Look on the bright side

City bureaucrats do in a report on closing Harwood Street for the Nasher garden

According to Suhm, that snafu has now been smoothed over. "I think he's content with the [development] proposal that's there now," Suhm says. But just as that issue was resolved, the question over whether to close Harwood was coming to a boil.

City documents show that the city, the museum, and Nasher had been talking about closing Harwood for some time to accommodate pedestrians walking from the DMA to Nasher's garden. At various times, the DMA's and the city's draft plans for the garden site have included a walkway, along with an estimate of $100,000 to build it. (It has never been clear who would pick up the tab.) An early pitch to Nasher included among the city's duties a promise to "construct a pedestrian connection across Harwood street"--a provision that was replaced by a vague promise to "modify Harwood and Olive streets."

Once more, however, neighboring downtown property owners were apparently not brought in on the plan. (Indeed, city officials had long tried to soft-peddle the news. "There may be some small street closures, but nothing major," Mayor Pro Tem Mary Poss told the Observer last year.)

Although Nasher has yet to complete the design for his garden, the overhead walkway plan apparently has been scrapped, as have subsequent plans to create a tunnel. "There are big utilities easements under Harwood Street, so you can't do that," Suhm says. If the Harwood closing doesn't work, she adds, there is one more possibility: a "berm," or little hill of dirt that motorists would drive under.

According to Suhm, the Central Dallas Association's big concern is access to buildings from Harwood Street. CDA officials did not return calls for this story, but there may be another, unspoken factor here. City documents show that the CDA did its own economic impact study of the proposed garden--and the numbers show that the boon to Dallas from Nasher's garden may be small.

The upshot: between the real estate and street-closing snarls, it is now 23 three months after the big announcement--and the first bulldozer has yet to dig its maw into the first mound of dirt on the proposed garden site.

Though the deal could yet change, the city's study assumes that the relevant stretch of Harwood from Woodall Rodgers to Flora Street will be open from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. Monday through Friday only. To study the effect this schedule would have on downtown traffic, employees from the city's Department of Public Works and Transportation counted the number of cars using each of four major downtown traffic arteries. From January 7 until January 18, they counted vehicles traveling the north-south arteries of Pearl, Olive, St. Paul, and Harwood. They found that Harwood carries the least traffic of the four--about 6,000 cars a day, compared with about 7,100 a day for St. Paul. Pearl is the workhorse, carrying an average of 9,790 motorists southbound and another 12,853 northbound each day.

As proposed, a two-lane Harwood open for three hours would carry 856 vehicles a day between Woodall Rodgers and Ross Avenue--leaving some 5,100 commuters to find another route. The city estimates that 80 percent of those--some 4,000 or more--would be diverted onto St. Paul Street. In other words, St. Paul would resemble Pearl Street at rush hour, only worse. (The report alludes to another study done by the North Texas Council of Governments, which suggests that traffic would tend to disperse over a far wider variety of alternative routes.)

As the report concedes, running the morning and afternoon gantlet down Pearl is no simple task. Yet under the proposed Harwood closure plan, 1,000 vehicles a day would be diverted onto Pearl. Engineers assigned each intersection an "LOS" ("Level of Service") rating--in their own words, a "standardized attempt to define in terms of delay the discomfort, frustration, and lost travel time experienced by a motorist." They created an A-F grading system, with A being "an intersection with very low delays" and F being "delays in excess of 60 seconds per vehicle, considered unacceptable to most motorists." Using this system, at peak times, portions of Pearl already receive Ds and Fs. Woodall Rodgers' eastbound service lane gets similarly failing grades.

So, the report concludes, why not overload these key intersections further? "Poor intersection Level of Service are [sic] forecasted for Pearl and the eastbound service road of Woodall Rodgers but this occurs with or without the Harwood closure taking place." (To ease matters somewhat, the report suggests, the city will construct new, widened turn lanes at Pearl and Woodall Rodgers.)

It isn't the only place where the report chooses to look on the bright side. "Recent presentations by some urban planners suggest that low levels of service, and their associated lower vehicle speeds, may actually be beneficial to promoting ground-floor retail in the downtown environment of cities and should be encouraged." Of course, about the only retail in those blocks is the occasional guy on the median hawking Tyler roses. But Dallas was a city built on optimism, so who knows? Someday we could get squeegees too.

The report contains other interesting assumptions. For one, it estimates that traffic to the Nasher garden itself should not cause any significant problem for downtown streets. In doing so, it seems to confirm the CDA's economic impact numbers. As a source of estimated attendance figures, city planners looked to the Dallas Arboretum, which gets 400 people each weekday. (The DMA has 250,000 weekday visitors per year.)

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Now that Harwood is already closed at Klyde Warren, why not go ahead with the plan to make it pedestrian-only between the DMA and the Nasher?