Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Street Versus the Created Walkway

Alas, another story behind the paywall from the Dallas Morning News' April 18, 2012 edition caught my eye. I would really like to discuss these in greater detail, but apparently the topics of this blog are pay worthy. Yet, not one of you has given me a dime for it.

Anyway, the headline reads Small spaces, big picture: City looks at converting their passages between skyscrapers into inviting pedestrian pathways. While it was more feature rather than news, the gist is buildings built some extra spaces that "are just pass-throughs, while in others there might be a place to sit or even eat. And then there are those spaces where few venture at all."

Karl Stundins, Area Redevelopment Manager for the Dallas Economic Development Department, is looking at making these spaces a bit more inviting. Successful examples in the article are Stone Street Gardens and Browder Street Mall (my take of Browder Street can be found here), while little used spaces listed include the "pathway" around Thanksgiving Tower and the west side of the Central Library.

A well used pedestrian walkway, Stone Street Gardens.

Believe it or not, the wall on the left borders a pedestrian walkway.

I want to hammer that point home for a moment. Why are the first two successful but the others aren't? Both Stone and Browder were former streets and most of the buildings there fronted them when they functioned as streets. The later two are really nothing more than useless setbacks. The article can call them walkways or pedestrian paths if they wish, but they aren't. These are setbacks filled with pretty but functionally-useless landscaping. Look at the library picture. Does that look like it was designed for pedestrians? No, there is no entry or exit from the building, no signs, no easy street access and because it is winding, it is not designed for pedestrians to use. In reality, the only people who use this space are the homeless population looking for a little isolation.

Same thing with the Thanksgiving Tower "walkway" that runs on both sides of the building. It is nothing more than meaningless setbacks and landscaping that serve no practical purpose for the urban environment. I touched on this idea in this post, and the article backs that point up. The design of the buildings around Stone Street cause it to be successful. The design around the library cause it to be vacant.

You have to give people a reason to be there. You can paint all the people you want in the rendering, but unless they have a function in that spot, they won't appear.

Stone works by design. Thanksgiving Tower "fails" by design. There would be some architects who say it works as it was designed. It is that isolationist design that permeated the architecture scene in the '70's and '80's. It is also the big reason why Downtown Dallas feels empty.

That said, is what they are discussing a bad idea? As a future post about Uptown will include, this is a contradictory thing for me.

One the one hand, the purist in me sees this as a failure. Poor design still works as designed, with negative consequences for the urban area. I also don't think these linkages will be beneficial for connectivity, since the street grid is already a grid and super-efficient for pedestrian travel. Pedestrians will likely need to get to the bordering street anyway, since the opposite block probably will not have the same pathway. I can see positive effects if two major destinations are a block or two away. But around the library, the Young Street median is on one side and the Interurban Building garage and a parking lot on the other. Unless one is exploring or loitering, there is no need or reason to be here or even to go anywhere else from here.

However, since the wholesale demolition of large parts of downtown is unrealistic, where do we go from here with what we have? Something needs to be done. If Thanksgiving Tower can be converted to make that space somewhat usable, is that a bad thing? For example, if that space was converted to an outdoor patio for a restaurant with a street entrance on Elm, we have solved that problem AND strengthened the street scene on Elm. Is it ideal? No, perfect has long left this site. Is it good? Yes, and certainly an upgrade over what was there.

In fact, in many ways, I see the conversion of the '80's office towers as paramount to turning downtown back into a populated area (this was wish eight in this post). If they do convert the lobbies of these buildings into a more pedestrian-friendly space and make these "leftover spaces," according to Stundins, functional, then it certainly is a win for urban Dallas.

I am a case study guy, and since this hasn't been done on any large scale anywhere, I will withhold judgements until they do their thing. Hopefully my concerns will be mitigated or unsubstantiated. However, I am pleased there is at least dialogue on this topic. That in and of itself is a win.

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