Source article by Richard Burgess for the Advocate: http://theadvocate.com/home/
Source article by Richard Burgess for the Advocate: http://theadvocate.com/home/
The first Better Block project in Denton, Texas wrapped up last weekend and introduced several ideas to revitalize a vacant property including development of human-scaled spaces, enhanced pedestrian infrastructure, local business incubation, and public space amenities.
One of the challenges facing cities around the country are an abundance of large scale buildings with over-built car-centric infrastructure that makes redevelopment cost prohibitive and limits re-use to a handful of businesses due to scale. The Denton Better Block sought to demonstrate how you could convert a large, vacant grocery store into a classic Main Street. Where one large business existed previously, the goal for this project was to change the building to allow for multiple small local businesses, and to use the space from the over-scaled parking lot to create a 25 foot wide pedestrian street with a second edge lined with parklets which would create the semblance of a new edge of buildings.
Other elements discussed were related to making the place a neighborhood destination that made it comfortable for residents to linger outdoors and bring their families. The Better Block designed a concept that would bring shade structures and water features onto the new street that would help cool the area. Finally, the effort needed to link the existing neighborhood, which was situated across a large road, and help create accommodations and invitations for people to walk and bicycle.
Building the Better Block
Work began quickly after the initial community walk through of the space and teams assembled to tackle individual elements of the project. Working with local materials and identifying organizations and resources in the area that could assist, groups set out to build 5 major components: Temporary facades for small business store fronts, a series of shaded parklets that food trucks could line up beside to offer an outdoor cafe seating experience, a hay bale “splash pool” that children could cool off in, a large round water fountain automated by an arduino device, a pallet stage, and pallet furniture.
By the end of the afternoon, merchants had sold out of goods, children splashed in the hay bale pool, and locals walked and ate under shade awnings sometimes lingering for hours in the space. The concept of reducing the scale of the area and highlighting how spaces under 200 feet could be redeveloped into permanent, locally-focused destinations was proven. For more on the project and the day itself, check out the Denton Chronicle story here.
Thanks to everyone who helped with the Better Block Denton. It was definitely a team effort–Team Better Block–Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard, Zac Lytle; Green Leaf Environmental Planning Vicki Oppenheim and Kati Trice of the Denton Community Market. Thank you to the Denton Community Market vendors for moving their businesses to the site. We appreciate the vendor efforts in being flexible for locating to a new space. We wanted to also thank Katharine Wilcox of Painted Flower Farm for plants, Meadors Nursery for plants, Oak Street Draft House for some plants, Shirlene Sitton with the City of Denton, Devin Taylor, Amber Briggle of Denton Splash Park, Jeff Amano for his graphics, Lauren Barker of Keep Denton Beautiful, Julie Buchanan, Amanda Davenport, Alan Cudd, Camille Green, Ashley Bender, Harrison Wicks, Glen Farris Squibb, Larry Beck, Heather Gregory of SCRAP Denton, Glen Haas, Michael Leza, Denton.Radio.com, City of Denton Planning Department, and the many other diligent volunteers (a very long list), neighborhood groups, the Pallet Furniture Team, the Splash Park Team, the Pop-Up Facade Team, the Stage Team, and helpers. Thank you to the City Council as well for its support. Thank you to La Azteca Meat Market for letting us hold the event on their property!
The most recent issue of the New York Times features the Better Block project in an article titled “How to Build a Better Neighborhood“.
Also, founders of the project kick off an Atlanta project on the site of Martin Luther King, jr.’s church alongside Mike Lydon (author of Tactical Urbanism) and more. Check back for more details soon.
On Sunday, the Better Block plaza project was developed in Oak Cliff at the site of the original effort to celebrate the anniversary of the project, and test the idea of a plaza.
To understand the history of the project, residents were concerned with a dangerous 5 point intersection at Seventh Street and Tyler Street which held poor sightlines, high speed one-way streets, and overly wide auto-infrastructure. Accidents have occurred in the area and pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers have all complained about the danger on the block. A solution to cut off an unnecessary segment of roadway at King’s Highway was developed and further enhanced by allowing a public plaza for neighborhood residents to engage and enjoy.
A series of public meetings were held on January 15th, and February 8, 2011 to discuss King’s Highway and making it a safer place for the community. Thousands of dollars were spent on design charrettes, public involvement, and discourse. At the end of the process, a report was created that addressed concerns of residents and commercial property owners.
Specifically, the idea to demonstrate through three 90 day trial increments would occur and be vetted for the best possible permanent solution. One called for a one-way street (half closure), another called for a full closure (plaza), and a third called for a roll-up street for weekday parking, weekend activation. The demonstration was to work through potential problems.
