Street Beat: How Do You Fill Downtown With "Great Streets" For Folks on Foot and Bikes?

Downtown Dallas, circa 1942
Downtown Dallas, circa 1942

Speaking of the city council's Transporation and Environment Committees and Tuesday briefings ...

Yesterday I mentioned the Great Streets presentation RTKL's Erich Dohrer and Tom Brink are giving the council today, during which they're guaranteed to use the word "balance" a lot. But what else? Hard to say: Dohrer chatted with Unfair Park Monday afternoon, and said the pair had been asked only to "spend some time with the council and have a very general, overarching conversation about what a great street actually means." Which is why we're heading to the confab -- we're kinda curious about the council members' questions for the urban planners.

Dohrer did give us a bit of a sneak peak at his talk today, which will address how to find room on downtown streets for more than just cars trying to get in and out of the central business district as quickly as possible. Today's conversation is, indeed, an extension of Dohrer's work on the Dallas Main Street District plan, which, he says, would allow for the "merchandising of Main Street" -- which calls for connecting downtown's east and west sides with streetcars and shopping. (Speaking of, Joan Arbery's "Twenty Things I'd Like to See Downtown" on Renegade Bus is a good conversation-starter.)

"To some degree, it really takes a political and public will to move forward," Dohrer says. "There have been some steps forward speaking specifically to the Central Business District. The city has spent a lot of time and effort looking at Main Street, and it has done some nice things to make that street more manageable. Those are steps forward. But as far as how to move forward from here, it does take people standing up and saying, 'We want to start thinking about our streets in a different way.' The streets are the way in which we experience the city, and I believe streets -- just as much as the library or a civic building -- [reflect the city's] goals and aspirations."

So, then, what would he tell the council to do in order to fix downtown's streets?

"It comes down to being willing to make the investment," he says. "We're talking about the public right of way, and they are things we have to pay for. Does that mean we're saying you have to redesign every street downtown? No. It's a process moving forward. But we're continually upgrading and changing, and I hope as we make street improvements, it more than digging up and replacing pavement. We need to do it more holistically: We must take into consideration people who ride transit, who are on foot, who ride a bicycle."

For the purpose of today's briefing, Dohrer and Brink will limit their great streets to downtown -- because, well, that small part of town's a big enough chunk to deal with at the moment. And if you'll notice, the word Dallas isn't even mentioned in the briefing -- it's more about what other cities do, not about what Dallas doesn't.

"My biggest observation from working downtown for a decade is the streets are designed to get people in and out of downtown as quick as possible. But in a great neighborhood it's not about conveying people in and out, but providing them with a reason to hang around. There are larger trends in this country pushing us toward creating a more urban environment. You can only believe the numbers to a certain extent, but the Dallas-Fort Worth area will undergo a huge population and demographic change in the next 30 years, and where will they go? This whole city is going to densify and urbanize. That doesn't mean everything will look like Manhattan, but we need a framework in place to accommodate that change."

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