Tag Archives: Tyler

Lost Treasure: Stone Drainage Tunnel

They don’t build ’em like they used to … so why don’t we take care of the old stuff? My “Lost Treasure” category is for structures and spaces that have been forgotten. The first entry is my favorite bit of public infrastructure in Tyler. The tunnel is a stone arch made of stone with a capstone that reads, “1880.” You might not have noticed it just east of the intersection of Elm St. and Fannin Ave. Here’s a link to the Google map aerial shot for reference. This is something worth restoring:

Buy this Brownfield: Tyler Ice House

The coolest building in Tyler has trees growing in it. If you’re like me, you’ve seen it before. If you’ve lived in or visited the Salvation Army, you might have stumbled upon it. Otherwise the area is probably one big blank spot on your mental map of Tyler.

Check it out on  Google maps. I first found this building years ago while exploring North Tyler. When I found it, I couldn’t believe I was in the same city. It was one of those”WHAT IS THIS” moments that I have on occasion. From the road, the building is impossible to understand. The first think you notice is that it’s huge, old and derelict. The outside of the building is this weird cross between a Tex-Mex Restaurant stucco façade and a 1900s industrial frame. The primary door (right) is relatively ornate for an old ice house and a reminder that there was a time when people cared about details.  From what I can tell, besides the materials there is also nothing really uniform about the design. Which is perfect. Buy this brownfield. It could be literally be the coolest “whatever you want” in Tyler.

Because the space has the potential for such a wide variety of uses, I decided to choose my five favorite options. Four are long-term options and the fifth one is my “Hail Mary” option that would at least create some temporary attraction and breathe new life into the space.

Option #1: Concert Venue. You could do this tomorrow! All you would have to do is secure the area, hang a light canopy from the walls, spray some Roundup, and get an electricity hookup. The actual venue would be housed in the cavernous great room (left). It is reminiscent of an industrial cathedral with rusting machinery, an I-beam frame, and a large floor space. Recently, I walked into the space and got that sense of wonder I get when I see something that was once great. When you first walk into the space (beware of the three dogs that chased us out … seriously), you feel a sense of grandeur that can only come from an old factory brownfield. Instead of supporting the ceiling, the old steel beams rise into the air to the sky itself. There is some leftover from the industrial era, but otherwise most of this great room has been cleared away making it a perfect place to set up chairs and blankets for a life concert under the stars.

Option #2: Artist Collective and Gallery. This idea incorporates the mission of “creative placemaking” which seeks to attract creative people to improve a building or neighborhood. This plan would incorporate two parts: A retrofit of the great hall into a gallery and a renovation into the rest of the building into studios and apartments. For the great hall, imagine The Tate Modern on a significantly smaller scale. It would be industrial, expansive and equally stunning. With a glass dome spanning the distance between the walls and a canopy of lights it would be the coolest art space in Tyler. The great hall was made to showcase art. The two-story southern half of the building (pictured below) is large enough to fit 20 or so studios for local artists who desire an inspirational setting for their projects. I’ll admit this section needs a lot of work, but someone with a vision and some money could invite the right people to make it an incredible success.

Option #3: Urban Farm and Fresh Produce Market. This project could be a particularly good fit because the entire lot includes both a large amount of land and a large building on the street. The land surrounding the building could be an excellent urban farm and garden. There’s enough room to grow crops as well as concept gardens for visitors. This vacant land  is currently being used for auto repair, but I don’t think there much physical infrastructure associated with the shop. The owner of the business (and the dogs) would probably be able to find another vacant lot in N. Tyler … I can think of a few. If the land were converted into a farm and garden, the building itself would be converted into greenhouses, market space and apartments for the farming community. In contrast to the current farmer’s markets in Tyler, this would be a permanent space completely devoted to the growing, sharing, and selling of good food. In addition, the location of this farm would be strategic in connecting the surrounding neighborhoods with fresh vegetables and weekly workshops on nutrition, agriculture and entrepreneurship.

Option #4: Offices for an Urban Development Firm. Usually, it takes a very creative and ambitious firm with a lot of money and confidence to retrofit something like this building. As such, it would be the perfect flagship for a pioneering architectural firm in Tyler. Is there one? I’m not sure, but if there is one I would consider applying for their first entry-level job in this new space. As a flagship, it would highlight the firms ability to critically analyze the historical significance and current condition of a space and produce successful adaptive reuse solutions. There are already people doing this sort or work in Tyler, but I think they need to join forces, gather investors and convert this building. With representatives from real estate, landscape architecture, architecture, engineering and planning, this new firm could be a regional presence.