After the report was delivered, approval was then made by the Davis Garden TIF board to allocate $400K+ to the project. On two occasions, funds were approved.
In 2012, a single property owner issued three concerns for the proposed plaza which included:
- Reduction of Parking
- Economic destabilization for existing business
- Sustainability / Management
Fortunately, the demonstration options allowed for these worst-case assumptions to be tested. Sadly, we learned that the project was stalled and funds potentially re-allocated due to these fear based scenarios.
On Sunday, we set out to test each of these. The advantage of the Better Block project is that it’s done in days to gather data, and use the scientific method to test whether assumptions are right or wrong. No claims of assurance are given on any outcome, but a pedestrian oriented environment is created to watch in real time.
So what happened? Over 500 people attended the event throughout the day and parking was never an issue. Second, businesses in the area were not only not hurt but thrived, in fact, more small local markets were created to give residents the opportunity to test their business ideas in a highly visible area celebrated by the community. The existing businesses which opened for the day enjoyed the space and its high volume so much so that they signed a petition to keep the plaza permanent. Lastly, management of the space was handled by the community with little issue.
Every assumption not only debunked, but proven that the space not only made the area more economically viable, but improved safety at the intersection, while creating a quality of life amenity that the entire neighborhood could use and celebrate in. Local school musicians performed, residents danced, and local markets setup stalls and enjoyed brisk sales. The neighborhood had a center to gather, and people celebrated. This is what makes great public plazas work.
As of yesterday, a petition was forwarded to be signed by residents asking for momentum to continue on keeping the plaza development on task. Sadly, we’re three years into the effort and the intersection is still a danger and funds are in a holding pattern.
To make matters more confusing, an effort to turn the public right-of-way into private space only is now being pursued. This leaves the community at the behest of any individual who may or may not wish to activate the space and permanently changes the legacy of the area. Beyond that, it’s potential to sit as a parking lot only or be held up in land speculation limbo puts the street in jeopardy for years to come. While Dallas might not do the best job of administering public space, the recent additions of Klyde Warren Park, and Main Street Garden prove that it’s beginning to understand the value of these amenities. And while those two examples are larger and less neighborhood focused, an alternative locally managed solution is well within the sights of the Oak Cliff community.
With empty cinder block buildings in the area now selling for $500K+, the chance for locals to continue to create small businesses for the community is diminishing. The public plaza keeps a space open for everyone to keep testing business ideas with small markets, even as the area becomes more affluent.
At a larger level, our city is facing these private developer vs. public space disputes in several areas. Most notably, the toll road effort which is being pushed by commercial endeavors in the Stemmons Corridor which takes precedence over the desires of the community at large’s public space plans. This small, 250 feet unnecessary roadway segment in Oak Cliff presents an identical issue. A community which sees the value of a shared public space verses a commercial ownership that potentially favors an auto or business use.
This weekend, we held the 4th anniversary of the original Better Block on the site of the first ever project. One of the major issues we’ve faced since that original effort was that funds were directed by the city to convert an unnecessary and dangerous strip of roadway to a quality public plaza. $600,000 were set aside to the street, but local property owners who originally were on board with the effort, decided later that it wouldn’t be sustainable, and that the space should fall into private hands. For our birthday event, we wanted to show how a plaza would actually work in the area and outlined the needs and hurdles that would be required to understand and negotiate in order to have a great plaza like we’ve seen in places around the world. So here’s the quick list:
8 Elements for creating great public plazas
- Affordable food businesses facing plaza, and something for each major meal time of the day. For Texas, think breakfast tacos in the morning, sandwiches for lunch, and pizza by the slice for dinner. Nothing too fancy, but accessible and easy to grab and go.
- Tables and chairs
- Shade providing landscaping, and specifically, tall trees that can create a canopy feel that shed their leaves in the winter so sunlight comes through
- Edges that define the space with easy access for pedestrians and strong connections from the nearby neighborhoods
- Free amenities, whether it be a dog park, table games, bocce ball, or a stage for local musicians.
- Alcohol fixes most broken space. If you allow beer in your public space, you’ve just upped the usage and success rate by 100%.
- Lighting, and elements that make the area feel safe.
- Regular programmed activities. Let the surrounding merchants or community organizations schedule markets, art shows, concerts, plays, or anything that celebrates the neighborhood’s assets.
If any of these elements are skimped on, then expect low usage, and potential failure for the space. Now let’s address the potential problems:
-Sustainability – Who’s going to take care of all of the tables and chairs, trash, et cetera? Simple, the small businesses facing the plaza. If you are not able to help setup, clean up, and maintain, then you are no longer allowed to be a business in the area. As simple as that.
