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Building a Better Community...One Block at a Time

January 4, 2013

Jason Roberts thinks like an artist, not like a city bureaucrat or urban planner.

Which is a big part of the reason why, he says, the “Build a Better Block” project that he and several co-conspirators dreamed up has rapidly taken off around the country, and even gone global.

Roberts, who was raised in suburban Dallas, plays guitar and keyboards in a band. He also was an IT consultant for 15 years. More important, though, he’s passionate about bringing blighted areas of communities back to life. We want to bring back neighborhoods rapidly.

He and other volunteers are doing this — for a weekend at a time — by reducing traffic, adding bike lanes and sprucing up streetscapes with flower-filled planters, temporary trees, public artwork, outdoor cafes and opening pop-up temporary businesses in older buildings. In the meantime, they’re also encouraging cities to implement changes in traffic patterns to make streets more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Roberts has lived in the Oak Cliff neighborhood — which some consider a “bad part of town” — for about a dozen years. On a trip to Europe five-plus years ago, he saw neighborhoods with vibrant street scenes from Italy to Scandinavia.

When he returned to Texas, Roberts headed a successful effort to revive a boarded up theater that’s now showing films again and is used for art shows and other events. Next, he launched a drive to promote bike lanes. (And he didn’t even own a bicycle at the time.)

But what he really wanted to do was reinvigorate once busy streets. His partner in the effort was Amy Cowan.

“We started by looking at a couple of blocks in Oak Cliff on the southwest side of Dallas near downtown that had a lot of empty buildings that had been boarded up,” he said. They ended up choosing the 400 block of N. Tyler Street because it had had a streetcar stop back in the 1920s and 30s.

A rebel at heart, Roberts didn’t want to go through a lengthy process or jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops.

“We want to bring back neighborhoods rapidly rather than getting some multi-million-dollar bond package that would take 10 years to accomplish,” he said, exaggerating only slightly.

“We wanted to do something within days,” he explained. “So this Build a Better Block idea was created on the premise of people coming together to create a community destination quickly.”

Roberts said as he began “peeling back the layers,” he found numerous ordinances that had been put in place over the years — some of them enacted back in the 40s — that restricted outdoor seating, awnings and other things that he believes make streets come alive.

“Then we identified with the community what makes a great block: And all around the world they seem to have the same things, like small stores, bakeries, restaurants, flower shops, cafes … things like that.”

“We said to ourselves, ‘if we know this is what makes a great block, how do we start working toward that goal immediately, as opposed to a long, public process?”

The answer was to treat the event like an art project.

“We knew if we wanted to get building permits, it would take months,” he said. “So instead of saying this is going to be a coffee shop here, we said it was an art installation of what a coffee shop would be. But it would also sell coffee. We knew if we approached this as an art project, we’d have more leniency and flexibility.”

Roberts called the effort “part guerilla, part legit.”

“We worked with the building owners, of course, but we pushed the envelope with the public space improvements,” he said.

“With the landlords, we said ‘look, these buildings have been vacant for months or years. Can you let us use them for a few days because they aren’t doing anything now? We can just treat this like an open house.’”

Roberts said most were “surprisingly amenable.” Some were worried about liability, so they arranged for event insurance for the weekend to allay owners’ fears.

The Better Block weekend was held in Oak Cliff a little more than two years ago, back in April of 2010. Roberts said it has been a catalyst for reviving the block.

“You see all kinds of businesses moving in now,” he said, noting that the city has changed some of the ordinances that were holding back commercial development of the street.

In addition, the Better Block concept has caught on around the country. Since the first one, some 32 other events have been held. And Roberts is working with activists in Australia, South Africa and Colombia.

“It’s taken off because there is an obvious need to help blighted neighborhoods,” he said. “Every city has commercial neighborhoods that are doing nothing now, but could be turned into great gathering places. And the biggest hurdle to get over is the perception. So if you can go in and start changing the perception of an area, that’s a great way to begin.

“We did it by putting in pop-up businesses and planters, changed the traffic and parking for the weekend and made the blocks more people- and bike-friendly, vs. the street being designed just to move cars. We found that perception can be reality and that’s 90 percent of our battle. We changed the psychology of the place.”

Scott Griggs, who represents Oak Cliff on the Dallas City Council, lauded the Better Block effort as part of an ongoing effort to improve the area and make the infrastructure more pedestrian-friendly.

“I think it’s a great project and certainly an alternative to the traditional ‘charette’ or model used in urban planning,” he said. “It gives people a vehicle to experience what the block could be like. And that’s very positive.”

Still in the works, he said, is an effort to change the street from a one-way couplet into something that is more conducive to walking and cycling.

“We’re working on it,” he said. “But like a lot of things, what it comes down to is money.”

Kayli Cusick runs an art shop on the block called Oil and Cotton with her business partner, Shannon Driscoll. Cusick was a piano teacher and art curricula writer when she heard about Better Block. Driscoll was an art conservator who did workshops on the side.

“There was an email going around town about this experimental project and they wanted someone to do a kids art studio. I was totally into that, so I volunteered, in part to meet people and get involved.”

She expected perhaps 150 people to visit the pop-up art shop. Instead, more than 500 flowed through the studio, and many stopped in both days. “We had 3-year-old kids and professionals, everyone working side-by-side to create art,” she said. “And the whole Better Block was really a big art installation of outdoor seating and beautiful stores and a big party on a colorful, reinvented street.”

