Sunday, July 21, 2013

Belo Garden. I promised it and as a man of my word (eventually) I will give forth.

Belo Garden is the second on four major parks planned for the downtown area. It opened in May 2012 to great fanfare. Paired with Main Street Garden, Belo bookended the Main Street District, the heart of urban Dallas. The idea was to extend the activity of the Main Street District out, provide urban greenspace and encourage redevelopment around the parks.

While Main Street Garden was designed to be a programmed park, chock full of activity possibilities and special events, Belo was intentionally designed to be passive and reflective. In many ways, they achieved their goal, and that is where a big problem with the park stems from. Downtown is not lacking of this.

In this Google maps above, aside from Pegasus Plaza, Main Street Garden and Klyde Warren Park (not pictured), all these parks have two common features: they were designed to be passive. Consequently, they have very few visitors.

One reason I waited to post until many months after its opening was I want to see how the space operates on a day-to-day basis. I had my suspicions but wanted to see in real time. Sadly with Belo, I wasn't wrong. Except for a few dog walkers, this park is empty most of the time. That is partly by design. A passive park that offers little activity possibilities will do this.

The most active portion of the park is a water feature that gets moderate use during the weekend mornings in summer and the Pegasus Charter School kids spend some afternoons here. It isn't uncommon to see kids running through and enjoying themselves. But otherwise, an empty, but pretty, Belo Garden is the norm.

The main active feature of Belo Gardens.

The other part of the park where activity is possible is the tables and chairs on a course dirt surface on the east end of Belo Garden. Designed as a picnic area, it succeeds in drawing some folks here. But as is often the case, the powers that be think many who are using it don't belong. This friction that exists between the homeless and downtown Dallas is evident here as well. Add in the fact that many folks already have a negative perception of the homeless, regardless whether they are actually doing something negative or not, and is another point of contention for the park.

I don't like that this animosity exists, but Dallas is a much more pretentious city than many of the true urban areas in the country. There exists a perception that Dallas' homeless population is also a bigger nuisance than these other cities and it has all the ingredients for a recipe in conflict.

Unlike the grassy section in Main Street Garden, all the grassy areas in Belo are tree covered. While shade is almost a universally a good idea in public spaces in Dallas, in Belo Garden, it makes the space useless for anyone who isn't dog walking. Picnicking would be a possibility, but in summer, the ammonia smell can be overwhelming in parts of Belo. The trees are too young for hide and seek, too thin to climb, too clustered for throwing or kicking a ball and there are no benches in the immediate vicinity to enjoy the shade.

Note the one bench you see in this picture is not near a shade-providing tree.

All grassy areas are similar to these.
Halfway down the park on the Main Street side is a hill. The main point of the hill is too minimize traffic noise. That is an admirable quality. The issue I have is the hill is so small compared to the rest of the park that it doesn't really do the job. Add in the fact that the higher volume of cars as well as the faster ones are located on Commerce Street and it is little more than a way to vary the terrain of the park.

This hill is better as a park feature than noise reducer.

A true noise reducer, as well as pedestrian-comfort amenity, would have been to allow on-street parking on either side of the park along Main AND Commerce. Main is already a street with slower speeds. Coupled with the setback of One Main Place, the primary noise and echo effect are not the greatest from Main. It is Commerce, with its higher speeds, higher vehicle count and the Earle Cabell echo that really causes the noise. No hill or metered street parking on Commerce mean that noise hasn't been reduced by the hill.

The bike marker and no parking sign are the final pieces of evidence that on-street parking was nixed. The noise-reducing hill is on the right.
Ultimately, it was this aspect that delayed my post on Belo Garden for so long. I kept hoping for something, like a different city department that was just late in the installation (or really re-installation, since both Main and Commerce had parking meters prior to Belo construction) of the meters and this wasn't overlooked. I rationalized they were on their way, since Main Street Garden was careful to include them in its design. Since the bike markers occupy the middle lanes of Main Street before arriving at Belo and after leaving the park, it then became obvious, with them on the edge of the street here that on-street parking is out. Sigh.

I don't like this for several reasons. When I get to the bike lanes in downtown, I will say that switching lanes, which is what is happening on this stretch of Main, raises the risk for accidents. In this case, it also guarantees no on-street parking, one of the few things that benefit both car users and walkers.

At least on Main Street, there is enough other urban activity and amenities going for it that it still has the feel of an urban street. Commerce Street is much less so and really could have benefited from the presence of on-street parking.

Straight, narrow and fast, a bad combo for pedestrians. This Commerce Street view illustrates the lack of cover for anyone walking next to this speedway.

One of the biggest controversies during the planning phase of Belo Garden came between the park organizers and the Metropolitan condos, which are adjacent to the park within the same block. The Belo foundation didn't want a driveway, which borders the west side of the condo tower, to be directly adjacent to the park. Their solution was a wall, which the building then opposed.

The wall between the park and neighboring condos.
This is one of the few times where I see both sides and can agree with both too. On the one hand, I understand the condo owners wouldn't like the front view of their lobby to be a wall, when it could be greenspace. I also understand they wouldn't like to have to walk to the edge of the property to go around and enter the park. I also see why the Belo Foundation wouldn't want their intentionally-designed "peaceful" park to be next to a driveway.

The sad thing is, both violate good urban design practices, which is why I really didn't take one side or the other. An urban building shouldn't need a driveway, especially when the property has to garage entrances on the north and south side. Why does there need to be a driveway on the west? From the park's perspective, building a wall, by definition divides things. Good urban areas are seamless and transition well from one to the other. In the case of this park, well, there clearly is an end point. Since neither side presented a good urban solution, I just didn't care, and ultimately, it is downtown that suffers.

One of the main positives talking points of the park by the way it was designed is also a negative. The designers intentionally used native, drought-resistant grasses, which is a really good thing, but the placement segments the park. They are tall and dense enough to tell users don't pass through here (besides, there may be a present from a four-legged friend in here). And on top of it, they built it on the edges too and it segregates the park from the sidewalk, a major urban violation.

Here, the grasses separate the picnic area from the rest of Belo. It happens in way too much of the park.
At the very least, Belo has an intangible that no other park in downtown has, something of comedic value. I'll let the sign speak for itself.

I hate that I sound overly negative...again. But Dallas talks a good game about making downtown urban, or rather returning to its urban roots. But then produces what they have been doing for the last 50 years, which turned it from an urban area into an office park. Main Street Gardens is a good urban park, though it has flaws, its urban design, things like on-street parking, sidewalk width, pedestrian amenities, integration of sidewalk to park, etc., are really solid.

Belo is not. The design separates the park from the sidewalk, isolates the pedestrian and offers the pedestrian little urban activity. Yes, it is better than the parking lot that was there, but downtown Dallas, especially in the Main Street core, doesn't need incremental improvement. It needs to, if not a home run, at least get an extra base hit every time. Belo is a walk.

1 comment:

Ken Duble said...

I'll look forward to your take on the redo of Founders Plaza in front of the Records Building.