Monday, December 6, 2010

Thanksgiving Square: Speed Bump


A colleague and I have a joke. One that will no doubt leave you not laughing, but inwardly snickering at our silly professional humor. It goes something like this, "what do you do if you can't design a road properly? You add speed bumps." Hilarious, I know.

If you can't cry all there is left to do is laugh, right?

The point of the joke is that drivers will always drive at the speed that they feel comfortable and safe driving. The bumps imply that there is motivation to slow traffic for whatever reason, but the traffic engineering manual doesn't know how to design for calm traffic speeds so we must add regulation (signage with speed limits), enforcement (cops sitting in a car), and if all else fails, structural impediments (such as speed bumps).

It is with that said that I bring up Thanksgiving Square in downtown Dallas. Having recently relocated from the Interurban Building to the Mosaic, the park is now in sight and on the mind daily. Furthermore, it is my understanding that the city of Dallas is trying to figure out what to do with 1600 Pacific, an ominous looking black glass 60s era office tower. The tower sits on Thanksgiving Square, emptied out and went bankrupt last summer, and has had some teases of new development floated across the news wire. I haven't seen anybody working on it at all however.

The point of this post is to express that the design of Thanksgiving Square is a speed bump slowing down an entire portion of downtown Dallas from investment and densification. If the city wants to reinvigorate 1600 Pacific, surely there are economic partnerships in the works, but numbers alone will not ensure success. Thanksgiving Square must be reversed from a negative attractor, repelling people, to a center of gravity drawing people and investment.

As speed bumps are a sign of poorly calibrated road design to the needs of an area, as are public parks that are closed and gated at 5 pm. This is the case with Thanksgiving Square. Contrast this with other public spaces in downtown: Main Street Gardens and AT&T Plaza, which had to remove the bus 'bunkers' to make it an attractive, successful public plaza. It removed visual impediments creating a safer environment. Thanksgiving Square lacks both physical and visual porosity necessary in making a public space successful.

Let me also state that I'm really not interested in the history, politics, or ownership of Thanksgiving Square. The purpose of this post is not to figure out how to solve the potential maze of hamstrings and red tape from making a vibrant plaza, but to point out the physical flaws in the public space. They are there and identifiable. Whatever nostalgia or attachment we might have had to the process that created the park must be forgotten for the sake of bettering and enlivening downtown Dallas.

A successful city creates an environment where density equals desirability, in that the provision of space is enough to satisfy the demand to be there, without hindering that demand (i.e. a giant building might be overbearing - or in this case, the towers along the southern edge ensure that the Square is nearly always in shade). The majority of space around Thanksgiving Square, like 1600 Pacific, is dead, dying, or on life support (heavily subsidized). Certainly there are macro-design elements effecting the general desirability and well-being of downtown (highways), but from the micro-sense, why are some areas of downtown more successful than the cluster around Thanksgiving Square?
The park was designed by Philip Johnson who, along with I.M. Pei, probably did far more harm to downtown's health and vitality than they ever imagined or intended. But what's an architect to do? The client is the boss, right? Concrete and grade changes, typical of the time of design, are not just ever present, but bold, as if the idea needed to be extruded to cartoonish proportions just like Johnson's other buildings: the Crescent and what is now known as Comerica Tower (which will surely have five more names of whatever bank such-and-such over the next few years).

Thanksgiving Square leaves one with the sense that it was designed as a place of respite to get away from the 1970's downtown Dallas that was still quite busy, perhaps even oppressively so. And that would be fine, cities need places to get away. However, how do you reconcile the intentions for peace and quiet with its design as an interchange between levels, a hub between below-grade tunnels and at-grade street activity?

When the park is open during any work day, it is predominantly used by smokers as they are shoved increasingly further away from any public building or entrance and for the occasional dog walkers as there are two large residential buildings adjacent to the Square: the Mosaic and Gables Republic Tower.

