Pacific Plaza in downtown Dallas, one of the region's most walkable neighborhoods. Courtesy of David Wood for Parks For Downtown Dallas

Urbanism

Here’s How Replacing Parking Lots With Parks Will Transform Downtown Dallas

We talked to the CEO of Parks for Downtown Dallas about the new greenspaces being developed in the heart of the city.

Amy Meadows is the CEO of Parks for Downtown Dallas, the nonprofit foundation that has partnered with Dallas and its parks department to create more greenspace in the city’s urban core. The foundation has been tasked with developing four downtown parks, which will be owned by the city.

Two of those parks have opened in the last several years. The Dallas Morning Newsarchitecture critic hailed the technology-oriented West End Square as “a model for how the delicate relationship between the urban landscape and our connected way of living might be navigated,” and Pacific Plaza beautifully replaced one of downtown’s many unnecessary parking lots with a lawn, pavilion, and ample shade from the Texas sun. Carpenter Park, in the works now on the east side of downtown, will be the largest downtown park. Its 5.6 acres are set to include rescued public art plus a basketball court and dog park, along with other amenities. Harwood Park, where crews will break ground later this year, is on deck.

The development of these parks, combined with the success of Klyde Warren Park (owned by the city and privately managed by a separate foundation), have accompanied and helped spur a transformation of the city’s urban core. Downtown boosters say the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t thrown that revitalizationoriginating in part from Boeing’s 2001 snub of our then-dreary downtownoff track. Parks for Downtown Dallas is thinking long-term, anyway. “We were trying to design and build parks that are 100-year parks,” Meadows says. “They’re going to be here for a very long time.”

If anything, the pandemic made clear just how necessary parks are to making downtown more walkable, more liveable, greener and much coolerliterally. “We’ve heard from a lot of people living in high-rises downtown that these parks were really wonderful respites during COVID,” Meadows says. “These parks are more desired now than they were before.”

I got on the phone with Meadows to talk about, among other things, how to judge whether a park is “working” and how the fate of downtown’s largest greenspace is tied to the future of I-345. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

What role have parks played in the redevelopment we’ve seen downtown over the last couple decades?

I started working downtown in 2001 and rarely did I see people walking down the street. We’ve seen huge changes. Parks just make it a much more pleasant and enjoyable experience to walk from one side of downtown to the other, especially in the heat we experience here in Texas. These greenspaces provide cooling, they’re helping with our air quality, but they also make it much more attractive and safe-feeling. It causes a lot of folks to say, ‘I think instead of taking my car across downtown, I’ll walk today.’

It’s also been the addition of schools downtown. We had all these office towers and then we had all these restaurants, and then retail started emerging. And then slowly but surely, housing. We started in the late ‘90s with 200 residents living in the core. Now we’re over 12,000. Those people that live here need greenspace. If they have families and children, they want schools. With schools now coming into the urban core, you need greenspaces for students. All of these things work together to create the complete package that we need.

We’ve heard from a lot of people living in high-rises downtown that these parks were really wonderful respites during COVID. They could get out and sit outside when everybody’s been so cooped up during the pandemic. Parks became even more important. These parks are more desired now than they were before COVID. All of these things combined have I think created a perfect opportunity for Dallas to add greenspace.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the planning for these parks, or forced changes to the parks that are already open? Has it?

The design process is fairly lengthy on these parks. Especially because we’re putting them in an already-built urban environment. It’s a very different experience than building on raw land in the suburbs. We were trying to design and build parks that are 100-year parks. They’re going to be here for a very long time. All of these parks have amenities that work today but will work into the future. We’ve tried to also be somewhat flexible so that things can be amended and changed.

Because these parks are going into a built urban environment, they have to work within their immediate surroundings. How has each park been designed to fit in its respective place?

This is where the public input process was very helpful. We really focused on the people that lived and worked around a particular park site. That’s why West End Square seems so different from Pacific Plaza. Pacific is surrounded by high-rises, plus the largest hotel in the state of Texas with the Sheraton. So “lawn” became a rallying cry. People wanted greenspace where they can go and be outside. That allowed us to incorporate Aston Parka triangular pocket-shaped park that had a lot of trees but was not welcoming at allinto Pacific Plaza, and allowed us to open immediately with old mature trees. There were also not a lot of young people or families living around Pacific. What we heard was grownups wanted some play too. That really came about with those custom-made swings that can hold both grownups and children.

In the West End, which is a historical district and had also been identified as an innovation district, you have to respect the history and the architecture while embracing the new. There were a lot of office workers, especially in technology, nearby. We heard people wanted opportunities to work outside. That was the genesis of the 50-foot-long work table with charging stations and outlets. Every day now there’s people sitting over there with their computers.

