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Digging Downtown Dallas' Grave
by Jerome Weeks 28 Feb 2011

Why is downtown Dallas so empty so much of the day? There was one big decision that helped create our urban dead zone: Burying the retail underground. YouPlusDallas has created a haunting video about that decision and what it’s led to.


YouPlusDallas has created this video about why downtown Dallas retailers and landowners decided in the early ’70s to bury their stores and restaurants in the network of tunnels now called simply the Underground. A heartfelt hat tip to Unfair Park for posting the video. In it, UCR Realty’s Jack Gosnell recalls how the decision came about, how Toronto city planner Vincent Ponte convinced movers and shakers that this was the future — an underground city (privately owned, of course) that helped suck most of the pedestrian street life from downtown. It created the perfect Dallas class system: Only the homeless (or tourists who didn’t know any better) remained on the sidewalks. Employed people, people with things to do, lunch meetings to get to, were invisible, safely out of reach.

The Downtown Dallas 360 plan intends to correct what Mayor Laura Miller once called the worst urban planning decision Dallas ever made. Only one problem: Many downtown office workers like the Underground. They like never having to sweat to death getting lunch in the 100-degree heat. If we were to brick up the tunnels today — something Miller once suggested — what would we do to encourage pedestrian traffic and sidewalk-level retail? We should make pedestrians suffer?

My solution: Plant trees anywhere you can. Create shade. Shade from trees can knock the temperature down 15 degrees — making that 100-degree heat a much more manageable 85. Working at the Dallas Morning News for 20 years and walking, most days, to the West End for lunch, I’d see people carefully picking their way around buildings and along city blocks, trying to stay in the shade of buildings or trees.

Let’s help them.

In this regard, the city ordinance that required parking lots to decorate their fences with bushes was a huge misfire, a decorative waste. If trees had been planted around those lots back then, there would already be helpful, functional shade trees lining quite a few sun-baked, pedestrian-killing asphalt expanses. I don’t think the Underground is solely responsible for undermining a vital pedestrian existence downtown, but we’re responsible for trying to bring it back — if we want it back, that is, and not fled away in cars or tucked inside gated condo towers.

  • I appreciate Jerome for running this video and for his astute commentary. We hope that this series will stimulate dialog to address creative solutions. The tunnels are the result of a misguided development strategy that left street retail abandoned and the street level of new high rises cold institutional lobbies. Support for the 360 plan is vital.