Hail Mary Option: Host a Regional Mural Conference! My last-ditch effort to start using this space is simply this: Invite artists from all over Tyler and East Texas to come for a weekend of live music, street food and live mural paintings on the property. What is now old and grey could find new life with creative people and for a moment everyone would catch a glimpse of the buildings full potential.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page!

p.s. I’ve heard the building is overpriced, but if you’re up for a challenge call Five-Star Reality at 903-561-2200. I’m sure they’d be happy to show you around.

C-T-D: Broadway Center

Here’s the deal: I want downtown to be cool, but I think we need more than one cool place. The historical buildings and “monuments” on the square are worth saving, but they shouldn’t have a monopoly on dense urban development in Tyler. I’m convinced that we can improve downtown and create more high-density developments at the same time. Most importantly, if we connect them to each other, their synergy will have far more positive social and economic impact than they could on their own.

First stop: Broadway Center. Once we have finished building The Complete Loop, we should look to Broadway for the next great artery of development in Tyler. But, instead of the constant retail strip malls and big boxes that you see in South Tyler, this section of Broadway will augment the existing historic neighborhoods with new, high-density developments. Like two weights on the end of a barbell, Downtown and the redeveloped Bergfeld Center will anchor this region. See the difference? Instead of constant retail strip, we will concentrate businesses in two high-density places that will are in close proximity to valuable real estate. It’s better 🙂

Rule #1: Every parking lot in this section has potential for development. It’s a pretty basic rule, but  necessary. Building on parking lots has the capacity to transform ugly/boring/typical spaces into unique and attractive spaces. We also don’t often don’t even realize how incredibly big these parking lots are. We just get used to them so we don’t “see” them any more. I know, people have to park somewhere, but we also deserve to have a beautiful city, right? Let’s find a way to do both.

Rule #2: Reconnect the roads and the complete the grid. More roads means more access and more retail space. In regard to the issue of parking, it also means more on-street parking. If we connect Troup Highway (left) through what is now a parking lot and Stein Mart, it would meen a straight shot to Old Bullard and plenty of places to spend money. Additionally, the connectivity would invite residents of the nearby neighborhoods to visit the new shops, parks and restaurants on their morning walk. According to a recent traffic study, 30,000 cars per day drive by this spot on Broadway — Let’s give them more reason to stop. Also, in order to extend the grid, it would be great to build two new roads through this development in front of (to the right) and behind (left) what is now Stein Mart. This will complete the grid and create city blocks for more dense, protected urban development. Think less people would come? Think again. More people are likely to shop and spend their time in compact, beautiful spaces. These developments are essentially the free-market “one-stop-shop” developments that incorporate a multitude of uses into previously unloved space.

Rule #3: Build to the street on street level. This is important: Don’t pop it up with a “sporty” flight of stairs, don’t put parking in front, and do keep the street trees as a buffer. If there must be parking, put it on the inside of the development. The point is to make the development itself the advertisement for the development. Currently, with a football field of asphalt infront of the strip mall, you have to put a sign out front informing people exactly what it is. With the building built to the road, they will know what it is and they will appreciate the good urbanism.

Rule #4: Finally, of course, make it walkable and bikeable. According to the recent Walk Score report, the most walkable cities in America are, as always, also the coolest cities in America. Tyler was not on the list. Many times when I walk in Tyler I have this feeling like I don’t belong. Today was no different … as I was walking down Old Bullard toward this development the sidewalk ended. There aren’t crosswalks across Old Jacksonville or Broadway and there isn’t a sidewalk along Ninth St. That’s just not acceptable … and more importantly not welcoming. With a little public investment, this could be a completely accessible and welcoming area for everyone.

