released Dallas Theater Center (DTC)-led master plan for the Kalita Humphreys Theater and site.

Executive Director Kevin Moriarty explained that, DTC has occupied the Frank Lloyd Wright designed theater since its completion in 1959. The Kalita is the only FLW building in Dallas and the only standalone FLW theater ever constructed. The building is universally viewed as an asset worthy of preservation but, as with most City of Dallas assets, has an ever-growing list of deferred maintenance clouding its future. 

In recognition of their history with the building and as the current tenant, the City of Dallas asked the DTC to update a decade old masterplan for the site within an established framework.

  • The theater, which is burdened with several rounds of interior and exterior alterations, should be returned to its original 1959 condition
  • The master plan should consider the entire 9-acre site including the parkland fronting Turtle Creek and the Katy Trail
  • A City-sanctioned steering committee, comprised of representatives of various interest groups, would be included in the process
  • The Heldt building, which separately houses support functions and a black box theater was to be replaced and could not be removed until a new facility was operational
  • DTC was responsible for fundraising for their dedicated elements.

The DTC ultimately selected NYC-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro to lead the planning team. Duncan Fulton, serving as the DTC design representative, presented the master plan which attempts to strike a balance between this framework and other priorities including:

  • Respecting the Kalita and its original design intent
  • Restoring the natural park elements by reducing surface paving and parking
  • Activating the site outside of programmed events
  • Generating revenue for ongoing maintenance and operations
  • Engaging existing assets including the Katy Trail, Turtle Creek and other natural features

The current proposal includes 4 new uniquely articulated pavilions distributed evenly along the Katy Trail on the east edge of the site. The new structures engage the existing limestone escarpments selectively and begin to establish physical connections to the trail above. In deference to the original white stucco theater, the scale of the pavilions decreases in proximity to the centrally located Kalita. The new programmatic elements include additional performance and rehearsal venues, a subterranean lobby, a public pavilion, and event space along with a restaurant and café on opposing ends of the site. Most elements are perched atop structured parking (200+ spaces) in an effort to maximize surface area available for the park component.

Katherine Seale, Hilda Rodriguez, and Zaida Basora, who all served on the steering committee, joined the DTC team to answer questions about the expansive master plan. Seale joked that they were all very skeptical at first but came to appreciate and support the final work product, which balances the needs of a modern theater, historically neglected park grounds, and an important architectural building. Rodriguez also noted that there was a significant amount of community input given – and incorporated – into the final plan and images.

The DTC team suggested that the pavilion strategy provided an inherent ability to phase the project which has been presented along with its $300 million cumulative cost estimate. That number came as a shock to the City and its Council members whose only point of reference was the 10 year old master plan and its estimate of $55m. While the restoration of the historic Kalita is itself about $50 million, the City asked DTC to explore a much broader master plan with scalable costs. The design team walked the audience through the component costs, pushing back on the primary critique of the master plan to date. Public criticism has not focused on the design and programmatic elements, but on the cost and a perceived inability to raise the funds privately.

DTC reinforced that $250 million of the total project cost would be raised privately outside of city bond funding. They did not offer much detail on likely sources of the private funds or the timeline for that campaign. Additionally, they are not prepared to make a specific allocation request for the 2023-24 bond funds currently in discussion, saying they will not until the plan is approved.

Specific questions about phasing, construction priorities and fundraising, they say, also cannot be addressed until the plan is approved. So it seems this important effort is at a crossroads. DTC has made a good faith effort to update the master plan but is not prepared to make further commitments without a formal development agreement. The City, which is consistently asked to fill gaps in funding from ambitious “privately funded” arts related construction projects, is understandably wary of proceeding without more information.

In the Q&A portion of the program, a comparison was made to another city owned building, the Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District. That venue was designed to be phased and include additional smaller venues to support a diverse range of emerging arts groups. According to Moriarty, the city’s 2019 Cultural Arts Plan abandoned hope that the city would fund those additional phases in the near future. That program is now being incorporated into this master plan at the request of the city, which begs the question, who should be responsible for funding those components. It doesn’t seem fair for the city to expect the DTC to raise the funds for venues they don’t need or plan to utilize. 

DTC and its public partners at the City need to refocus the conversation on prioritizing the planning goals along with what is at stake. While this ambitious master plan hangs in the balance, the real risk for the city is further degradation of a true architectural treasure. Both parties need to acknowledge their own contributions to the price tag of the vision and lay out a plan to fund the key elements.

Kevin Moriarty - DTC Executive Director
Duncan Fulton, FAIA - DTC Design Rep
Katherine Seale, Hon. TxA - Steering Committee
Hilda Rodriguez, AIA - Steering Committee
Zaida Basora, FAIA - Steering Committee
Katie O’Brien - Moderator