Tuesday, November 1, 2011

DFW Plazas, Part Deux

So yesterday, inspired by the Atlantic cities post on best and worst plazas/squares in the world, I began a catalogue of the public spaces by similar classification within the Metroplex. You can find part 1 here. One of the key defining characteristics of a plaza or square, is that they are more urban than a "park," not just by being more hardscape than softscape because that is not entirely necessary. See: many of the squares in Savannah.

I define them as more urban in that they are more interconnected. Parks are rarely quite as populated. You have more space in a park. Parks don't necessarily have to be as directly interrelated to their surroundings as a plaza/square. You can not dissociate the plaza from its adjacencies, they are all part of the same place. The outdoor room you're within is defined by the buildings facades and the uses of those buildings give vitality to the space.

Onto part 2 (similarly with part 1 - I distinguish "urban" plazas from suburban strictly by location herein, not form as I typically do because as I mention above a "suburban" plaza is a syntactic impossibility. Without form and interrelationship, it isn't a plaza.):

Urban Meh - Ferris Plaza, Downtown Dallas. This could be a good one. It actually isn't missing too much. It has Union Station, Belo's corporate office, and Dallas Morning News HQ fronting three of its sides to populate it (though rarely does this occur). The Hotel Lawrence is on the north side, though it has no relationship to the plaza other than proximity. It's sunken as we lamented yesterday, but not so much as to be problematic. So where are the problems? 1) Not enough seating. What seating there is, is either inadequate or informal part of the fountain structure, which is not in the shade. 2) The ramps/handicap access is clumsily handled and looks like an unattractive tack-on. 3) The planting seems rather arbitrary in its placement and creates little in the way of space or order. And, 4) the surrounding roads are too big. Items 1 and 4 are the most significant in my view.

Ferris Park - Dallas TX

Urban Bad - Dallas City Hall Plaza. I've long heard stories of the existence of a painting portraying a traveler dying of thirst, crawling across the barren desert of this plaza. I'm yet to witness it with my two eyes. If it doesn't exist, it should. There has been plenty in the news of this plaza "transformed," but that is all overblown. It was filled with gewgaws and marketed to within an inch of the life it doesn't have to get a hand full of people out there for a day. It's problems are deep, systemic, structural and no amount of puppet shows can bring Pinocchio to life without our nose growing *this* big. Those issues are 1) scale and 2) like all/any parks/plazas, its connections and context. Get the 500 S. Ervay building jumpstarted and perhaps there is a chance, but I don't believe IT or any form of private development is particularly viable in that part of downtown for some time, as I wrote here.

Good Urban - Pegasus Plaza, Downtown Dallas
Pegasus Plaza is at what I consider to be the Main & Main intersection of downtown Dallas, at Main & Akard, despite Akard's one-way nature and dead-ending the next street up. It is the primary access street in from the North Dallas Tollway as it transitions from toll road to Harry Hines to Akard, each step incrementally shrinking in size, scale, and speed. When it hits Main Street, both cross streets are scaled for the pedestrian and likewise, are easily traversed even without the crosswalk signal or at intersections. This condition is what I call a fully "tethered" street in that people feel comfortable crossing just about anywhere.

Iron Cactus provides a direct connection and outdoor dining on the plaza (despite not particularly liking their food nor overpriced beverages, preferring Sol Irlandes across the street). The only real issue facing Pegasus Plaza is the dead space in back, where I presume is the Magnolia Hotel's back of house uses within. It is currently a blank wall, dressed up with a bit of oft-dead climbing vines, and essentially a dirt floor for dog shit. The downtown 360 plan rightfully identified this as an immediate intervention opportunity for one of the proposed "glass-box" retail sites to provide an interactive face. Absent that, I propose at the very least some stadium style seating a la Times Square. Effectively, Pegasus Plaza is our Times Square -- in conjunction with the adjoining Main Street blocks.

Meh, Suburban - DeSoto Town Center
Full Disclosure, I worked on the initial planning of this. So my critiques and praises are no different than they were at the time. The eventual project came out of that planning and is a mixed-use development (some ground floor retail with residential above) to infill the large surface parking lot in front of the DeSoto City Hall, which is in a converted strip center. They had a lot of assets including the stream/trail system to the north, the band shell overlooking it, and well, all of the land that was the surface parking. I was not however involved with the execution of the eventual plan and was disappointed to see the town square, to be between the development and the city hall was effectively turned into a cul-de-sac. To the city's credit though, they did follow through with efforts to improve what was essentially just a fire lane circumnavigating the sight to begin 2-siding the development. Remember, the most urban of places (those that maximize development synergy and interconnection) are those without backsides, just interfaces (with that said, sometimes that is impossible).

Good Suburban - North Park Mall Courtyard
No one can say I'm blindly against all malls. I merely point out those that have a future and those that don't. We were over-malled as a product of being over-retailed, nationwide. Most are failing or have already failed. The few regionally drawing ones will survive, but even North Park is showing that in order to continue to compete, survive, it must continue to evolve and become more of a complete place beyond a one-dimensional shopping experience. Every time I'm at North Park, I make it a point to spend some time out here or at the very least use it as a handy short-cut. In that way, it drastically improves the overall interconnectivity of the mall as a place over the typical cattle chute style of forcing people to walk past every single storefront ("And if not, then we'll hang you upside down and shake you 'til all your change falls out!")

There are a few cafes in the space, several of the stores have their own 2-sided entrance and there are mall corridor access points (necessarily) on all four sides. I don't think there is anything particularly special with the design or landscaping, but look at the Atlantic's global list. Scale and feel are more important than doo-dads and gewgaws. I full expect this to be step 1 in North Park's evolution into a more complete place with the surface parking lots filling in with other kinds of mixed-use development allowing the mall to approach the Milan Galleria as something more than a shopping experience but simply an indoor central piece of a complete neighborhood. And if that isn't being thought about...then it should be.

Bad Suburban - Williams Square - Las Colinas
This is less of a public square or plaza than it is a canvas for monumentality. Has anybody used this except to photograph the sculpture? And if you did, what could you possibly use it for? And it really gets at some of Las Colinas' deeper issues, that with the lake being the central feature, creating narrow slivers of land (development) around it, makes it difficult to create central, integral people places with any kind of critical mass within a reasonable distance that make people want to go there and use it. Of course, there has to be something to do there other than photograph some wild horsies that might as well be Flying Seahorses riding Mermaids.

I mean seriously, look at that ground floor facing it. The rest of the surrounding buildings as well. There so oppressively stale and lifeless with deep black windows signifying death for all we know that I'm repulsed even posting this picture and typing around it. And those poor horsies have to exist there in perpuity. Inhumane really.

Mustangs of Las Colinas

Starting to think there can be a part 3 tomorrow as I radiate further away from Dallas. Suggestions fully welcome with your own editorializing or without.