Real Estate

Billy Joel Rocks a Better Block, or: How an Oak Cliff Experiment Is Turning Into a National Movement (and a Website and a Book!)

This afternoon I stumbled across this website: The Better Block: A Planning Tool for Urban Retrofit . Which, of course, refers to Jason Roberts's twice-executed Oak Cliff experiment in which the peoples, armed with cafe seating and greenery and chalk-marked bike lanes, take back the streets and sidewalks. Roberts is behind the site, but he tells Unfair Park this afternoon that he has collaborators: Patrick "Car-Free" Kennedy and urban planner Andrew Howard.

Says Roberts, the need for the site, which launched yesterday, arose when several other cities began calling and asking how to replicate the Oak Cliff Better Block Project. Rather than explain it over and over again, they launched the site -- which includes a brief how-to, which for now will serve as a prelude to a book the threesome are in the process of writing.

"I get calls from all over the place," Roberts says. "Memphis called us yesterday. Houston called, Fort Worth just did theirs, Maryland's doing one, Deep Ellum has theirs coming up, Greenville Avenue and Farmers Branch are doing one. So we thought, 'Let's aggregate so everyone can have access to this information. We should try to learn from each other so we can apply the best practices.' That's kind of the thought."

Turns out, the Better Block Project reached all the way to Oyster Bay, New York, where, a few months back, Billy Joel performed his own cover version -- after being inspired by this April video shot at the intersection of Kings Highway, W. 7th Street and N. Tyler Street. "He just watched our video and said, 'Let's do that,'" says Roberts, who, apparently, did start the fire.

Between the video, the new website and the book -- which they hope to have done in three months, at which point they'll start shopping it to publishers -- Roberts, Kennedy and Howard hope to, bit by bit, reshape the landscape, especially in the sprawled-out Sun Belt.

"I think it'll help these Sun Belt cities that were built with wider streets, and they don't even know how to re-adapt," Roberts says. "That was part of our frustration: There's so much to do, where do you start. Which is why we said we'll do it a block at a time.

"We're learning it's a really viable new tool -- it's the opposite of the way cities typically approach this project. They do this long million-dollar planning process with town halls and there's back and forth, and it's just so abstract. They say, 'I think this should work. This does away with planning and lets people just do it. And maybe they say there needs to be more trees or the bike lanes need to be wider. That's why it's called 'a living charrette.' Maybe Dallas can be the new capital for urban retrofit studies. That would be cool."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky