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'Building a better block' demo is changing a Dallas neighborhood

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 31, 2010

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The concept:  take a portion of a neighborhood that has unrealized potential, recruit volunteers, business people and civic officials to transform it for a short time into a lively, inviting public space.  If people enjoy it, maybe good things can happen to transform the place permanently.

That is what is happening in Oak Cliff, an older Dallas neighborhood southwest of the city's downtown, as the result of a two-day street fair held on a spring weekend earlier this year.  As described in detail on the web site of a neighborhood group, the project’s leaders identified a location with “good pedestrian form” but lacking a complete street or public gathering space; assembled a team; worked with property owners to obtain permission to use vacant or underutilized buildings; constructed the project around art exhibits and people-friendly street design; and drew a huge crowd.  See how the before and after photos illustrate the possibility for transformation:

  Tyler Street at 7th in Oak Cliff (via Google Earth)

  the same block during the project (via Cooltown Studios)

Pretty cool to bring the street lights in.  The people who made it happen are Better Block founder Jason Roberts and the local nonprofit Go Oak Cliff, whose avowed mission is “to develop North Oak Cliff as the most livable community in the nation.”  From the site:

“We pitched the event as a giant ‘art installation’, so the vacant spaces become de facto art galleries. Our property owners were excited to freely allow access because we were actively marketing their properties. Also, immediately following our original better block, these vacant spaces were leased . . .

“We installed a cafe with outdoor seating to highlight the ability to re-utilize the space given to cars. We also created a kids’ art studio so families could be involved, and a flower/gift market filled with local crafters’ goods. (You could also do a book drive collection, and create your own small bookstore as well with what is collected. You don’t have to get overly elaborate with your product offerings.) For the cafe, we only offered coffee out of pump urns that we brewed onsite…a local pastry shop came by and freely gave us scones, muffins, and more to help. We put as many local products as we could in each of the shops.”

They also created a bike lane, recruited musicians to perform on the street, and provided seating, among other amenities.  Here's the location in relation to the rest of Dallas and the project's immediate surroundings:

  downtown Dallas to the northeast (via Google Earth, label by me)

  the Better Block site on Tyler St (via Google Earth, label by me) 

The whole thing was carried off with great creativity and energy, within an amazingly small $1000 budget.  The result, according to a story on the blog Cooltown Studios (a terrific site that would be even better if they lost their obsession with the pseudo-word “crowdsourcing”), is that city officials now are interested in making the changes permanent.  (See an interesting followup story here.) 

Jason Roberts told Dallas Observer blogger Robert Wilonsky:

"Part of the problem in this city [is] zoning restrictions placed on people who want to create, say, outdoor cafe seating or put up awnings or develop a retail presence. It's set to light industrial only, and there are restrictions on parking -- you can't open a business without so many parking spaces. We wanted to throw all those things into one single project and see what we could develop if we took away some of these kinds of restrictions that deter the creation of a true neighborhood. It's done as an art installation, but we'll have these businesses that wouldn't be technically allowed . . .

"When the streetcar went away in '56 ... Tyler and Polk became one-way streets, so you lost 50 percent of the visibility and made it an unsafe high-speed corridor. These blocks were built for people, but the environment around them became inhospitable. And we want to change that."

Perhaps they are.  In fact, next month, they are planning to do it again, in another part of Oak Cliff a few blocks away.

Great stuff, and there’s much more information in the links.  Watch how it happened in the video (I know it starts with "part 2," but part 1 is conceptual and less interesting):


Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.


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Dave ReidSep 1 2010 08:57 AM

Wow... this is just such a great project, I hope to see this spread to cities across the US.

T. CaineSep 2 2010 05:17 PM

This seems like a pretty interesting exercise and I'm glad its being done. I would think doing this in multiple cities (or maybe even neighborhoods) would reveal different combinations of activities, people and spaces that responded to the locale.

It seems to me though that the real piece of analysis should be to look at these events and see what things actually draw people together so that you can begin to promote the pieces of program and spatial characteristics that are causing people to gather and utilize a street for real (not just because they received a flier in response to an event.) What is the real draw beyond a spectacle and how can it create jobs and help fund permanent upgrades?

If the goal is a great, improved block then it should be able to accommodate pedestrian citizens without a party.

Kaid @ NRDCSep 2 2010 08:40 PM

Excellent point. It would be a great research project, trying different things and seeing which performed best. (I suspect there is already some research on the topic, actually.)

But I can also totally understand that, when you only have one weekend to make your point, just to "build it and they will come," without the party, isn't enough. Even the best public spaces take time for the word to get out.

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