Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Stockyards, a Small Urban Oasis

The wife and I took a visit to the Fort Worth Stockyards yesterday, and proof that I am not a constant complainer, only an urban elitist, I was pleasantly surprised. The Stockyards are a collection of near-turn-of-the-century buildings on or near Exchange Avenue just north of downtown. It receives a lot of hype as a popular and family-friendly urban area.

My wife, almost 8-month old son and I rode the TRE from downtown Dallas to downtown Fort Worth, then caught the Fort Worth Transportation Authority's # 1 bus to the Stockyards. We've taken the TRE often, but rarely Fort Worth's buses. This bus, especially considering it was a Saturday, was well-ridden.

We departed on Main Street just south of Exchange. There were some nice urban buildings, but nothing outstanding until exactly one block south of Exchange. We were hungry and my wife had a destination in mind, a place called Love Shack Burgers. I was mildly surprised that it wasn't a building.
In essence, this was a place where an old building was demolished, and rather than making it a parking lot, the property owners added a shack where the food was cooked and another for restrooms. A couple of small decks were added to make for seating and a stage was added at the far end for live music.
It was nice to see that although an important piece of the urban fabric had been removed, there was a cheap and inexpensive way to integrate the property back into the urban fabric. On the Dallas side, it would be a parking lot and start to degrade the urban fabric.

The street scenes were quite lively. There were all types of people, old and young, families and couples and friends and strangers. All different types of ethnicities were present as well as different types. By that I mean folks like bikers, cowboys, tourists and yuppies. In its basic form, it does what a true urban environment does. Everyone from all walks of life getting along.
The physical design was still well done. What I mean by still is that in a lot of these types of neighborhoods built before the car, changes happen to make it accommodate the car. On Main Street, before entering the Stockyards from downtown, the street looks like a lot do in car-oriented areas. However, on Exchange and the Stockyards section of Main, it looks like a pedestrian area. The lanes are narrower, the street is made of brick instead of concrete and the lanes aren't clearly marked. Now keep in mind, the same amount of cars fit into the street. But instead of encouraging them to get through as fast as possible, they encourage all types of transportation, not just one.

The parking issue was also encouraging. Instead of vast amounts of surface parking, there was ample amounts of on-street parking. Other off-street parking was available at the edges. The parking didn't destroy the urban fabric, at least at the center. A lot of the points I made in the previous post were followed and made the area attractive.

I'd also be remiss to point out that auto congestion was high, yet the area was still active and vibrant. This defies the logic that if there is high congestion, the area will decline. These types generally advocate bigger and wider roads to promote vitality, when it these projects that eventually destroy it.

Note the long line of cars on both sides of Exchange, yet there are still just as many people out strolling. This exemplifies a balanced system in an urban environment. As soon as this proportion changes and favors the car, the other aspect, people, fade as the streets feel less comfortable.

The adaptive reuse was well done too. As near as I can tell, a former train depot for loading livestock has been converted to an outdoor pedestrian mall with a variety of shops.
In fact, that was well done throughout the entire district. Unlike Deep Ellum in Dallas, which has the same feel, but entirely different use, the Stockyards different uses keep it active. There were stores typical of what you'd see in Deep Ellum, but so much more. Typical old time stores such as antiques and trinket shops were present, but others such as tattoo parlors and bars. Again, it was this mix of uses that kept the scene vibrant.

Not all was well. There were parts, unlike Love Shack Burgers, where the replacement building didn't quite go over. You can tell the architect tried to fit the building, a hotel, into the existing urban area using the same building materials. However, the buildings physical design does not fit in well. There are too many setbacks, unimportant landscape and no interaction. 
It is obvious in the above picture that the hotel does not fit in with the surrounding areas of the other pictures, even though the hotel is directly adjacent to them.

The irony is that had it been in reverse, the buildings materials didn't fit in, but the design did, it would flow well. This is an all too common occurrence that architects do in redevelopment projects. These in turn degrade the overall quality of the urban environment, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Another concern is can this place stay vibrant. The positive is that the actual stockyards anchor the area. There was a rodeo there during our visit. That activity alone helps attract visitors. The area itself as it is arranged is attractive as well. In fact, urban areas in the Sunbelt are an attractive area in and of themselves, since they are a novelty in a car-oriented oasis.

However, beside retail and the livestock attraction, there are very little other uses. There are old residential houses on the far outskirts that do count (proof that suburban development can be walkable), but within there is none. There are a smattering of offices here and there, but not many. This may be something planners will have to address in the not-so-distant future.

One other thing that was really well done was the extreme amount of street furniture. There were several benches, trash cans, shade and other street furniture that made the street scene friendly and inviting for pedestrians. There are even some made for little ones.
This may have been a shameless attempt to post a picture of family, but it illustrates well the basic premise of an attractive urban environment.

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