Carpenter is different because there isn’t really a built-in constituency around that area right now. There’s the DART transfer center, a lot of surface lots. We’re excited about the affordable housing going across the street next to the old Dallas High School building. That will create a base of families who can take advantage of the park. It does have a children’s nature play area and a splash pad. It’s got a basketball court, which will be the first dedicated freestanding basketball court in downtown that we’re aware of. It will also have gardens and walking paths and the public art. It also has a dog area, which Pacific and West End do not have. We’re anticipating, with the housing on the other side of I-345, that many residents with dogs will walk under the freeway and come over to Carpenter.

With Harwood, because so many families live near the Farmers Market district, the southern half of the park is focused on children and families. There’s going to a huge playscape there we’ll be announcing more on later. There’s a children’s water feature and a huge giant lawn. Two separate dog areas. The northern side will also have a stage and what we’re calling the gold ring arbor. There will be two historic buildings on site. 312 South Harwood used to be the home of Pamela Nelson, the artist. The other building we’re converting to a park service building with an office and restrooms. Our landscape architect has also designed a structure that will incorporate the gold rings from the old parking garage that was on the Main Street Garden plat.

“We were trying to design and build parks that are 100-year parks. They’re going to be here for a very long time.”

 

It feels strange to talk about whether a park is successful or not, but some parks work better than others. What lessons have you learned from, say, the success of Klyde Warren Park versus the relative struggles of Main Street Garden? How do you judge whether a park is working?

I’ve never seen any specific rubric to judge all parks’ success. Parks have different personalities. The parks that we’re designing are what I would call neighborhood parks vs. Klyde Warren, which is a destination park. Klyde Warren does programming on a daily basis. They have food trucks coming there. That’s a different model. We’re not designing these parks as destinations for people to drive in from the suburbs to visit. We want to make each one of them unique. These parks are supposed to be able to help people traverse downtown and experience different opportunities. The challenge with some of this downtown is waiting for development to catch up. If you build the park before the people are around it, you’re going to see it sitting empty much more than if it’s got residents [living nearby]. It’s not just dependent on office workers who might only come out at lunchtime.

I will tell you that Main Street Garden, since they redid the children’s play area, I’ve seen a significant increase in people using that park. It’s not programmed. Main Street Garden was also designed to be more of a festival site. Pacific, Harwood, Carpenterthose parks are not designed for festivals. No fees. These are public parks that should be accessible to people all of the time. We are not blocking these off to be used for ticketed events.

Downtown Dallas Inc. has a public-private partnership with the city parks department, and they are tasked with permitting and programming. We refer inquiries about weddings to DDI. They can permit that. But they’re not going to do programming every weekend. They’ll move it around. DDI bought a large mobile movie screen and can move that around for movie nights. They can have a little market on Corbin Street right next to West End Square. They’ll put up holiday lights during the holidays. We tried to think about all of this during the design. Some of this is just going to be watching and then course-correcting if we need to on some items.

How will the future of I-345 affect Carpenter Park? Whether they do bury it, or boulevard it, or leave it as an elevated highwayhow do you plan to work with that so close to the park?

Every discussion we’ve had has always been very positive in that whatever direction I-345 goes, they want it built around the park. They want to keep that park in place. [Landscape architects] Hargreaves Jones designed a second part of the park that would go under the elevated freeway if that does remain in place. Phase 2 isn’t funded, but it would be a very active area. There were several basketball courts in Phase 2 as well as the basketball court in Phase 1. If the freeway comes down, all those things could stay. If they rebuild 345 as an elevated freeway, we have a design that could be built under 345.

A rendering of Carpenter Park, with Robert Irwin’s sculpture visible on the left side of the image. That elevated highway is I-345 splitting downtown from Deep Ellum and East Dallas.
Courtesy of Parks for Downtown Dallas

There was originally going to be a skate park there, but the skateboarding community did not like the design. The Texas Department of Transportation has very specific requirements for anything going underneath the freeway. All the skate amenities had to be moveable rather than poured-in concrete, which is what the skate community wanted. If we built a deck over 345, and it was depressed, we could build a skate park over that.

What happens to Parks for Downtown Dallas once these parks are built?

In 2015, we thought we would be closing our doors once we built the fourth and final park. But what we’ve learned through this process is there really does need to be an advocate in place for parks. And also one that would help in funding maintenance. We’re spending a lot of of capital to build quality parks and they will need to be maintained. City budgets change. And often maintenance is what gets slashed first and foremost. So we have decided to remain in business, and we’ve launched a $25 million dollar campaign to raise endowment monies to help the city maintain these parks over time. These are investments for the taxpayers and the citizens of Dallas. We plan to remain as an advocate.

Our hope ultimately is that it would help cover other parks downtown. It would basically be money that would go to support all the greenspaces downtown with the exception of Klyde Warren, because they have their own foundation raising money. Klyde Warren is expanding their park as well, so downtown should be done. But I’m hopeful the subdistricts around downtown will begin looking at their footprint too to see if and where they could add some greenspace.

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