- Keeping programming happening – This is something that should be developed alongside the rollout of the public space. Develop a “Friends of” organization that can sit under an existing communities foundation, and have its sole purpose be to manage, administer, and improve the activities and amenities in the public space. Allow the merchants and property owners the first seats since they stand the most to gain from the enhanced space.
- Parking – Keep the space small, focus on locals, and recognize that the higher quality the public space, the further out people will be willing to park (read: Klyde Warren Park). We all have to recognize and be okay with the fact that it’s hard to find parking in great places, no matter where you are in the world.
How do you change a city? One block at a time. How do you change an institutional body on knowledge? Start at the top! Better Block co-founder Andrew Howard, A.I.C.P. is going to Harvard for a ten month Loeb Fellowship at the Graduate School of Design (GSD). His time will be spent researching with the top minds in the U.S. on the changing planning process in America using the Better Block Method of rapid revitalization. Mixing with experts in affordable housing, crowd-sourced financing and innovative construction methods, Andrew will bring back more ways to take the Better Block from weekend experiment to permanent transformation.
Andrew, joins a network of over 400 fellow Loebs that are making the World a better place for all! Not too bad for a guy that thought he might go to jail for breaking zoning laws and painting streets illegally. In all seriousness, this is a perfect time to take some time to reflect on a career that he began in government working 7 years in long range transportation, then 7 years as a consultant at a top engineering firm and now having 4 years of personal business ownership testing the Better Block.
The time will also provide a breather for Jason to complete his long awaited book! He will continue speaking with the Lavin Agency and taking on select Better Block talks and workshops over the next year.
A big thank you to our community in Oak Cliff Texas that inspired this whole movement. The talent in this community made us want to share the message with everyone and we have found that every city has all the resources it needs to be great! We are looking forward to learning more about city building and broadening our message of rapid change to more people. Thank you!
We’ve talked often about how the Better Block process leads to more rapid infrastructure changes than traditional planning methods. Here is the latest example of a street in Baton Rouge, where residents and stakeholders demonstrated a Better Block, and within a year, permanent changes tested through the activity are now being moved into permanent development. Kudos to the Baton Rouge Better Block team for pulling this together!
Planning for Richmond, Virginia’s first Better Block has kicked off in the Church Hill North neighborhood beginning with a successful community walk that took place at the project site (25th Street and Venable Street) on March 11th. A group of nearly 100 residents, stakeholders, and activists showed up to begin laying out the groundwork for the effort.
While walking through the site, property owners who held vacant structures offered access to their buildings for use by pop-up shops during the project. A handful of great, historic structures (above) have the potential to be quickly converted to cafes, markets, or art galleries. If you’re interested in developing a shop for the project, be sure to fill out the following application form. The cut-off date for applications will be April 29th. A tour for pop-up shop participants will take place on April 15th at 6pm on the corner of 25th and Venable Street.
After the community walk, participants learned more about the history of the Better Block project as well as hearing examples from recent projects. The following schedule has been laid out for the complete project:
April 15: 6pm Corner of 25th & Venable – Tour of vacant properties with potential pop up shops
April 29: Application for pop up due
June 11 and 12: pre build workshop*
June 13 and 14: Better Block
For additional questions regarding the project, please contact Max Hepp-Buchanan, Director of Bike Walk RVA at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* the Pre-Build workshop will take place on site of the Better Block and allows a chance for participants to gather their materials, gain access to vacant properties, and help assemble things needed for the completed project. More details to come!
There are multiple Better Blocks popping up around the world as we speak, but we wanted to highlight this great video for a project beginning in Texarkana, Texas. Great production guys!
“A workaround is a bypass of a recognized problem in a system. A workaround is typically a temporary fix that implies that a genuine solution to the problem is needed.”
Andres Duany has just launched a project with the Knight Foundation, which seeks to accelerate city revitalization by helping citizens and entrepreneurs work around cumbersome regulations. The first question today on a webinar between Andres and Carol Colleta VP of Knight foundation was how can we apply Lean Urbanism across a broad spectrum of US cities?
Better Block uses the special event permit process that is found in every city to demonstrate changes to the street, seed entrepreneurs, and test zoning codes. Here is an example from a recent project in Norfolk, VA were Team Better Block identified limitations in the zoning code and then empowered young entrepreneurs to test the market with new business ideas. Better Block documented what worked and then city staff created a workaround to the zoning code that made the temporary changes permanent:
So we need both the agitators and the experts to work together to make our cities better. This process gets around the non-contributors, the people that say changes will not work, and gets to the folks that have ideas and the will to find a way to make it happen. Cities that get this will excel and attract the greatest talent to them.