The dogs crap in the expansive spottily emerald shards of grass only to be occasionally cleaned up by the owners. We've discussed the issues of cleaning up after dogs extensively on these pages, which is only exacerbated by the lack of visual permeability to and thru the park. When people aren't being seen, some may not live up to the standards society imposes upon them.

I have a perhaps unnatural aversion to turf grass in urban settings. In places like this that are sloped and heavily treed, it often doesn't grow well. It is a maintenance nightmare that most be mowed constantly as well as cleaned as it attracts trash, cigarette butts, and dog shit. I generally only believe in using grass in open lawns that are usable for free-form activities, playing, picnics, etc. Grass because you couldn't think what else to do with the plane is generally a bad idea.

However, this also is not the greatest offense by Thanksgiving Square. It should be wanted for murder, because it kills everything around it. Let's look:

- First, is the transportation network, which is limited, and in turn limits the life of the square. Pacific, running along the southern border of the square is one-way. If you believe in my concept of convergence or Space Syntax/Bill Hillier's idea of centrality of networks, you know this limits the amount of activity around the space. Pacific is also mostly used only by cabbies who know their way around downtown and since they are stuck on one-way couplets use it as a U-turn.

Furthermore, along the north side is the DART line, which is for DART only, but this doesn't stop the confused driver from turning down it daily only to be honked at by a DART train. Since it is for only DART, this also limits the amount of traffic moving past the site, only compounded by DART not stopping on this particular block.

- Squiggly orange lines represent pedestrian ways that break up the Dallas super blocks. These would be necessary and well used if they were direct and the destination more visible. Instead there are vertical circulation escalators to get to the sky bridges and tunnels in the way, as you see. I'm not sure I've ever seen these open, let alone used. They should all be removed similar to the bus 'bunkers' to increase sightlines and perceived safety.

(the DART corridor - there might be a pedestrian or two here if they had any reason to be on this portion of sidewalk)

The streets to the east and west are the Akard-Ervay one-way couplets, which provide the majority of north-south pedestrian movement in the immediate vicinity.

- The solid red squares represent access to parking garages. These interrupt the pedestrian network as well as occupy potential development space that would participate in the urban fabric rather than subtract from it as garages do.

- The thick, fuzzy red lines represent walls. Walls are nearly always detrimental to street life. Even worse when they are blank and taller than a person. Even even (sic) worse when these walls aren't broken often for points of access. Walls create a border vaccuum condition which from an urban perspective, repels activity, which heads towards centers of gravity, the centrality of networks, nodes. This is not to be confused with people preferring to hang out near edges of spaces, rather than stand in the center of spaces. Call it the meso- vs. micro-spatial preference of people. For people to gather around the edges, first an attractive space or outdoor room, a center of gravity has to be created.

- In the orange shade, I'm showing the two residential towers I mentioned previously. If I were to guess, there are probably in the neighborhood of 6-700 units between the two buildings, which, along with the office population, should help support ground floor businesses.

*For the sake of argument here, we'll also ignore the drastic grade to traverse between street and tunnel as well as the tunnels siphoning commerce and vitality from the street.

- I've also outlined the ground floor uses around the square and color coded them based on their relative success. Red is bad, yellow is okay, and blue is good. I had to make a few judgment calls, but I'll go through each for you to decide.


Taco Borracho: This is a new taco stand in the Mosaic building. It has people in it every time I walk by and given its physical dimensions, it must have pretty low rent. I can see this place sticking around.

Miguel's Cantina: I'm giving this a blue because it often has lunch lines out the door and down the block. Minus points for not being open weekends or after 7 pm, but its lunch success keeps it from being downgraded to yellow.

(part of Miguel's cantina and building garage access)

Beyond the Box/Office/Bank - Part of the storefront in the Republic building at Ervay and Pacific. Only Beyond the Box is a typical, active ground floor use, it also has outdoor tables, but are rarely full. Like Miguel's BtB is only open during typical working hours, but since it and its neighboring office uses have all been here for several years, they remain blue.

