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Aesthetics in the downtown

In a real-estate hot spot such as Dallas, where downtown land has sold for as much as $222 a square foot, using every inch with utilitarian frugality makes good sense. Right?

Well, not always, according to Joseph J. Scalabrin, a partner in RTKL Associates with projects in 40 cities across the United States.

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New York's Rockefeller Center, he told a gathering of architects, urban planners, developers, and corporate heads, is renowned for its open spaces, byways, and aesthetics, not its buildings.

''Places which excite and console, which gather people, are the most enjoyable places for customers, employees, and the general community,'' said the architect. ''And art provides the identity.''

But what of the economics? Can owners and developers afford the amenities?

''Yes,'' replied Staman Ogilvie, vice-president for development of Gerald D. Hines Interests, a company with hotels and office projects in 15 cities, including the Galleria in Houston.

Sponsored by Northwood Institute, a business management college in Michigan, the conference was aimed at exploring the relationship between business and the arts.

Affirming Northwood Institute's premise that ''the arts make good business partners,'' Mr. Ogilvie said that tenant satisfaction in an artful, well-designed project can increase the return on investment over the long pull by as much as one-third.

The Mies van der Rohe-designed Montreal Square in Canada, for example, is drawing higher rents than many new buildings, yet it is 15 years old.

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However, added Mr. Ogilvie, the marketplace must be sufficiently sophisticated and have enough artistic commitment. The developer must be adept at risk management and be able to afford to wait for long-term returns.

Tenants, too, benefit in ''satisfying'' buildings because employees stay on, said Mr. Ogilvie, who added that it is often not realized that personnel turnover can be more costly than rent.

In Dallas, where giant local and outside development companies are changing the face of the city almost overnight, the Canadian Cadillac Fairview, largest publicly owned development company in North America, is devoting more than an acre of its First City Center on a square block of prime downtown footage to extensive landscaping and a waterfall.

Other Canadian companies such as Bramalea, Olympia York, and Campeau, all putting up office towers, mixed-use complexes, and lavish condominiums for inner-city living, also extol the trees, plantings, water courses, and ''people places'' of their projects.

''It's all part of the product today,'' reported Michael V. Prentiss, urban development vice-president for Cadillac Fairview, whose Eton Center in Toronto attracts more than a million people each week.

''Developers are willing to invest more to ensure long-term profits,'' he declared.

Dr. Mary John, arts program director for Northwood Institute, brought Walter Hoving, chairman emeritus of Tiffany & Co., and his crusade for ''good design in business'' to the meeting.

''Good design can increase sales,'' said Mr. Hoving, father of Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

As a vice-president of Montgomery Ward earlier in his career, Mr. Hoving hired the first woman executive in the company, charging her with hiring a ''stable of designers'' to redesign all of Montgomery Ward's merchandise.

With satisfaction, he recalled the resulting 500 percent increase in turpentine and harness-oil sales following ''the first real package design'' of the product, a vivid black and red. He complains that not one of the 55 US graduate schools of business offers courses on the importance of good design.

''In Europe,'' he told the conference, ''you walk in beauty - Paris, Rome, Venice. But there's very little of that in the US.''

Vincent A. Carrozza, whose Dallas Center Phase One is a chevron-shaped setting for Dimitri Hadzi's sculpture, ''Bishop's Triad,'' is chairman of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts Committee. He is concerned, he told the conference, with the museum's new building under construction in a longed-for downtown arts district, now surrounded by new and planned office towers.

''Developers now are conscious of style and taste,'' he said. ''They recognize it's good public relations and good business to be aware of the kind of face their buildings put on the city.''

Cooperation is necessary between developers and arts entities to recognize the new museum and new symphony hall as assets. Mr. Carrozza urged them to assist the city planning commission to come up with zoning and building regulations that will allow for a ''grand entry'' to the arts buildings as well as open spaces, landscaping, and artisan shops and restaurants to add interest to the area.

Martin S. Ackerman, a trustee of the Martin S. Ackerman Foundation, urged corporate heads to consider not only the tax advantages of contributing art to museums and colleges, but also the public-relations benefits.

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