Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Then and now

Today I want to hammer home a point I brought up when comparing the downtown's of San Antonio and Dallas(here and here). One of my main points was that much more of San Antonio's downtown is composed of historic, pre-WWII buildings than Dallas and it is that fact more than any other that contributes to the vitality of San Antonio's urban core. Meanwhile, Dallas destroyed those very buildings and replaced them with fortress office towers or parking lots.

Over a year ago, I critiqued Main Street Gardens, and one of the things I liked was the recognition of the history of that area, the old parking garage sign, the view corridors toward the old city hall and the sign at the corner of Harwood and Main revealing a bit about the block and surrounding areas. It is that sign that I want to direct your attention now.

Here's an amateur photo.
It shows the property and surrounding areas as they evolved from a residential area to part of the commercial core of downtown Dallas.

In 1885, the smattering of black dots represents the "improvements" to the property, or in layman's terms, buildings on the property. No surprise, as was the norm then, the houses are close to the street, with minimal setbacks and a decent backyard. If you look at the west side of St. Paul, you can see the beginnings of the classical commercial building of that time, long rectangular structures that were usually restaurants or shops on the ground floor and offices or residences above.

Now in 1905 and 1921, there are quite a bit more of those rectangular buildings. In 1921, by my count, there were 27 structures on the north side of Main and 19 on the south part. That is 46 places for people to walk to or from to eat, shop, work or live. That activity creates a vibrant street scene. On Commerce, I count 17 building on the north part of the street and 22 on the south. Again, that creates 39 places for people to walk to or from, creating a vibrant urban setting. Add in the fact that both streets were hubs of the city's streetcar system and it is no wonder there were lots of people on the streets of downtown back in the day.

Even when looking at 1959, there are far more structures than exist today, 26 on Main, 17 on Commerce (though the Grand Hotel did have several street level retail spaces) and one on Harwood.

When compared to when Main Street Gardens opened, 12 on Main, 14 on Commerce, (a half block more is revealed on each side than in the other pictures) there are far less places for people to go to or from and therefore, far less people on the streets. Notice the slow decline in destinations: 85 places in 1921, 43 in 1959, 26 in 2009. We currently have only 30 percent of what was available 90 years ago.

Now, to be fair, some places, like the department store on the northeast corner of Main and St. Paul (that is now a loft building where I live), demolished 12 structures and replaced them with two, but the newer addition created just as much if not more foot traffic than what was there. Sadly, there is also the case of Comerica Tower, which replaced at least five structures (in the picture, as I know there were more towards Ervay) that were pedestrian-friendly with one that is not. On the southeast section of Commerce and Harwood, about a dozen buildings were razed and made parking.

Sometimes I wonder what goes on in the process at City Hall. We know what works. We know what doesn't. If the stated goal is to create a vibrant urban core, go back to doing what you were before when it was and stop doing the things that have gotten us to where we are now. Trying to do the same thing and hoping for different results is the definintion of insanity.

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