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.