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John Crawford: Downtown Tunnels Task Force Releases Findings, Recommendations

John Crawford

Last Saturday I decided to take my wife and mother-in-law to one of downtown’s newest restaurants, ChopHouse Burger. The weather was perfect, so we decided to sit at their outdoor patio on Main & Akard. I ordered the ChopHouse Burger with regular fries and the truffle parmesan fries. I even had a shake!

It’s a casual place with quality burgers but you can’t beat the lively atmosphere that only downtown streets have to offer. It was a perfect opportunity to have some great food with family and be part of the active street life in downtown Dallas. After dinner, we walked over to Pegasus Plaza, where a saxophonist delighted the crowd enjoying the weather and the electric downtown atmosphere.

Downtown Dallas Inc. has been working on strategies, outlined in the Downtown Dallas 360 Plan, to create vibrant streets and activate public spaces. To be a truly great city center, Downtown Dallas must have exciting, walkable, lively streets. We are getting there with quick wins like patio dining at ChopHouse Burger, Pho Colonial, Charlie Palmer, The Chesterfield, Ten Sports Grill and City Tavern. We are re-crafting streets where pedestrian activity is promoted and where transit and bicycle use make riding to daily commerce and special events more accessible.

You may recall comments made by Carol Colletta, earlier this year at our DDI Annual Meeting & Luncheon: “Mostly, what people are seeking in Downtown is vibrancy.  That’s what they value. And vibrancy is our best proxy for quality of place. As one young man in Richmond once said to me, “I just want to be able to stumble onto the fun.”

Because of the rapid changes, I stumbled onto the fun—but that doesn’t occur in downtown’s underground tunnels. The DDI Tunnels & Sky Bridges Network Task Force has just released its final report and recommendations. Led by Paul McCarthy, President of El Centro, this task force was made up of Downtown stakeholders and residents.

“We were asked to evaluate a recommendation in the 360 Plan,” said McCarthy. “Ultimately we were charged to develop a plan to phase out retail or restaurant uses from underground tunnels. But it is not that easy, in the short run.”

McCarthy said the task force determined the following:

• The network is accessed internally almost exclusively through several office buildings. Therefore retail (mostly fast food) in the network tends to operate only during business hours and closed evenings, weekends and holidays.

• The network is disjointed and inconsistent with the street system and only lends itself to ad hoc trips rather than providing a consistent pathway that is helpful to civic interaction.

• There has been minimum or no new retail development in the last 15 years in the tunnel system, only replacement of existing retail.

• The network was conceived when there was virtually no downtown residential development and is incompatible with a residential community because it is mostly closed and sealed up during non-business hours.

• A surge of retail development at street level has negated the need to use the tunnel system.

• Many portions of the tunnel system have been discontinued by decision of private property owners, and any attempt to regulate underground retail out of existence would be a significant infringement on private rights.

• The tunnels and sky bridges do not contribute to the dynamic and attractive street life that DDI has established through public and private partnerships

Although the task force does not recommend eliminating the retail uses in the existing tunnel and sky bridge network, it does recognize that going forward the emphasis in public policy must be to encourage street-level retail, and the use of other urban design techniques to increase desirable street activity, which will ultimately continue to diminish the use of the tunnels.

The task force supports continued efforts to implement the Downtown Dallas 360 recommendations concerning Creating Great Urban Design, Creating Vibrant Streets and Public Places, and the Main Street Retail Activation strategies. The task force recommends the following:

• Recognize that the existing tunnels and sky bridges and the retail uses within them will continue to support building owners and operators for the foreseeable future.

• Create public and DDI policies that incentivize street-level retail and street animation (e.g., elimination of licensing fees for sidewalk cafes and awnings) or encourage modification of above/below grade retail to address the street (e.g., street level entrances).

• Develop public policies that discourage any expansion of the tunnel and sky bridge network, except under two specific conditions: 1) Property owners may construct a tunnel or sky bridge if they have existing fee simple ownership of below surface or air rights. 2) The city may allow additional tunnels or sky bridges if it determines that there are substantial and significant public safety or public welfare reasons to allow them.

• This should only be done after ample opportunity for public comment and a review of the potential effects on surrounding street-level retail uses and on the goal of creating vibrant streets.

• Prohibit the use of public or DDI funds to subsidize any way-finding system for the tunnels and sky bridges. Support the use of private funds to increase way-finding/accessibility from the network to the street level.

• Require regular city inspections of tunnels and sky bridges to ensure that private owners are adequately maintaining and that there are no unaddressed life safety issues.

So … no, we aren’t going to close the tunnels. But stumbling on the fun will be hard to do if you are in the tunnels! I invite you to come out, see all that’s happening on the street level—and be part of the action.

As goes downtown, so goes Dallas!

John F. Crawford is president and CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc. Contact him at [email protected]

  • Norman Howden

    Civic leaders are very shortsighted about the tunnels. Those of us that work downtown don’t want to walk blocks away for a meal only to return to the office dripping in sweat or shivering from the cold. Why aren’t civic leaders looking at other cities that have developed tunnels to provide a safe and consistent link between convention/tourist hotels and food and shopping areas.

    As a teenager I lived in Tokyo for a couple of years and since then I’ve seen other cities like Chicago and Houston that have capitalized on tunnels and sky bridges. I’d like to see civic leaders get out of their air-conditioned Mercedes and their closeted mindset that’s all about landscaping the city to suit privileged people and come check out the reality that everyday working people deal with.

  • Mike Dunlap

    Almost makes one want to actually live downtown…

  • Jim DePetris

    The underground retail is accessible from the street at each building. The connectaor ways have been a very expensive form of access for Downtown, while leaving mostly leavingout night time retail, Downtown residents, and tourists. Please continue support of the moratorium on tunnel expansion and continue encouraging the fantastic redevelopment of Downtown’s vibrant new retail and nightlife. I am an empty nester. I live, work, and play Downtown and love it.

  • Steven

    I’m sure that many of the vibrant and fun restaurants and shops in the tunnels would be appalled to see this condemnation. “Because of the rapid changes, I stumbled onto the fun—but that doesn’t occur in downtown’s underground tunnels.” Actually, it does- every day. And there is some amazing food being served in the tunnels. The tunnels aren’t any threat to the above-ground vibrancy of Downtown Dallas, so this whole thing is really a non-issue. Why not support ALL businesses downtown? This kind of limiting of choice is sad. Some people enjoy the “electric” atmosphere of busy street-side cafes. Others enjoy exploring the tunnels and sky-bridges, which are really unique and full of wonders. Only in Dallas would politicians take something unique and crusade against it. Shameful.

  • Norman Howden

    The tunnel system is not a threat to night life – most of the stores close at the end of the business day and the office workers who transit through the tunnels go home. The lack of vibrant night life is a result of lack of low cost or free parking, the unregulated capability of utility companies to whimsically plant telephone poles and signage in the middle of sidewalks, the prevalence of street people and criminals, the high cost of maintaining an establishment downtown relevant to the suburbs, and the overwhelming fact that this is primarily a business district, no matter how many lofts and apartments are established. The nightlife that is here caters to a small coterie of the very wealthy – the 1%. The other 99% have no wish to support that absurd and expensive life style in ways that take away value and convenience from theirs.

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