Sunday, October 3, 2010

Main Street Gardens

As some may or may not know, my planning style is in provide for the basics. City's need to give their citizens the basics to thrive. Stuff like roads, quality transit, attractive urban areas and public safety can all be done with a basic approach. Parks are no exception.

Central Park is a good example of a basic park. Yes it has ponds, zoos, equestrian centers and such, but its design is of a basic nature. The attractions are the basic need to provide the amenity. It isn't a futuristic design with over-the-top gadgets. It evokes a sense of nature with its simplistic and basic design.

It has been close to a year since Dallas unveiled its first downtown park designed with residents in mind. There are several plazas and other "open spaces" but none that fit the park mindset. Main Street Gardens, in a very typical Dallas way, is an over-the top style park.

When the park first opened, I was blown away and in some respects, bitter about the extravagance. They built a cafe for the park that offers "an organic take on street food." Which is nice, except Dallas barely has any street food at all. And, that sounded like a very expensive proposition. My thought was starting with street food and working from there.

There a "tot lot" with a small assortment of play gear, none of it traditional.

My first thought was back to the basics. Where was the swing set? Why is there no slide? Instead, there is a ball attached to a post with spring tension that goes up and down. There is a jungle-gym-style contraption, that doesn't quite add the adventure I remember as a kid. Also included is a triangle shaped devise with rock climbing holds. A set of three arches made out of poles is up to the kids imagination, since I don't quite know what it would be used for and finally, one of the things I actually liked from the beginning, a merry-go-round style swing, where a kid sits in a pod and spins round and round. Below is my son in one.
The park was part of a small controversy where the metal during the day would get so hot that kids couldn't touch it or they would burn themselves. Again, this goes beyond the basic as it is modernist design at the expense of actual usage.

The main open section, in keeping with modernist design, is angular, as you can see in the first picture. It looks attractive, to some, but outside of passive use, can be a pain. For example, if someone wants to play football or soccer, one part of the field is larger than the other, which can lead to arbitrary boundaries and makes playing a bit more difficult. The only sport that is triangular (though this part is actually trapezoidal) is baseball, which won't be played here.

There is a dog park, which we rarely go to, since it has a concrete floor rather than grass. I know it couldn't be grass because the concentration of dogs would make it dirt instead. But, when a dog pees, the puddle stays. Some does go into the drain, but a lot of it stays. You can imagine that solid waste is easily left behind. Our dogs have had to have baths after playing in there the small amount of times they have been. Instead we go to the much larger one down the street.

A water feature complements the over the top look. There is a (surprise) triangular basin with jets of water and granite blocks at the wide end and the water trickles down to the point. It has been a popular feature and one where I have started to come around on. However, the ironic bit, in keeping with Dallas going beyond the basics, was that after the budget crisis started, this fountain was only going to be active for two hours a day, since they couldn't afford to keep it going more than that. The improvement district stepped in and is footing the bill beyond that.
There is a seating area that is beyond basic too. Instead of an awning with chairs, there is an LED lined L-shaped shade provider that is more for looks than actual use. The shade is minimal during the day, violating a basic provision. In fact, the designer called this art, rather than a seating area.

There is a lot of unused space, simply dedicated to landscaping. While that in and of itself is not a bad thing, the design is bland and comes up short of being a quality space. It seems to fit more in line with an arboretum rather than a public park. In my opinion, it adds insult to injury, since a large portion of this unused space was on the site of three historic, occupied buildings that was claimed through eminent domain. I'd rather have the buildings, which added to the street life, than the unused and unneeded shrug and bush area.

One thing I believed was well thought out, but needs a sign to tell its significance is this.
The southeast corner of the park was the sight of the Grand Hotel's parking garage. This sign was on that garage and now is being reused within the park. I like the connection to its historic past. Similarly, on the northeast corner is an information booth that details the changes of that area since it was first developed. Since that is the location of the unused open space I mentioned, it seems the only part of that park that is for public consumption.

While the tone of this post might seem a bit critical, I must say I am turning around a bit. Some of my fears have been unfounded. The cafe is way better than I thought. While typically the city has tried to steer expensive eateries to downtown, this hasn't been that. Five bucks can get you a nice meal. The tot lot is often busy. The water feature is popular, when it is on. And the best part of all, there are lots of people in the park at all hours of the day.

Some of the critiques remain, like the park's layout, the dog run and the unused green space. However, I am beginning to like Main Street Gardens more overall. Yes, it went beyond the basic, but it does have a good amount of varied land uses around. That is perhaps the most important aspect of an active public park. In this case, immediately adjacent is 1.5 million square feet of office, 498 residential units, a 130 room hotel (the one my aunt, uncle and Tutu (grandmother) stayed at for my wedding), a university consortium, a municipal courtroom - soon to be law school, a 2,000 space garage, 7-11, parking lot primed for development and two vacant buildings. One of the buildings is slated for residential conversion while there are no plans for the other at this time.

It is this varied land use that make the park attractive. Use at all hours of the day give it a sense of safety and attractiveness, since people like to watch other people. It has filled that role of quality public space, based on its location more than anything, that Dallas lacks. I hope these mixed-use principles will be applied on a broader scale in downtown and surrounding areas. Then Dallas will truly elevate its urban core into a true urban area.


Ken Duble said...

Park trends nowadays seems to be maximum concrete and minimum grass. It sort of defeats the purpose of a park.

For a vital downtown, it would help to have some large grassy areas where boys could spontaneously play team sports. We aren't getting that anyplace downtown. Perhaps the deck park will allow for this.

Branden said...

To that I say follow the money.