So that’s the newest node! I’m gradually “Connecting the Dots” in Tyler and hoping one day someone will take my ideas and make lots of money with them.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

C-T-D: The Complete Loop

Ok, I’m changing my vision for reconnecting Tyler. In my post “Connecting the Dots: Intro,” I called for a loop of streets to be beautified with bike lanes, street trees as well as connected with street cars. My original vision saw the street car loop connecting down Broadway, but today I changed my mind. My imaginary Tyler now has a network of complete streets and a two-way street car loop. The map I have drawn (to the right) is the culmination of about a month of work on my Connecting the Dots project (C-T-D). It’s not a conclusion, but this is this skeleton that will be my foundation for future posts on infill development in Tyler. These developments are the dots themselves: The high-density nodes that should be developed throughout the older parts of Tyler. “The Loop” is the public investment that is necessary to make the entire concept a reality.

It begins with a paradigm shift from the current philosophy on street construction in Tyler. Currently, a street in Tyler (left) is where cars drive. While it seems like a basic statement, this is a relatively new phenomenon credited to 20th century engineers and planners who gave cars complete precedence in matters of urban travel. Before the advent of the automobile, streets were places to walk, gather, transport and protest. Bicyclists were the first promoters of “good streets” in America and streetcars (started in Richmond, VA) were the first modes of suburbanization. When the car became affordable, it trumped all of these previous developments and occluded their progression. In the past century, streets became very dangerous spaces as car-related deaths increased. The gathering spaces in America were lost. In his TED Talk, “The Tragedy of Suburbia“* (*F-Bomb warning) James Howard Kunstler argued,

“The public realm in America has two roles: It is the dwelling place of our civic life and it is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the public realm you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life. The public realm comes mostly in the form of the street in America …”

In Tyler, we have certainly experienced this degradation of the quality of our civic life. There are few public gathering spaces. Just so we’re clear, Starbucks is not a public space, it is a private, money-making enterprise. There were once some incredible public spaces in the city, but many were destroyed or neglected … the downtown square is a sad example. Public space today is a scattered system of lovely public parks typically accesible by car. Our streets are often these large asphalt rivers running through the city with cars zooming by at deadly speeds. I drive one of these cars so I understand their utility, but I also understand the benefits of alternative transportation.

The National Complete Streets Coalition (NCSC) states that “Complete Streets are for everyone.” While there is no singular definition of a complete street, NCSC states that a city committed to transportation choices will ensure that “every transportation project will make the street network better and safer for drivers, transit users, pedestrians, and bicyclists – making your town a better place to live.” (NCSC also listed the “elements of an ideal Complete Streets policy” to help local citizens tailor the concept to their locality.) Thus, a complete street will have defined spaces designated to those citizens not driving in cars:

I really can’t expound on this concept any more except to say this: Complete Streets are a message to the citizens of a city. It says, “Come outside, experience our streets and enjoy your city.” Currently, the message is, “Drive here, this speed, when I say go.”

The next stage in revitalizing this section of the city is the addition of a two-way street car loop. This will be an incredible statement of commitment from the public sector and will stimulate private investment at every point along the route. In my map (above) I have designated some locations that are prime for infill development. These typically have a ton of underperforming asphalt and outdated strip centers. The street car loop will be a convenient novelty for tourists as well as a viable commuting opportunity for a number of large employers along the loop. In addition, the street car loop will finally connect the parts of Tyler that are culturally, financially and historically significant: The Rose Garden, downtown, the hospital district, and the Azalea District. I’ll admit, the primary shortcoming of this loop is that it currently ignores the area north of the square. I response, I think that Broadway should be “completed” all the way to Gentry (banner photo of this post) which should also be retrofitted with bike lanes and street trees all the way to the amazing Caldwell Zoo. If you haven’t driven on Gentry lately you might not know how big that street is … it is due for a full retrofit.

So this is my “Complete Loop.” Unlike the car loop (323), it’s beautiful and versatile and it invites everyone to come and enjoy.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

*I also had a policy thought: Developments and businesses along The Loop would be exempt from zoning laws that require on-site parking. Instead, public parking would be provided at points along The Loop to encourage a “park-and-ride” system.

C-T-D: Downtown, no finer place … for sure

If Jane Jacobs is famous for describing “the sidewalk ballet” outside her window in Greenwich Village, I would like to be the first to say Tyler is in a “sidewalk intermission.” There was a time when our downtown was full of people “dancing” around each other to get to the stores and offices, but I believe we are now experiencing the intermission that happens before a renaissance. Rather than hold on with nostalgia to a proud past, we have to look to the future and imagine how downtown will once again be great in a completely new way.