Cusick said her store opened four months after the Better Block event in April of 2010. “We quit our jobs, got a lawyer, negotiated a lease and did an art camp in the store,” she said. “Once we had some money, we bought furniture.”

“We started with $5,000 and did it all organically, without a business plan,” she chuckled. “And we still don’t have one, but we’re going strong.”

She called her block a “work in progress. Businesses have come and gone, but it’s improving. Now if we can just get the traffic changed and get crosswalks added. It’s still a fast street, but Jason is hounding the city about that.”

Out in Las Vegas, Ciara Byrne, David Wiegand and Shavonnah Tiera were inspired by Roberts’ Better Block program. But they put a sustainable twist on the effort — which was held last April on Main Street between Charles and Coolidge streets — dubbing it “Build a Greener Block.”

She said they chose the Main Street block because it had thrived in the 50s and 60s.

“We want to help rejuvenate downtown,” she said. “This street was where everyone went to shop and have coffee once. All the locals came here on the weekends to hang out before the flight to suburbia began and the street died.”

To brighten up the block, the trio and a multitude of volunteers painted store fronts with eco-friendly paint. This was the opportunity to prove that Vegas has a sense of community and culture.

They also solicited donated trees, and solar panels to provide lighting at night. Keeping with the sustainable theme, the cafes used biodegradable utensils and many of the pop-up stores offered green products.

“We had classes on gardening, hydroponics and making your own cleaning agent classes. All in all, it was a great weekend that attracted more than 1,500 people,” said Byrne, a native of Dublin, Ireland and a documentary film maker who has lived in Las Vegas less than three years.

She said her group worked closely with city officials. The only downside was that they had to pay fees of around $5,000. However, she noted, money raised on indiegogo. com — an Internet cloud funding platform — covered the permits.

For Wiegand, a native Las Vegan, this was a chance to show that Sin City has a sense of community and people who are interested in improving the environment.

“We’re all interested in giving downtown a lift,” he said. “This was a way to plant the flag, say this is what we want this area to look like, let people try it out and then — hopefully — see it grow. We’re such a transient city, so this was also the opportunity to prove that Vegas has a sense of community and culture. That was one of the big ones for me because I was born here.”

Wiegand said he hopes to do another green block event on Main Street next spring. “There’s definitely been a lot of interest since April. We just have to find the right empty buildings.”

Some 2,600 miles east in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Rebecca Bradley said she, too, was impressed with what Roberts had done in Dallas and other cities. Bradley runs the Cadence landscape architecture firm with partner Gage Couch.

In 2011, she and Couch worked on a PARKing Day project in which people take over metered parking spaces and turn them into mini-parks for the day — sometimes complete with Astroturf or real sod. Started by a San Francisco group in 2005, PARKing Day and the Better Block are both part of the “tactical urbanism” movement.

After that, Bradley and a group of friends were drawn to the Better Block concept. They chose an area of downtown We only needed one little permit and the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency covered the cost for us. Fort Lauderdale in the Flagler Art and Technology Village, a warehouse district that has art walks once a month.

“The rest of the time, though, it’s not anything that great,” she said. “But there are cool, creative people in that area and we thought it would be a neighborhood that would be well suited for something like this.”

The event took place in June on Northwest First Avenue, and Bradley called it a huge success. “Things were definitely starting to happen there, but it really needed some more ‘ummmph’ to give it some juice,” she said.

In the process of planning for the event, Bradley and Couch became so enamored with the area that they ended up renting space on the block and moving their business there. “We saw the potential,” she said.

Bradley said her group worked closely with city officials they’d met through PARKing Day. In addition, an urban planning professor — Eric Dumbaugh — and some of his students at Florida Atlantic University campus in downtown Fort Lauderdale helped out.

“We only needed one little permit and the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency covered the cost for us,” she said. “After a few meetings, we were on our way.”

Nor did it hurt that the landlord who owned nearly all the buildings on the block was “in complete concert” with the proposal, Bradley said.

Because the block they chose is two football fields (600 feet) long, they first planned to re-invent just half of it. “But as the amount of people involved grew, we decided to do the entire thing,” she said. “We painted seven buildings, cleaned the street, re-planted planters that were full of weeds and built tons of street furniture from pallets and reclaimed lumber.

“We also worked with 20 different small businesses to create pop-up shops, some in vacant warehouses so not everything was outside on the street.”

Since the event, an ad agency has moved into one of the buildings on the street. Two of the pop-up businesses are in the process of negotiating leases, too. However, a café or restaurant is needed so there are places for people to gather.

“But, we’re not traditional developers,” Bradley indicated. “Though, we’re trying to make the connections to improve the neighborhood.” Bradley has two more areas in Fort Lauderdale where she is thinking of holding Better Block gatherings. In addition, students from Miami who took part in the weekend are planning one of their own for the Magic City.

“We’ve also been approached by Baton Rouge, where I went to Louisiana State University,” she said. “This has fostered other ideas and helped build a great community here in Fort Lauderdale.

“Someone asked if we could do this once a month,” she quipped. “We’re not up to that, but we’re certainly not going to disappear.”