106 W Commerce Design Process Begins with Powerful Community Listening Session.
More listening session will be announced in the coming weeks.

On August 20, the Conservancy announced the selection of nationally-renowned WEISS/MANFREDI Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism (W/M) as design architect to re-imagine 106 W Commerce. Dallas-based Malone Maxwell Dennehy Architects (MMDA) will serve as the local architect. The selection comes from a public search process that resulted in 45 submissions from a diverse array of local, regional, national and international architecture firms. W/M stood out due to their talent and the visionary ideas they presented.

The idea of a collaborative process was a central part of the team’s proposal and input from the community is what will help make this project a success. To do this the design team and the Conservancy held the first of many community listening sessions on Friday, August 21, one day after the design team for 106 W Commerce was officially announced.

The virtual listening session, which marks the beginning of the design process that works toward a design concept as early as Spring ’21, brought a diverse group of more than 20 community members together to spend some time with the design team, the Conservancy staff and board members. The community members included people who have worked in, been incarcerated in, or live and work near the building. It also included leaders of re-entry, social justice, community and educational organizations.

What came through the session was the pain this building has meant to the community and City of Dallas and the need for it to become a place of healing. Due to the sensitive nature of some of the comments, certain community members’ names will not be identified. Jesse R. Dawson State Jail was a brutal place to many and was described by a formerly incarcerated Black woman as “a place of holding, a place of slavery, a place of goodbye….” Richard Miles, who was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated and is Founder of Miles of Freedom said, “…this building shows Dallas’ need and hunger for incarceration.” Another community member who was also incarcerated there said that “it hurts so much the way they locked us up and treated us like animals, it’s hard to see the building when I pass by — it brings back bad memories and pain.”

Jason Hernandez, Founder of Crack Open the Door, said, “[this building] means that we are acknowledging that hurt people hurt people. That despite the wrongs we may commit we are all human, we are worthy to be treated as such, that we are all worthy and susceptible to redemption, forgiveness and not just on a criminal justice level but in every aspect of our society and world. No one should be deprived of nature, warmth, love regardless of what they do or don’t do in life.”

Not only were those that were personally affected by the building saw the inhumanity of it, Deborah Carpenter, West Dallas Community Member, has “…vivid memories of lines of visitors standing outside in all kinds of weather, [which] showed the lack of respect to these people. Newspaper reports of the conditions and way people were treated were a litany of horrors.”

"No one should be deprived of nature, warmth, love regardless of what they do or don’t do in life.”

- Jason Hernandez

It was also very apparent that an important part of the design process will be how to find ways to acknowledge and preserve the building’s past. Some of the building’s history is currently displayed through murals and art inside, but as Clyde Valentin, Conservancy Board Member and Director of Ignite Arts, said, “the presentation and memorialization are something to look at, but it can’t be isolated in history. The story is on-going, and the challenges are ongoing, and we cannot think in isolation.”

Many of the community members made it clear that it is important that we continue to tell the stories of those that were affected, not just now at the beginning, but throughout the entirety of the design process and within the building once it is re-imagined. “We have a great opportunity right now to collectively come together to redo the narrative and reintroduce this narrative where we as a city have fallen short. How can we take something that is so apparent, but that isn’t transparent? The building is there, but the stories aren’t transparent,” said Miles.

These are the types of questions that led to what kinds of opportunities 106 W Commerce holds for the community: in addition to a discussion of its past, the group talked about the building’s potential and their hopes for its transformation into a place that can have a positive impact. Richard, “Chico” Smith, Community Member, said, “…the building transformed my life and it is touching, I am super excited for what it can be used for, excited for the redemption of the building.”

“The building has a new soul that needs to be revealed and when the architecture is really good and part of the community, it has a heart,” said Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi.

Many ideas were discussed such as bringing jobs to the area, a community garden, space for nonprofits to work and many more. Ideas on addressing the needs of those who are coming out of the county jail across the street were also a big topic of discussion. Pat Stephens, West Dallas Community Member, said, “…when they get out many don’t have money or transportation. It would be nice if the building housed social services for assistance: clothing, bus passes and food.” Vicki Rice, Dallas County Employee, said, “…it can become a bridge from the criminal justice system to the community.”

Making the building feel open and welcoming was also very important to those in the session. Ideas like knocking down the walls, making the building transparent, incorporating green space, creating a comfortable place and incorporating vivid colors. Hernandez would like to “…feel connected to the land, to the city, to society, to the earth, to the universe, to everyone around me. I want to feel distant from all the daily structures in our lives.”

“This will be hard work, and we may not be able to incorporate every idea that was presented, but the opportunity to transform 106 W Commerce into a place of healing, transformation and connection to nature are what the Conservancy and W/M are taking with all reverence and importance that it deserves,” said Walter Elcock, Conservancy Interim CEO.

What comes next is for W/M to get back to the Conservancy and community a proposed scope and schedule, including additional team members and community partners and a meeting approach. The goals for the design are guided by our mission of connecting people to nature and each other through community partnership. The Conservancy is open to a range of possibilities, although the design process for 106 W Commerce is guided by significant constraints — regulatory, structural, and financial. Over the course of this process, we will work to understand and navigate these constraints together with our community partners.

This is just the beginning, and we want to hear from you. The Conservancy wants to include as many voices as possible throughout this process and if you want to be involved, please send an email to [email protected].