The Friends of Living Plaza, founded by Amanda Popken in 2011 and co-organized by Tisha Crear, was created as an advocacy group to demonstrate the need for improved design and programming on the Dallas City Hall Plaza. After an initial Living Plaza demonstration event highlighted the need and incredible potential, the Friends of Living Plaza volunteers continued the momentum for more than three years. Organizers orchestrated an annual series of summer and fall events supported by City staff and downtown organizations. Now, it appears, permanent change may finally be on its way. Our recommendations for moving forward are compiled in this report. Below is a summary of the Living Plaza project.
As soon as the new Dallas City Hall building was complete in 1978, residents recognized that the front plaza’s design was far from a hospitable landscape. Over an acre in size, and 70% concrete, it wasn’t designed to foster human interaction during the brutally hot Dallas summers or windy winters.
In 1982, William Holly White, the foremost urban sociologist studying public spaces and human interaction in the United States, was brought to Dallas by the Dallas Institute of Art and Humanities. He was hired to observe the plaza and recommend changes.
His recommendations included adding more greenery, shade and wind barriers, places for people to sit and congregate, and small concession shops for simple snacks and drinks. Now, decades after his insightful report was presented to the Dallas City Council, his recommendations remain unfulfilled.
In 2009, I began working at City Hall. I was struck that employees were rarely seen enjoying a relaxing lunch outdoors on their plaza. Though the concrete part of the plaza isn’t very inviting, there are great lawns on two sides of the building and a lovely grove of trees. When I first tried to picnic in the grass or even sit on the concrete benches, the security guards insisted that I move along.
There have been many dynamics influencing the current state of the plaza. At the southern edge of downtown, this area near City Hall had lost much of its residential populations in the 1980s and 1990s, as many downtowns across the U.S. had. The plaza attracted loiterers and troublemakers, forcing the security strategy at City Hall to primarily focus on moving people along and being as inhospitable as possible. By the late 2000s, the guards had accomplished their goal of securing a safe (though empty) plaza, but by this time residents were returning to downtown and the area was beginning to change.
A New Beginning
A Living Plaza event was conceived to demonstrate the recommendations of William H Whyte and the potential for the plaza to be a relaxing recreational space for employees and visitors to City Hall. Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard of Team Better Block organized an event with the CityDesign Studio and dozens of our friends and volunteers from our nearby neighborhood of Oak Cliff.
Roving musicians from The Fox and the Bird played jovially between Scott and Nicole Horn’s podiums highlighting Whyte’s recommendations
A pergola gave attendees a shaded place to sit, while a food truck served food and Jean Marie Browning served her neighborhood-famous french crepes. Councilmen and organizers were interviewed and a short film documented the event and its purpose. It was a great event.
But what next? Who would make sure these changes actually occurred and the demonstration didn’t fall out of our collective memory again like Whyte’s report?
“You.” And whoever else at City Hall would take up the cause, was the only reply from event organizers.
I found an ally in the CityDesign Studio – Arturo Del Castillo and I began making plans, with funding through a grant to the Design Studio from the National Endowment for the Arts. A number of our friends and colleagues joined the cause and Studio staff drew up a three-phase plan for the plaza.
Click images to enlarge.
We chose to continue the momentum through the spring, summer and fall months because, we reasoned, if we could make the plaza inviting even in the hottest months, we would have a great public place for 9 months of the year.
Tisha Crear soon joined the core planning team, offering her resources through the Oak Cliff Cultural Center and her network of artists across the city. We decided to form a nonprofit, and began documenting the plaza users and promoting more interactive themes for events.
A new intern joined the CityDesign Studio in 2012 and his enthusiasm brought new ideas. Patrick McDonnell and I retooled our programming. While he focused on engaging themes, I focused on gaining support for permanent change from decision-makers at City Hall. I talked with city staff and Council members, exploring their resources and their synergistic programs, and helped them see the incredible untapped potential to augment the revitalization of this part of downtown.
Events from the 2012 season
Our “BYO” event encouraged employees to Bring Your Own…chair, kite, book, lunch, music, or anything else they needed.
We handed out little trinket “prizes” to those who participated. We even held a winter event on the plaza that December, Festivus! We organized Feats of Strength games, listened to the Family Band play, and held a years-end Burning Bowl Ceremony with Dr Petra Weldes of the Center for Spiritual Living, to release the past and welcome the upcoming new year!
