After wrapping up the Ross Boulevard challenge, we’ve kept ourselves busy at Team Better Block with a couple of projects that we’re really excited about. The first is the development of a 9-mile trail alongside the Trinity River with connecting on-street bicycle infrastructure that spans from the Southern terminus of the Katy Trail to the Bishop Arts District in North Oak Cliff. We’ll announce more details on that project later in the week. The second project is called Square 67. With this effort, we’re taking a dying suburban strip mall and converting it into a neighborhood “place” filled with small shipping container storefronts, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, community gathering spaces, events, and the development of a “Main Street” within a parking lot. The problems this center faces is no different than the one’s we’re seeing across the country where large retailers move on to newer and better accommodations, while communities are left with the remnants of once vital and active developments that provided jobs, food, and entertainment for entire neighborhoods.
Square 67 was originally developed in the early 70′s as a suburban shopping strip with large anchor stores flanked by smaller retail outlets surrounded by a sea of concrete parking. 40 years later, development has moved further South with bigger box discount retailers (Super Targets, Wal-Mart Supercenters) relocating further away and many residents moving on to newer, more vibrant exurbs like Cedar Hill. In 2009, the square’s anchor, Sack N Save, pulled up stakes after a 4 alarm fire swept through the complex. From that day forward, the property has never regained its original footing and the small surrounding tenants that relied on the anchors regular traffic have suffered losses to their businesses.
For this project, we realized our best opportunity for revitalization existed in turning the focus away from the box, and looking more at the giant parking lot. Traditionally, a “Square” is thought of as a large open space in the heart of a community lined with small markets…a place that acts as a gathering space for residents who can relax, take in street theatre, listen to music, eat outside, and people-watch. Somewhere along the way, the term was co-opted by developers who attempted to create a new neighborhood gathering center, but one less reliant on slowing down and lingering, and more on quick-serve convenience. What was lost as a neighborhood was a sense of place that reflected the community’s unique identity and values.
We began working out a plan to develop a Main Street inside of the parking lot that is lined with converted shipping containers. To help with the project, we’ve once again partnered with UTA and architecture professor Wanda Dye, whose student team recently won our Ross Boulevard Challenge. Their group developed a series of renderings to show the potential for taking back a portion of the space given over to cars and making it human-scaled.
Next up, we picked up our first shipping container…a 20 footer that will become a space for a food vendor.
Our master welder and general all-purpose bad ass, Santi Gusman, set to work on cutting an opening for the space.
By the second day, we’d added a wood rain guard, cut a rectangular opening, and began internal frame welding.
After studying squares around the world, we noticed that most had a prominent fountain in the center. We set to work creating our own using horse troughs, galvanized tubs, receptacles, and pales.
Typical Team Better Block planning…Jeff Bethke helps us layout a green roof concept over fast food.
After spending a week building out the container in 105 degree weather, we took an evening off for some dumpster pool swimming in the Cliff.
On all of our projects, we look for ways to engage the community in fun ways…we’ve never been fans of townhalls because they only bring a small subset of a neighborhood out. We’ve found that if you focus on kids, you get a better cross section of the area and what you can build upon. Also, the parents connect us to other area stakeholders who we can reach out to for discussing ways to develop small business incubators, and get ideas for what the community feels is missing. For our kickoff event, we went with “Fishing on the Square”…the idea stemmed from driving a few miles outside of the neighborhood and spotting a tucked away lake with one hundred or so families, young and old, sitting out with poles and enjoying the day. With that in mind, we headed to Overton Fisheries in Buffalo, Texas and picked up 30 large catfish and setup a portable pond.
We setup our newly completed container under the shade of the vacant gas station which fronted the development, and offered food, drinks, fishing, and a mobile office to talk with neighbors about starting small businesses within the area.
At the end of the day, people lingered in a space formerly dedicated to cars, bought food and drinks, people-watched, and talked about how the community needed more events like this to bring everyone together. We were constantly asked about the next event, and how they could help. It’s so rewarding to find out how much a community is willing to pitch in to help us make places that matter. When you step away from the world of specialists, and consultants, and just have fun with a community, you get a much better sense on how to make things better. The real key is to just do something concrete. Planning, and studying is necessary, but if we can’t tie that to actual improvements on the ground in short order, then momentum can quickly be lost, and we can find ourselves in a pattern of always talking about doing something great, but never acting. And for places like this, time is of the essence. Everyone deserves a place that matters, and that builds up a community.
Next up, we’re building out 3 more containers and mixing up the retail offerings…also, we’ll start linking the area’s other amenities like Boulder Park, and the airport via multimodal street connections. Stay tuned for updates.
More pics from the kickoff event here. Also, special thanks to Wanda Dye…our official catfish wrangler.