Republic Tower Leasing - This goes yellow despite having an attractive, maintained storefront because leasing is non-revenue generating. If somebody came along and offered the right price, I'm sure Gables would shove their leasing people into a closet.

Office - I forget what company is in the ground floor of the TXU building, but I believe it has turned over recently within the last two years. The real minus points come from the engagement between inside and outside space, with no physical porosity between the two.

Trophy Club - The gym for the Mosaic building. It was called Pulse, but recently renamed to tether to its mother brand presumably to up awareness and clientele among downtown office-types. Gyms can often make great ground floor uses if they make for the fishbowl and put aerobic machines up close to windows. It is what it is. However, there is very little to see in the configuration. Bonus points for reorienting the entrance to the street to have a real storefront within the past year.

AM/PM Lounge - This very well may go red shortly if it already hasn't. I didn't notice a crowd this weekend. I think this is closing if it already hasn't. I will have to verify before we make it red.

Entire 1600 Elm building - See the frowny face on the diagram

Below - Once upon a time this was a soul food joint that was pretty good. It relocated here from another location, then I believe it changed ownerships before dying a swift death, like a guillotine.

Asia Wok building - This restaurant has been dead for about 8 years. The building has been entirely empty (with the exception of a little bodega on the Elm side) for even longer. It has changed hands about a half dozen times, each promising to restore it to health...if only they could figure out the parking!

Backbeat Cafe, formerly known as Opening Bell Coffee, and even before that as Standard and Pours. This closed within the last two weeks and sits as you see it.

Vacant corner space in Mosaic

It is important to not the pattern. The closer to Akard/Ervay, the better chance of success because there is more traffic, foot and car. Until Thanksgiving Square is a more usable space, there will be no reason to venture into these blocks.

The transportation is a bit tricky due to lack of space, but the other solutions are obvious. First, the perimeter walls all need to be lowered to sitting height, broken more frequently to allow more access points, and the access points that DO exist need to be opened up to be more friendly by designing them to be welcoming sub-spaces to Thanksgiving Square that attract people to sit and hang out (remember people like to be at edges of spaces).

Here is a quick sampling of the walls and entries as they exist around Thanksgiving Square:

My personal favorite. What exactly are those shrubs doing there except to convince people NOT to enter?

This wall runs the entire length of the block without break.

On the north side is the rare "double wall" to allow daylight into the tunnels, or a convenient place to toss your bottle of Schnapp's.

While lowering walls which very well may eliminate some of the trees around the edges of the parks is a pretty significant undertaking, one solution that isn't is a complete redesign of the 'point' of the park. Right now it is a garnish, as you see.

Bizarrely, there is useless grass and useless shrubs as if whoever planted them thought, "this will cover up our mistakes" with signs that say, "keep off the grass."

Even this lego model ignored the point:

Here you see it in action, or inaction:

This point should be turned into an outdoor seating plaza to be shared amongst all of the potential restaurants and ground floor uses that currently occupy space nearby such as Miguel's, AM/PM, and Taco Borracho as well as the future uses that might move in. This would immediately make part of Thanksgiving Square more active, a central part of the outdoor room created by the building walls. It should have access back to the main part of Thanksgiving Square to allow the option of eating in a more serene setting as Thanksgiving Square is intended or you can stay out in the new cafe seating if you want more hustle and bustle and to "see and be seen."

Below is a before and after of Pearl Street triangle in New York City. Instead of going from parking to park, we would be transforming a part of Thanksgiving Square from useless green to useful, and green in that it helps to revitalize the downtown core.

I am not even suggesting radical change to the interior design of the park, but the issues at the edges are fundamental to successful public space and must be addressed. Until we transform Thanksgiving Square, it will remain a speed bump, slowing efforts to revitalize downtown Dallas.