We met frequent lunchers on staff at City Hall, visitors coming to pay their water bill or get a birth certificate, school groups, skateboarders, a bible study group of homeless, and more.
We also realized the Plaza is the host of a number of annual events and many protests, political rallies, parades, and parties year round.
Stand With Texas Women rally, July 2013
The Finale, 2013
The third and final year of events was the most successful, culminating with a Jazz in July evening concert series and a call for SHADE structures to be built and displayed on the plaza.
Talented architects and designers from Architecture for Humanity and Corgan Associates built shade structures in addition to the reprise of my Beach Bench built by Erik Glissmann and I with recycled plastic fabric donated by Haggar. The incredible Corgan design was even purchased by The Lot restaurant and now sits in their backyard along the Santa Fe Trail.
Jazz in July, 2013
Downtown Dallas, Inc supported the Jazz in July evening concert series with a grant to cover event costs such as insurance, musicians, and a sound technician.
Redevelopment and New Life
The Nasher Sculpture Museum’s 10th Anniversary artwork showcase across the city included Moore to the Point, Rachel Harrison’s piece on the plaza. This simple pink arrow brought attention to Three Forms: Vertebrae, the often-overlooked classic Henry Moore sculpture in the center of the plaza.
This incredible piece of art underwent a cleaning in the 1990s, costing thousands of dollars to remove graffiti from its surface. Perhaps because of the history of neglect from being in a rarely-visited part of downtown, the plaza and its few assets have been undervalued and forgotten, practically since their construction.
Now that it’s time to reinvigorate the plaza, it’s practically at the point where the aging infrastructure can be reconstructed into something new entirely. A leaking underground parking structure below the plaza and an aging water feature prohibitively expensive to fix, create a need for partial or complete reconstruction.
It’s hard to say to whether interest in the plaza’s potential would be where it is now without the Friends of Living Plaza and the Living Plaza project. But it has been said those events now serve as a template for creating more permanent programming.
What Will This Place Become?
What we learned from our intimate studies and ongoing events is that above all, this should remain a public space for the people, primarily because of its relation to City Hall and the frequent public traffic. Due to heightened security, the main public entrance to City Hall is now located in the middle of the plaza, forcing everyone to walk across the plaza to enter.
It’s a great public space that, for many, represents freedom of speech. Its proximity to our city’s leadership headquarters makes it a literal and figurative public platform to raise our concerns to our fellow citizens, city leaders, and the nation. As a public space for gathering in the name of democracy, we have no other place like this in the City. It has played an important role in our democratic evolution for DECADES.
“The arrests were made at City Hall, where the demonstrators burned the flag and spit on it, then went for a leisurely swim in a fountain. Police officers pulled out their clubs and blocked the demonstrators when they tried to leave City Hall grounds. About 3:15 p.m., police herded the protesters into a group and began arresting them one by one, two officers to a demonstrator.
Dallas County sheriff’s spokesman Jim Ewell said 97 people were arrested, including three juveniles.”
While nearby homeless shelters and other social service institutions have long helped Dallas’ most vulnerable citizens, they have sometimes created tensions at the Plaza. New development in the Farmers Market district is exacerbating the tension in the area. While everyone has a right to use our public spaces, safety—and the perception of safety—is best supported when there are a variety of users in a space. Bringing varied activities to City Hall Plaza will create a more comfortable space for everyone.
There are a number of unmet needs for this part of downtown. For one, there are few restaurants south of the downtown core to serve lunch to the thousands of employees at City Hall and nearby complexes. More families and young, social professionals are calling downtown home, increasing the need for a variety of quality outdoor public spaces. The plaza has some unique qualities that would add to its appeal among the great public spaces downtown already.
As Downtown Dallas becomes a more vibrant neighborhood at all hours, it will be important to expand from the current core pockets of day- and night-activity to a larger downtown that feels connected and comfortable to be walking, working and spending quality time out and about. With its proximity to the Convention Center, the Main Street District, and the Farmers Market, City Hall Plaza is at a key location. A welcoming and active plaza will help to better connect these important assets.
We wrote a report on what we’ve come to know about the plaza – the way it’s used, how it’s managed, what it needs to function better as an everyday public space and a special event space for the downtown neighborhood. We share it here as an open-source planning resource.