But when did we begin to neglect our downtown? Petula Clark’s  famous ballad, “Downtown,” offers some insight into the process. “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely,” she sings, “you can always go downtown” … “everything’s waiting for you, downtown.” This song is such a incredible artifact of the 60s zeitgeist and a common reference point for urban historians. The paradigm shift is that in the twentieth century (many say after WWII), the dense urban spaces in America became places to visit rather than places to inhabit and as a result they became neither. The problem is that downtown will not always be “waiting for you” if there are not people living there and sustaining it while you’re gone. Like many cities with oil and money, Tyler followed the trend of outward growth and the commuter lifestyle. Fueled by our cheap, local oil we basically packed our cars and left downtown in the dust.

The result of this growth mentality is that we do not have the money to “care about what we already have.” For every new development in Tyler, the public sector is expected to provide roads, sewage, fire departments, police departments, schools, street lights, signs and other various forms of public services and infrastructure. This cost is significant and it is somewhat needless considering there are vast sums of land in the city where services already exist. As the city continues to cater to new developments, we do so rather than reinvesting the money into older, existing spaces elsewhere in the city. These images of Tyler’s downtown (below) are images of a city waiting to be reborn.

Downtown Tyler, TX

So here’s the basic dilemma: How does our local government incentivize businessmen to build on parking lots rather than horse ranches? I suppose it starts with a vision.

Empty lots, parking lots and vacant buildings are waiting for a renaissance. Young people, artisans, and creatives are looking for a place to find community. Some churches desire to feel more connected to the city. Our government deserves to reside in a place of prominence. This is my vision for downtown Tyler as a dense node of city life connected to the rest of the city by transportation and urban design. A great example of this sort of development is Mockingbird Station in Dallas. The place is an incredible example of the potential of a repurposed factory building that is now connected to the DART light rail. It’s attractive, interesting and it has created a significant draw for itself even in its relatively short lifetime. This is the vision I would like to cast for every empty lot in downtown Tyler. Could we do it?

First, I suppose we need a zoning code that allows for a variety of living options such as row houses and lofts next door to hole-in-the wall cafes and shops. A place for people to live. One popular concept promoted by Duany Plater-Zyberk (pictured below) is called the Transect.

The transect is basically a zoning plan that allows for a wide variety of urban forms and gives the city a gradual progression from the urban core all the way out to nature. In addition to new zoning, I am (of course) confident that we need to “connect the dots” of high-density developments with a street car loop along beautiful avenues, bike lanes and sidewalks. All I want is one loop of public investment and long-term commitment to our existing city. The private-sector investments would be astounding. We have already begun to see developers look to the downtown with businesses such as Don Juan’s, Rick’s, Jake’s, the Downtown Coffee Lounge, Balance, and others. What these all need is to be more connected to the city and they will not simply exist as moments of brilliance. Instead, they will reside in an area inhabited by people that have pride in their business and share this pride throughout the city. These people also sustain the economy while visitors increasingly come enjoy the city life.

So there are economic arguments, community arguments, and even valid entertainment arguments for downtowns. To me, the argument for downtowns and urban spaces is more simple: Let’s turn this city (the whole city) into a source of pride. It’s not too late. I don’t want us to look back and wish we had taken our city a little more seriously. We need to allow for a little urban chaos, promote design oddities and find some way to discourage this endless leapfrog development to the next new loop. We need significant places and I believe we need to collectively begin to care about what we already have.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

The Rose Park

Look at the image below. What do you see?

I see a rose.

The stem of the rose (S. Glenwood Blvd.) extends as a greenway belt from the bottom left corner toward the upper right. It curves along the stream in between the grass of the greenbelt. At the end of the stem, there is a parking lot in a shape that resembles a flower bud. It seems like a perfect fit for the Rose Capitol … especially considering it’s in The Rose District, my fictitious plan for the area of land around the Rose Garden Complex. The Rose Park would be the perfect way to say, “Welcome to Tyler, we like roses a lot.” Since we pretty much control the commercial rose industry in the USA … I’d say roses like us too.

The Rose Park is the perfect way to welcome visitors into this city that has been celebrating the rose industry for decades. As you drive into Tyler on Glenwood, the road is suddenly transformed into a tree-lined parkway with a creek running down the middle of it. Brick sidewalks run along this parkway as it wanders past the junk shops and the Cotton Belt Building. The sidewalks of this parkway then ends with a crosswalk across the intersection that has been rebuilt to accommodate a larger number of walkers and bikers. The bike/ped crossing leads across the intersection into the parking lot that has been transformed into a park of flowers. From the sky, the stem and rose form a clear picture of the city’s identity. From the road, drivers get a glimpse of the park and begin to feel like they have formally entered Tyler.

