Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Impact city neighborhoods by creating public space.

Before attending the City of Dallas' Deep Ellum Area Revitalization project presentation last week, I would have signed off on improved streetscaping and bike lane installation without even thinking.  Indeed, I am always in favor of walkability and bikeability in neighborhood design, but the point of these meetings is to get everyone's perspective on the project and to be open to contrary opinions.  Many why's, who's, and how's were asked, but there were a few objections to the plan that stood out to me.

To paraphrase: Where are the people going to come from when the plan eliminates street parking crucial to the businesses on Elm St.?  Who says there will be bicyclists and pedestrians?  Furthermore, why would street improvements attract more business to Deep Ellum?  The plan, as it stands, will eliminate 24 street parking spots from Good Latimer to Hall.  These spaces create easy access to the establishments up and down this corridor of Elm St.  Additionally, there is skepticism that widening sidewalks would actually promote pedestrian activity.

This got me thinking about the DART Rail and the strategy for its implementation.  DART won an award for building the longest light rail public transportation in the United States but experienced a drop in ridership from 2009 to 2010 despite extending the Green Line just before wintertime.  And this when gas has become more expensive!  The DART Rail is an example of infrastructure development before destination development. 

The lesson to be learned from DART is connecting sites is not as important as connecting destinations.  Following a trend and implementing a greener technology does not necessarily make people buy your product.  Granted, this rail system exists, but does it take you to places that you want to go to?  To apply this to the streetscaping plans, is it reasonable to believe people will want to walk the Deep Ellum sidewalks just because the pavement is wide and a bike can share the road with a car?  It is much more reasonable to believe that people will walk to and from a desirable destination for the simple pleasure of doing so.

The question now is how do you develop a destination?  To quote the authors of Suburban Nation:
"Just as it is difficult to imagine the concept of family independent of the home, it is near-impossible to imagine community independent of the town square...In the absence of walkable public places - streets, squares, and parks, the public realm - people of diverse ages, races, and beliefs are unlikely to meet and talk."
Any visitor to New York City will see how crucial Washington Square Park and Union Square are to their respective communities.  Both are comfortable and inviting public spaces that give people access to other people, things to do, and other places around the city

There is currently a lack of these kinds of places throughout Dallas, but Deep Ellum is a perfect candidate to feature such a public space.  Deep Ellum feels divided by Hall St. where the west side of the neighborhood features most of the eateries, drinking holes, and metered parking, as opposed to the east side, where most people live and don't pay to park.  A public space would connect these places and provide a communal area to enjoy at any hour of the day, much like how the Main Street Garden Park serves Downtown Dallas today.  Imagine the sight in Deep Ellum of residents, Downtown visitors, and Baylor folk communing in a comfortable and shady environment. 

As it stands, most of the activities in the neighborhood are on the west side of Deep Ellum where parking is at a premium because of the expectation of convenient, direct to the door, parking.  A walkable streetplan would open up the rest of the neighborhood to foot traffic and incentivize people to park farther and walk longer.  In truth, there's scant reason nowadays for a person to park near Undermain Theater to watch a show at Trees, even though the walk takes less than 10 minutes.  To promote this kind of pedestrian activity, make it worth that person's time to stroll through an area worth caring about.

How about holding off on the monstrous task of reformatting Elm St. and develop a public space that will not handicap the businesses that are currently thriving in the renewed interest in Deep Ellum?  It is such a crucial time for the businesses trying to gain a foothold in the local economy that hindering access to them is dangerous.  Since the City of Dallas has money to spend on Deep Ellum, develop a project that helps the local businesses, encourages residents out of their lofts, and attracts people from neighboring communities.