Recap of the Better Block 2

Published September 15, 2010 by Jason Roberts

Amid the wonderful smells of smoked barbeque, and just beyond the music, we managed our second “Better Block” project, where we took a gray, concrete, and car-focused block and converted it into a more humane space that placed people first. First off, big thanks go to SWA Group, and Metheney for providing us with amazing landscaping plans and with 42 trees and 100 shrubs which were strategically placed throughout the area. We started with the 1300 Block of West Davis:

The area is filled with 1920’s – 1940’s structures built to the sidewalk with one exception…a gas station set back that breaks the people-friendly form. The businesses built in the area received a large portion of their foot traffic from the streetcar which ran along Seventh Street and turned onto Edgefield. Once the streetcar was removed in 1956, the block was retrofitted over time to push people aside for cars. As sprawl developed and zoning laws changed, businesses that could survive in these spaces had a hard time managing Dallas’ post-war transition. Lanes were widened creating faster traffic patterns, landscaping was uprooted to allow for more parking, and building windows were filled with mirrored glass, making the space unusable for window-shopping, and allowing little light to pass through. Though it took half a century to devolve, we were able to revive the space in under 24 hours:

David Thompson at SWA Group was instrumental in helping us walk the block and outline a plan of attack. First, we had to bring landscaping back. Dallas is hot, and people want shade…seeing these old buildings tree lined dramatically improved the area. The middle turn lane, which is only needed at the intersections but runs the entire length of the block, was reclaimed with 100 shrubs that gave an extra layer of safety for families crossing the street.

To make a space feel more humane, and inviting to people, we looked at all of the obstacles facing us. Intersections were the most glaring with little to no cross walks. Here, we recreated our own Abbey Road.

Mid-century lights, which had burned out years ago were painted lively colors and given a second chance at life. When looking at what is necessary to bring people out in a community, perception of safety ranks as the highest priority. Lighting is a key element, and an easy way to revive an area is to begin changing burned-out/broken light bulbs.

An abandoned telephone pole sat waiting for some kind of treatment. We decided to do our own version of the Nasher pole in downtown Dallas.

As the morning unfolded, two construction vehicles went to work lining the street with 42 trees that were set to be installed at another client site the following week. The landscaping group, Metheney, pulled off a coup by letting us install them on our block before they were set to be planted. As we watched each of the trees roll out of the semi-trailer, you could feel the block coming back to life.

We worked with local vendors and asked them to bring their merchandise outdoors and to the block to help draw life and activity to the street. This tienda had just opened a few weeks prior, but the owner said business had been slow…at the end of Better Block he said, “We needed this!”.

On the North East corner of the 1300 Block sat a glass building that had been covered in mirrored tint, and was vacant for over a year. We immediately removed the tint to open the space and allow window shopping and light to permeate the space. This light adds to the perception of safety in the area at night as well. We worked with local artists to bring out as many products highlighting the talented crafters of OC.

(photo by Karla Garcia)

At the gateway to the Better Block, we coordinated with one of our favorite muralists, Kevin Obregon, to help bring color to the bare white walls of Chango Botanica, and to allow the theme of the store to be highlighted outside of the building. Our area botanicas bring a mixture of spirituality, culture, and folk art that help identify Oak Cliff.

The most simple, but important element to the Better Block project was just giving people a comfortable, shaded place to sit and linger. In Copenhagen, the city measures its quality of life improvements by the number of outdoor cafe seats that open up each year. Not a bad metric for Oak Cliff to follow. 24 hours prior, there were cars filling this area. The small ice cream shop, which only has two parking spaces, now wants to create seating instead.

The landscaping performed the same element of slowing traffic as with our first Better Block. A main street should be slow and feel safe so that people can see the businesses clearly, and stroll comfortably along the block. When the lanes were widened and cars sped through the area, people felt less inclined to walk with strollers along the sidewalk. Cars that entered the area respected the new lines and commerce was able to increase.

When I was beginning to study urban planning, mentors would regularly tell me, “It all starts with the street…if you get that wrong, everything else breaks.” I didn’t understand that early on, but as I’ve helped organize these projects, it’s become incredibly notable. Simply put, if you build a wide 6-lane road, you’re going to get a big box styled development with high speed roads and little pedestrian foot traffic. If you build 2 lanes, slow and landscaped, with wide sidewalks and any other multimodal transit options (bike lanes, streetcars, etc.), you’ll get small shops and places that people love to spend time in.

The Dallas Morning News wrote about our city’s pending Bike Plan, and ironically, one of the blog commenters cited the weekend as an example of how it’s “too hot and humid in our city for people to take bicycling seriously”…apparantly Oak Cliff didn’t get that memo. The reality is that all communities face challenges with climate. In Portland it rains 1/3 of the year, in Copenhagen it’s freezing cold 1/3 of the year. Creating safer ways for people to walk and bicycle in an area creates more eyes on the street and adds to an areas feeling of safety as well as creating more life in a community.

In the end, it’s all about the people and giving families young and old a safe, comfortable, and dignified area to live in. When we build for cars only, we make things fast, unsafe, and less humane…we adopted an 8 and 80 rule, where we should look at our community from the eyes of an 8 year old and the eyes of an 80 year old. If it feels safe for those two age ranges, it will be safe for everyone. Our city needs to refocus its priorities and think about what it is that people really want in a community. For the price of a single Calatrava bridge, we could have built a thousand Better Blocks…and made them permanent.

More pics here.