The Rose Park should be a part of a bigger network of trails and parks in the Rose District. These would all make this an area of the city that is accessible, functional and proud. In it’s current form, this is just a road and a parking lot. But in a few years it could be a purposeful use of space and an excellent entry to this city.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

C-T-D: Thoughts on “Downtown”

I would love to start drawing a map for downtown Tyler. I’ve already written extensively about an imaginary place I call the Urban Valley, but right now I have this burning question in my mind, “Do we want a downtown in Tyler?” If yes, then for what purpose?

You see, there is this crime that occurs when people try to “bring the suburbs in to the city.” I’m worried we don’t quite realize that the two concepts are completely antithetical. Suburban settlements usually have large parking lots, small wooded areas and one-story detached buildings. These should have very little relevance in a downtown. Take a look at the photo of the parking lot. Does this photo look like a city? (Side note: The city of Tyler has looked into building a parking garage here, but most likely won’t put floorspace on the first floor) The real tragedy is that there were likely beautiful buildings here that served a whole variety of purposes. Now, this entire city block serves one purpose: The storage of cars (idea cite: Douglass Rae). Urban space should be considered so valuable that buildings are next to each other, green space is a planned park or garden and cars cannot be given ultimate precedence. In all sincerity, we have enough suburbs in Tyler … please, first and foremost, let downtown be urban.

I believe that the potential of every space is limited by real and imagined barriers. If there are real, perhaps topographical, barriers to building a higher density downtown than I’ll be content to give up this dream. I just don’t think that’s the case. Most barriers I would consider “real” are primarily economic, but as long as people continue to build farther south I’ll contend that they might as well build downtown. To me, it’s the imagined barriers that I can’t stand. If it’s a zoning issue, some regulation, or a city of small dreams then I won’t be satisfied. Cities do not become great with small dreams. Cities become great when people do bold things that the mainstream calls crazy. Take, for instance, the Seattle Public Library (pictured). This building is a strikingly beautiful and completely functional structure that could theoretically be built anywhere on any square piece of land. In Seattle, they love it. Could we love this library? I should add, there are people in Tyler doing great work to revitalize our downtown, but I’m just not sure whether the public will appreciate it.

Another possible impediment to Tylerites embracing urban life is a lack of urbanity. It seems like Tylerites like to live in wooded neighborhoods rather than urban spaces. Most of Tyler is so spread out that we don’t always have to interact with people who are different from us on a regular basis. I fear we’re missing the beauty and diversity of urban life. But could it be that there is simply not a viable urban option? I say yes. I bet there are thousands of people in East Texas that are tired of mowing their lawns, driving everywhere and living far away from “the action.” I bet if we promote city life in Tyler and remove P&Z red tape then people will come from all over to create and inhabit a thriving downtown.

The other day, my friend Dustin asked me what my ideal downtown would look like if I could design it. I said that there really isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an ideal downtown. As long as there are people there at every hour of the day and night; as long as there are public spaces that welcome every citizen of the city; as long as people claim it rather than exploit it; as long as it’s traditional, deviant, creative and ultimately “Tyler,” then that will be perfect no matter what it looks like.

Look at the arial photo of Tyler to the left. These nine city blocks should not look like everywhere else in the city because if they do then they will be no longer be significant. Downtowns are places where you can live to not only experience the diversity of other people’s lives, but most importantly you can personally add to the diversity of self expression, culture, perspective, race, ethnicity, etc. When we begin to add to this multi-cultural society and invest in the community we become a part of organizations and we learn what it means to be citizens instead of consumers. I don’t want us to “consume” downtown as entertainment the same way we sometimes consume church, media and everything else. Rather, we must commit to downtown as an idea and be unified on our goal at the outset. This idea is that, in many ways, downtown is what we look to as the zenith of our city’s development. I believe there is an inherent value to dense urban downtowns as the site of culture creation, political debate and financial stability. Our downtown is a vital element of the future of our city as the capitol of East Texas. We need a viable downtown option, but we have to want it. And we have to know what it is.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.