Friday, July 12, 2013

Totally Texas -- Hidden urban oases

When I worked in downtown Dallas, one of my favorite lunchtime hideaways was the tiny park of Lubben Plaza across the street from the Belo Building (Market Street between Young and Wood). It has places to sit, cool stuff to look at, and that essential in summertime Texas, shade. It’s also only a couple of blocks from the one of the city’s most visited attractions -- the larger than life cattle drive sculptures at Pioneer Plaza.

Strangely, I’ve never seen more than a handful of people enjoying it.

Much as I’d like to keep it my private paradise, with its moving “Harrow” sculpture daily circling a sandpit like the hand of gigantic clock, surrounded by chairs of wood and steel; its eerie “Gateway Stele” and African-influenced gigantic blocks, I know what the problem is. Surrounded on one side by a parking lot, on another by an open, brutally hot field of grass and concrete, it lacks what urban planners call strong edges -- surroundings that draw people in. Maybe that will change with the convention center hotel now edging its third side.

It won’t be the first of Dallas’ small quirky spaces redeemed when their surroundings got livelier. Witness Pegasus Plaza at Akard and Main streets. The atmosphere of its landscape of boulders and fountains commemorating a lost underground spring went from ho-hum to hip once its edges were reclaimed by a boutique hotel and trendy restaurants.

The Belo Company has made efforts to attract people to the lovely garden space of its just opened last year Belo Garden, 1014 Main St. in front of the Cabell Federal Building.

For years the area was an expensive parking lot for lawyers lugging boxes of evidence to the federal courts inside the Cabell. Now it’s softened by the flower spikes of tall native grasses, dotted with a variety of trees -- deciduous trees inhospitable to downtown’s ubiquitous grackles. The shade’s still sparse, but a grassy berm and fountains quiet street noises and give kids room to play.

Other favorite and free spots to refresh urban spirits:

-- St. Jude’s Chapel offers brilliant abstract mosaics to brighten the street view at 1521 Main St. (across from Pegasus Plaza) while the inside is cool, dim and quiet;

-- Thanks-Giving Square’s sunken garden at 1627 Pacific Avenue (near the Akard DART station) keeps street clamor at bay. Shady seating, or enjoy the stained glass of its spiraling tower.

-- Fountain Place, 1445 Ross Avenue, is one of the happier results from the sort of star-quality architects corporate Dallas loves. From a distance, it's a  blue-green iceberg.  Up close, it floats amid terraced waterfalls and cypress trees. Unfortunately, getting there from street level is not a pleasant experience. And  I haven’t checked the underground walkway system Dallas seems determined to destroy (without offering suitable replacements) since blogging about them August 29, 2011, in “A tunnel to a downtown iceberg.” I’d be glad to hear whether the walkways are still operational.

-- Dallas Museum of Art sculpture garden, 1717 N. Harwood. All of the DMA is cool, but the outer walled garden is a place for contemplation over lunch, or while the kids stretch their legs.

This is a selection of my favorite downtown Dallas oases, but I’d love to hear about your favorite urban spaces. What’s out there, what works -- even what doesn’t.

(P.S., Friday p.m. -- my daughter, grandsons and I visited Fountain Place and Thanks-Giving Square.  We found the underground pedestrian walkway still traversable, but were saddened to see the grounds at Thanks-Giving Square in dire need of maintenance.)

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