The development boom leaves downtown with more cars and fewer spaces

BACK IN 1968, urban design guru Vincent Ponte wrote in Esquire magazine of three ways Dallas could improve its central business district. We needed fewer parking lots, more green space and a network of pedestrian walkways, he said. Ponte ’s comments were part of a larger piece by the editors of the magazine devoted to the prospects for America’s “troubled” cities.

Dallas, the editors noted, was “still thought of by most of the world as the place where Kennedy died.” The world’s attention should be diverted from Dealey Plaza to the rest of the city, Esquire’s experts said, through things like the new airport (check), more professional sports teams (check), a better educational system (oops), expansion of the city’s arts community (we’re working on it) and approval of liquor by the drink (check). Perhaps most important, the authors said, was Dallas’ opportunity to build a model downtown.

The city and several of Dallas’ larger developers put their money where Ponte ’s mouth was, hiring him as a special consultant for downtown projects. Ponte wrote the city’s downtown master plan in 1969, as a matter of fact. So, as Dallas booms on toward the year 2000 being thought of by most of the world as the place where J.R. was shot, and as part of a D Magazine series on downtown Dallas planning, we thought it only fair to ask Ponte how Dallas is shaping up.

Not too bad, he thinks, with a few notable exceptions.

Nowadays, Ponte’s saying we need more parkingspaces

“if the downtown is going to live.” By Ponte’s calculations, the Central Business District was 14,000 parking spaces short in1980 and will need an extra 30,000 spaces in 1985. Enough spaces, in other words, to fill three lanes of Central Expressway bumper to bumper for 28 miles.

As with many other urban problems, the parking crunch can be blamed directly on progress. In 1968, about 450 acres of Dallas’ 950-acre downtown were devoted to parking lots. In the past 13 years, much of that space has been converted to office towers or construction sites. Between 1981 and 1985, Ponte says, various construction firms will open 12 million square feet of new office space in the central business district, a mind-boggling total considering that during the past 30 years the CBD gained only 16 million square feet of office space. The city’s zoning laws, however, require builders to provide only one parking space for every 2,000 square feet of office space in the central business district – compared to one space for every 333 square feet just beyond the freeway loop – and Ponte worries that because of the building boom and the city’s relatively loose zoning codes, short-term downtown parking could be “a thing of the past” by the 1990s. The numbers are not encouraging: In 1970 downtown Dallas had 6,885 parking spaces; it was down to 4,005 in1981 and by 1985 it is projected to have only 2,695.

Ponte has a solution, of course, and it’s not mass transit. “Even if we had the money to build a rail system, we wouldn’t get it built for another four or five years, and no matter how many miles you build at $30 million or $40 million a mile, people are still going to use their cars,” he says. He thinks the city should help those drivers find parking spaces, by building one large set of parking decks a year for the next 10 years or so.

Each garage should contain 1,000 to 2,500 parking spaces, and each should be built on the fringes of the center of the central business district, within walking distance of the office towers where an additional 50,000 people will be working by 1985, Ponte says. “I’m very sensitive about the government not getting into areas where the private sector can handle things itself,” Ponte says, “but the parking situation has become a crisis, and only the city can put the parking garages where they should be

The city should step in because private developers might block up a large chunk of land for an office building, but probably would not go to the trouble or the expense in order to build a mere parking garage, he says. The city could simply step in and exercise eminent domain.

Interlacing those parking lots, “like the ankle bone connected to the shin bone,” will be a network of pedestrian walkways that within three years will stretch 4,000 feet from the Plaza of the Americas to the Main Place development. Most of that network already is in place, built by private developers. Within the next several years, the city needs to make only a few cross-street connections before office workers can stroll below the streets from Main Place to Thanks-Giving Square, and then above the streets from Thanks-Giving to the Plaza of the Americas, Ponte says. From his proposed parking garages it would be but a five-minute walk to work for tens of thousands of Dal-lasites, “without traffic congestion, heat, fumes or the noise of the streets.” By 1990, Ponte believes the city can benefit from some seven miles of pedestrian walkways (95 percent privately built), used by 61,000 people daily. Along the walkways would be small shops and stands, revitalizing downtown sales (and sales taxes) as they benefit from the pedestrian traffic. Automobile traffic, meanwhile, would move faster because fewer pedestrians would be scurrying from curb to curb, blocking drivers who wish to make turns and generally getting in the way

The city and several private developers also have followed another of Ponte’s suggestions, and further relieved center-city traffic jams by placing 40 truck loading docks beneath Thanks-Giving Square, serving Placid Oil, Arco, RepublicBank and the Fidelity Union building. “All those trucks coming downtown, you never see,” Ponte points out

Indeed, the only suggestions the city has been slow to follow have been those not involving concrete and steel. Dallas still lacks green space -a planner’s word for parks and grass and trees -downtown. But Ponte clings to hope. “In 1968 we didn’t have many parks downtown. Now we’ve opened Thanks-Giving Square, one acre right in the middle of the city. We are about to get two more parks right in the middle of the city along Pacific, one near the Cadillac Fairview Building and one near the Majestic Theater, both triangular,” he says. ’Those are beginnings. Not enough, but double what we had.”

Ponte’s final ingredient for a vital, attractive downtown is a ring of tree-lined boulevards around the core of the city. “Ross, Griffin, Young, Pearl. They should be a heavy boulevard ring like they have in Paris or Washington,” he says.

“We could have trees on both sides of the street, because those streets are not heavily built up yet. And we should get a whole string of trees, and they should all be planted and placed by 1986 when the Sesquicentennial takes place.” What are the odds of that being done? Pretty good, according to city planner Bob Bach, who notes that Griffin Street already has had such a face-lift. Besides, Ponte says, “It’s the easiest thing in the world, if they put their mind to it. Do you know what it would cost to put all those trees in? The cost of a 1,000-car garage. And a garage costs about $3,000 a stall.”

Dallas, Ponte says, is on the verge of becoming a true cosmopolitan city and must concern itself as much with quality as with quantity. The trees, he adds, “don’t create any money, but they do create the image of the city. At some point, it will have to happen.”

Second in a series.


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