In the 1970s, Dallas’ leaders and planners thought they needed to prepare for an ever-expanding downtown that was becoming, in their view, way too crowded and congested. They got to work applying the most forward-thinking urban design ideas of the day.
Tunnels were constructed underground. Walkways were built between buildings. Massive skyscrappers rose from the rubble of the early-20th century Dallas to offer modern office space and a new look for the skyline. Older buildings were removed to make space for parking for all the workers who filled these buildings.
Transportation was rethought to accommodate commuters heading in and out of the central core. Elevated highways like I-345 were constructed to complete the ring of roads around downtown. The Dallas North Tollway was constructed to help shoot North Dallas businessmen straight into the city center. The street grid was also reconfigured. Roads were made one way or expanded — all in the name of getting people in and out of downtown as quickly and conveniently as possible.
Dallas was successful at redrawing the bones of its urban grid in the form of a new, car-centric vision for growing commerce and and increasing convenience. But rather than making it easier to get to and from the downtown business center, the transportation “improvements” only made it easier and cheaper for businesses and their employees to leave downtown and march northwards. The end result was the death of downtown Dallas.
Now, as downtown and the center city finally rebounds, today’s planners and city leaders are trying to think of ways to reverse the damage that was done over the past forty to fifty years. One idea is to turn those one way streets back into two-way roads, which may be happening with Commerce St. Another new proposal is to take Columbia Ave, which was widened in the 1970s, and give it a “road diet.”
That’s what this Change.org petition would like to see. It calls Columbia, which runs from downtown out through the heart of East Dallas, one of the “most dangerous and under-utilized roads in Old East Dallas:”
The people on either side of this road were once close neighbors but can no longer reach the friends, services, or parks on the other side without significant difficulty. The harmful effects of this dangerous and neighborhood unfriendly road are evident in the number of injuries and lackluster growth along this corridor.
Further, hundreds of children must cross this street daily to reach Lipscomb Elementary, Woodrow Wilson High School, and JL Long Middle School, forcing them to risk their safety by walking or take a car to travel even a short distance.
Pointing to Dallas’ Complete Streets Design Manual, the petition would like the city to add “complete street-ing” Columbia Ave. to the long list of needs to be included in the 2017 Bond Program.
It’s a good idea, but I’d like to see it taken one step further. The mistakes of the urban planners of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s stretch far beyond downtown and Columbia Ave. and impact neighborhoods all over the city. Fixing Columbia could be a boon to East Dallas, but Dallas shouldn’t stop there.
We recently saw the release of the final TxDOT’s City Map plan, which rethinks the configuration of the region’s highways that pass through its urban core. But highways don’t exist in a bubble, and in order for City Map to work — as well as improved Dallas bus transit, for that matter — the ideas for addressing intrusive highway infrastructure need to go hand in hand with rethinking the street grid. Dallas should shrink Columbia, but it should also work on a City Map-scale plan for doing the same for so many streets around Dallas in order to prioritize which street re-configurations could have the most impact to overall mobility and vibrancy.
Because projects like this proposed Columbia reconfiguration wouldn’t just help neighborhoods rebound and spur new investment in Dallas, they would unlock the potential of the urban street grid for increasingly mobility while reducing congestion and our highway dependency.