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Team Better Block takes on Alamo Plaza

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Photo: Photos by Steven Gilmore, License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

Team Better Block volunteers hard at work during last Friday's pre-build event.

This Friday and Saturday an experiment will be held in Alamo Plaza. The street will be closed and food stalls and a pop-up wine shop will be erected. Storytellers and musicians will be on hand, and a walking tour of the plaza will point out the locations of the long missing walls of Mission San Antonio de Valero. In honor of Davy Crockett's birthday, the Alamo will stay open late Friday night, and Saturday, Native American dancers will perform.

The history-themed itinerary has all the fixings of a blow-out street party, but, says organizer Andrew Howard of Team Better Block, "First thing — it's not a party. It's a demonstration."

The 2012-17 bond voted in this year awards $1.2 million for improvements to Alamo Plaza, but like most aspects of the famous but contentious site, there is no clear consensus on what changes should be made, what stories should be told. To explore options, this weekend's event will present mock-ups of features and programming that might be incorporated in a re-imagined plaza. Following on their partnership with the Complete Streets Initiative of the city's Department of Planning and Community Development last March during Síclovía, when Better Block volunteers turned a run-down stretch near Broadway into a temporary vision of urbanity — replete with art gallery, flower shop and street music — TBB was asked by the Center City Development Office to take on another demo: Alamo Plaza.

Formed in 2010 by Andrew Howard, a transportation planner, and Jason Roberts, an I/T and communications consultant, Dallas-based TBB practice place-making in its most literal fashion, building mock-ups of possible urban futures in abandoned blocks in cities across Texas and beyond to encourage grassroots participation in urban development. Though they now consult many municipalities, and both Howard and Roberts have extensive corporate and government experience, their first effort in the Dallas Oak Cliff neighborhood was a guerrilla action. Inspired by Park(ing) Day, a worldwide event begun in 2005 that temporarily transforms street parking spaces into people spaces with tiny stores, food offerings, and miniature libraries, they took the model and decided to scale it up to block size. Six blocks away from a site that had received $2 million in city infrastructure improvements lay a blighted area that Oak Cliff residents knew had potential. "We were frustrated that the city was taking a long time to do anything," says Howard. "We had gone to enough public meetings. So we said, 'Let's just do it ourselves.'" Moving into the place without city permission, the group built a temporary art installation, then invited city representatives and staff to judge the project. "We posted what all laws we were breaking, like, you couldn't have awnings, you couldn't have street flowers, you couldn't gather on the sidewalk. Just old laws that we had," says Howard. "And they said, 'Well, we don't know why we have those. We should look into changing that.'" What began in April, 2010, as a renegade community action was soon backed up by the city of Dallas: "They started changing those laws, and we got a million dollars for that first Better Block to make it permanent. You look at a typical timeline for something like that, it's five years."

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