As some may or may not know, my planning style is basic...as 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.
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.
One thing I believed was well thought out, but needs a sign to tell its significance is this.
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.