Barely three recession-wracked years ago, what has become known as the Better Block movement got off the ground when residents and business people in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas decided to take urban renewal into their own hands and demonstrate—in a dramatic, if temporary, way—the revitalization prospects for a blighted cluster of structures.
Without any public sector assistance, the Oak Cliff group almost instantly created the kind of pedestrian- and bike-friendly environment approximating the modern definition of a complete street. Over an April weekend, the group threw what essentially was a block party on steroids on a high-vacancy block near the intersection of busy North Tyler and West Davis streets, showing how it could morph into a more inviting location for small businesses, galleries, cafés, and public spaces.
It seemed like a novel tactical urbanism strategy at the time, but local stakeholders are now organizing Better Block events in dozens of cities across the United States and beyond. Many city governments are helping volunteers identify sites, organize festivities, and fund events—with several tapping the original Oak Cliff organizers as paid consultants. Some ULI district councils are getting involved, as well. In early May, ULI Oklahoma sponsored a farmers market–oriented Better Block event near downtown Oklahoma City.
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In central Norfolk, Virginia, a two-day Better Block event was held in April in a long-struggling district that stakeholders are trying to revitalize as a magnet for arts- and design-related activities and enterprises. Shortly after the well-attended event demonstrated the energy and activity a bustling district might generate permanently, Norfolk’s city council approved the planning commission’s recommendation to formally designate the surrounding area the Norfolk Arts & Design District.
Norfolk’s Better Block event, held along a two-block stretch of Granby Street, acted as a “living charrette,” testing prospective adjustments in infrastructure use and zoning, including desired land uses not permitted under existing zoning, says Assistant City Manager Ron Williams Jr. “We were able to test out some of the strategies we had been conceptualizing for sparking revitalization—including transportation techniques—and gain insights into what might work” to help start the district’s rebirth.
“So it was much more than a street party,” Williams emphasizes. With the Better Block event playing a key role, revitalization efforts for the prospective Arts & Design District evolved from conceptualization to a planning commission recommendation to a formal designation by the city council—all during a few months. “Normally, that would probably take two to three years,” Williams says.
The new zoning designation for the first time allows mixed-use residential-over-commercial development in the area, as well as live/work spaces. The event also provided opportunities to test traffic-calming mechanisms such as parklets—small, highly vegetated spots for relaxing, temporarily carved from streets and walkways—and bicyclist-friendly Dutch intersections.
City officials are also aiming to leverage on an ongoing basis the event’s pop-up successes with a project supporting similar incubator-type efforts for retailers and food services. “This will help entrepreneurs test out their concepts and determine whether they might become permanent establishments,” Williams notes.
Defining Better Block
While the Norfolk affair focused heavily on arts-related exhibits and commerce, many of the temporarily permitted activities and transit-system tweaks featured there are core elements of Better Block events everywhere.
Better Block events typically feature all manner of temporary “pop-up” stores and restaurants, as well the parklets. Organizers likewise often install temporary bicycle tracks if needed—buffered from traffic by a row of cars parallel parked, in some cases—and tape or paint extra crosswalks onto pavement.
Organizers also refer often to shared space—transforming automobile-dominated blocks by dedicating plentiful amounts of space to pedestrians, merchants, restaurateurs, cyclists, and performers. Perhaps more significant is the emphasis on “activation” of key spaces, especially those areas just outside and inside front facades, through retail offerings and related elements that attract foot traffic and promote interaction.
These concepts may not be addressed in traditional planning handbooks, but they are key tenets underlying the Better Block movement, says Jason Roberts, considered the movement’s unofficial founder and the driving force behind the Oak Cliff event. He now serves as a consultant for cities and other stakeholders interested in organizing festivities.
A major impediment to revitalization of many areas holding Better Block events is the prevalence of zoning restrictions that prohibit the very kinds of activities that would attract investment and redevelopment, says Roberts, cofounder of Team Better Block with his Oak Cliff neighbor Andrew Howard.
At the Oak Cliff Better Block event, organizers posted excerpts from ordinances to show those attending which statutes the event would be violating if not for permits obtained for the special event.
