PLAZA DESIGNS

Only one thing’s missing from the City Hall plaza: people. For months, the city has been trying to find ways to liven up the usually deserted area. A design contest was run by the The Dallas Morning News; city staff members were asked to come up with exciting events to draw crowds into the area; and the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture enlisted urban-design specialist William H. Whyte to draft an improvement plan. At last, it appears that action will be taken.

Whyte’s report was greeted with heated criticism by City Councilmember Max Goldblatt when it was presented to the Council this summer. According to Assistant City Manager Jay Fountain, the Council didn’t vote on the improvement plan then because it was tied up with budget proceedings. Now that the budget has been settled, it’s time to get the ball rolling.

Members of I. M. Pei and Partners Inc., the architectural firm that designed City Hall and the plaza, received a copy of Whyte’s report and were asked to comment on it. The council will be briefed again, and according to Fountain, the plaza could have a fresh look by spring.

Whyte says that citizens agree about what should be done to the area: more events, trees, grass, seating, shaded areas, food, tables and chairs should be added. His first suggestion calls for a pavilion, complete with food service, tables and chairs. The pavilion would need a canopy to shade the area, shield people from the wind and scale down the plaza, which Whyte says is “as big as St. Mark’s Square in Venice-twice over.”

The report states that the “most important amenities the plaza could have are chairs- movable and lots of them.” According to Whyte, the current seating provisions are “woefully low.” He estimates that 6,000 feet of seating space is needed. Currently, the area has 600 feet of seating that, he says, isn’t very comfortable. None of the benches have backs; they’re made of concrete; and they’re aligned either on a north-south or eastwest axis.

Whyte’s solution requires that 200 movable chairs be installed, with 100 more in storage. The proposed chairs would be made of a white poly vinyl-coated steel, with armrests and grid-patterned seats and backs. The chairs would cost $10 to $15 each. To supplement the concrete benches, Whyte suggests that wooden benches be placed at right angles for face-to-face conversations.

Whyte says that the few trees in the area are too small and are spaced too far apart. Although the live-oak trees in the grassy area are surviving relatively well, the ones planted in the paved areas are barely alive. The use of thick concrete slabs instead of open grates at the base of the trees has created a detrimental heat buildup. He suggests replacing half of the dying ones with sweet gum trees (such as the ones in Aston Park), sycamores or honey locusts. Open metal grates or greenery would be a suitable substitute for the concrete bases, he says. This would not only be less expensive, but it would also soften the area by adding more green space, Whyte says.

His final suggestion involves programming; the city’s International Bazaar, held last April, was an excellent example of how the plaza should work. “The space works better for lots of people than few.” Therefore, he says, more events should be scheduled.

Fountain says that Whyte’s plan will be cut back initially because of a tight budget but may then be implemented in a number of phases. The total plan would cost about $180,000. Whyte says that seating, trees and the addition of food sales are priorities. The food pavilion, which is estimated to cost $50,000 to $65,000, could be considered later; in the meantime, vendors could be roaming around the plaza.

Ted Amberg, an associate partner with Pei and the project architect for City Hall and the plaza, says that the plaza is “certainly successful now as a setting for the building. We all know the plaza needs people. In time, with the development of the South-west quadrant [of downtown], it will happen.” He says that his firm needs more time to react to Whyte’s report.

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