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Noah Jeppson’s Crazy Ideas For Downtown Dallas

He's not the sort of person you'd expect to see leading a charge to improve the Central Business District.
photography by Nick Prendergast

On a Friday morning in late September, Noah Jeppson stands at the corner of Main and Ervay streets downtown, waiting for the light to change, loaded down with three bags. The volunteers who were supposed to help him at Parking Day Dallas did not show, forcing Jeppson to scramble to post fliers. A few weeks ago, he sprained his ankle on some uneven pavement while walking his dog. He only recently ditched his crutches. Now he’s wearing a pair of Asics sneakers, and he has a busy day ahead.

Sweet and soft-spoken, shy but friendly, Jeppson does not come across as the sort of person who would be leading a charge in the Central Business District. That would seem a role more suited to billionaire Tim Headington, who owns the Joule, or the perpetually French-cuffed John Crawford, who runs Downtown Dallas Inc. But Jeppson is on a mission to change downtown one crazy idea at a time.

He does a little bit of everything. He’s a member of the Downtown Resident’s Council. He was appointed to the Landmark Commission Task Force. He organized the 1900 Elm Community History Day. He has co-curated exhibits for the Dallas Center for Architecture. And today he’s the co-organizer of Parking Day Dallas.

Parking Day—it’s actually styled PARK(ing) Day—started in San Francisco in 2005 as an annual event to “call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat.” About 160 cities in 35 countries now participate with their own Parking Days, when participants take metered parking spaces and repurpose them for creative public use. A parking space may turn into a concert venue, a poetry room, a mini-soccer field, a reading room, a knitting circle, or a beauty parlor.

Despite the volunteers who didn’t show, this year’s Parking Day Dallas is running smoothly. Last year, Jeppson was on his phone so much it died in the morning and he was unreachable most of the day. And, ironically, his car got ticketed because he parked in the wrong place while dropping off supplies.

Jeppson walks to Harwood and checks on two men in business casual putting together an RC racetrack for their space. He posts a picture
of them on his Twitter feed and, at length, returns to posting fliers.

Jeppson grew up in Corinth, Texas. He traveled a lot as a child and wound up going to Concordia University in Nebraska to try something new. “I had never been in the middle of a cornfield,” he says. “And I learned I never want to live in the Midwest again.” He studied as an environmental graphic designer, which is one of those jobs that, no matter how many times you explain it, sounds like something you made up, like social entrepreneur, life coach, or synergy coordinator. Environmental graphic designers solve problems related to way-finding, communicating identity, and shaping the idea of a place.

After graduation, he moved to London to be inspired. He says, “A city thousands of years old like London can still adopt new ideas!” He wanted to stay longer, but his visa expired and he needed to return home. Filled with dreams of a world-class city, he wanted to live where he could get by without a car.

In 2006, in his mid-20s, he moved to downtown Dallas. “It was different, quiet, and rough in areas,” Jeppson says. “I saw something that had potential. By getting involved, I could make a difference.” At first, he thought Dallas was a temporary move. Six years later, he’s still here (and now has a car).

Jeppson walks along the sidewalk, observing the transformed parking spaces. He likes to think of each area as a case study for what is possible. “That’s the long-term goal of Parking Day, to make some of these temporary ideas more permanent in the city,” he says. “Anybody can participate with their own ideas of what they want to do. Why not have a knitting group in downtown? Why not have a dog park here or sculpture park?” In 30 minutes, he has to meet Mayor Mike Rawlings for a Parking Day ribbon cutting ceremony. More walking.

Last year, he literally turned walking into another project. While the accepted wisdom is that downtown’s underground walkways are the bane of street life (Laura Miller, when she was mayor, famously said that if she could, she would fill them with concrete), Jeppson saw an opportunity: the Dallas Pedestrian Network. He wanted to make a map to encourage use of the tunnels. “Maps existed, but they had 10 levels of information,” he says. “I had to strip it back to the most important information. It wasn’t what’s in the tunnels, but where they go.” He spent months walking the tunnels, taking rough measurements, and studying older maps. Then he used the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to raise $1,230 to print 10,000 copies of the map he eventually conceived. “Love it or hate it, my intention wasn’t to present the tunnels as an ideal solution. But without good maps, it contributes to the problem.” He has almost exhausted his entire print run and will need to print more maps soon.  

At Pegasus Plaza, Jeppson waits to meet with City Council member Angela Hunt. She is running late, and he takes a moment to sit and observe the scene. The lunch crowd has poured onto the sidewalks, interacting with the parking spots. A serious man in Secret Service sunglasses stops to pet a leashed dog. He smiles. Two kids play in the fountain. A folksinger plucks through a song. Jeppson takes a deep breath.

“I’m happy,” he says. “I love watching people go into the spaces, businessmen, kids, and parents. That’s what a city should be, a mix of everybody. For one day, we can take over a parking spot and be neighbors.”