Another fundamental driver of the Better Block movement is the fact that most people perceive the zoning and planning realms as intellectual disciplines best left to public sector professionals. The movement aims to concretely and dramatically demonstrate the way that appropriate zoning and planning tools might play out in a real-world context, says Howard, a transit planning professional. “You mention ‘urban walkable village,’ and most Americans won’t know what you’re talking about,” adds Roberts, whose background is in information technology.
Rather than discussing land use matters through jargon in planning commission and city council meetings, Better Block events show stakeholders how wide-varying activities might work in a given area on a more permanent basis under supportive conditions. “You’re going right to the site,” Roberts notes.
City officials in San Antonio have become believers in Better Block as a planning tool: the city’s three events to date have demonstrated various prospective revitalization strategies to the thousands of people who attended, says Colleen Swain, redevelopment officer with the city’s Center City Development Office.
“Some people might be skeptical [about improvement plans] when they just see them on paper,” Swain says. “But when they can actually see and experience some of the possibilities for a few hours, we hear them say, ‘Oh, now I understand.’”
That kind of enlightenment is already paying dividends for San Antonio property owners on the stretch of Broadway near its intersection with East Jones Avenue, where they helped organize a Better Block event in March 2012 with assistance from the city and Team Better Block. Perhaps no one has benefited more than veteran local infill developer David Adelman, whose AREA Real Estate and related entities have large holdings in the area. Architecture firm Overland Partners, which also helped plan the event, relocated to the former Hughes Supply Warehouse property at Jones and Broadway that Adelman had converted for commercial use. Recently, Adelman hoped to lease additional space in the area for a coffee shop.
He and other landlords continue pursuing retail and service tenants, restaurants, and other gathering places whose owners expect to ride the district’s wave.
Adelman is joining them, relocating his personal office to the long-stalled 1221 Broadway mixed-use development he and the revised development team recently completed. Asking rents at the project’s 300-plus loft units—ranging from $725 per month for a 456-square-foot (42 sq m) studio to $1,995 for a 1,168-square-foot (109 sq m) two-bedroom unit—are exceeding the new team’s projections, and at least one other multifamily housing developer has expressed interest in a property on the other side of Broadway since the event helped demonstrate the district’s prospects, Adelman says.
While Adelman cannot credit the one-day event alone with sparking activity near the Broadway/Jones intersection over the past 15 months, he is confident that Better Block made many more people aware of the area’s attractions and prospects.
The three San Antonio Better Block events likewise reflect the movement’s remarkably quick evolution from its more guerrilla-like interventionist roots to its role as what can be considered a more formal public planning tool.
Adelman says he is encouraged by the fact that the Broadway/Jones event—held in conjunction with the city’s Complete Streets Initiative and a citywide cycling event—entailed public and private stakeholders aligning interests toward jump-starting revitalization. “Better Block is very much about convening various interest groups that are all moving in the same direction,” concludes Adelman, founder and chairman of ULI San Antonio.
Roberts and Howard have participated as planning consultants for no fewer than 20 Better Block events in big U.S. cities and medium-sized towns. More than 50 events have been held or are planned, ranging from South Main Street in Las Vegas to Eagle Street in North Adams, Massachusetts, and Northwest First Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
One problem hindering organization of viable events, say Roberts and Howard, is apathy among local residents, who often conclude that only the public sector can instigate meaningful change along blighted blocks. And facilitating changes needed for revitalization can present formidable and frustrating challenges even after what appear to be highly successful Better Block events, they add. Indeed, whereas Norfolk’s public sector embraced zoning revisions for the Arts & Design District, changes proposed for North Tyler and surrounding areas in Oak Cliff are still pending three years after the Better Block event.
Urban revitalization does not take place overnight—and stakeholders in some Better Block efforts are bound to be disappointed if expected permanent improvements do not materialize. But five years from now, it will certainly be interesting to see how much revitalization has actually been generated by these events. If only half of them succeed, that is still a lot of urban renewal. And where they fail to have lasting impact, the events themselves offer plenty of fun times and forge strong community relationships—and at little cost.