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Can Dealey Plaza in Dallas really be improved? This new plan says yes, and here's how.

Proposal for Dealey Plaza re-design looking east towards downtown
Stoss Landscape Urbanism
A new proposal for re-designing Dealey Plaza includes adding an amphitheater along Elm Street as well as an overlook above the Triple Underpass.

Originally the 'gateway to Dallas,' Dealey Plaza became the site of a national tragedy, President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Now it's a jumbled urban space: traffic bottle-neck, tourist site, neglected park. Here's one plan to fix it.

The Dallas Morning News recently commissioned and released a proposal to significantly overhaul Dealey Plaza. The plaza includes:

  • The JFK assassination site
  • The memorial to the News' own founder, G. B. Dealey
  • Martyr's Park, which commemorates three Black men lynched by Dallasites in 1860
  • The Triple Underpass, which opened in 1936 as an art moderne-ish "gateway" to downtown.

These days, with all that jumbled together, "Dealey Plaza doesn't work," said the Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster. "It's dangerous and nonfunctional and it doesn't work symbolically for the city. I think it's due to be rethought."

Lamster argued the time is right for a redo because of the ongoing development of the Trinity River Park — aka Harold Simmons Park — which, as part of the Trinity River Corridor Plan, will span some 200 acres inside the floodway downtown, complete with trails and overlooks.

All of that will be just across from Dealey Plaza and downtown — but also across I-35, the DART rail line, the Frank Crowley Courts Building, the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, the Dallas County Sheriff's Department and EZ-Out Bail Bonds.

But, Lamster said, "the city's changing. We are building a $250 million park in the Trinity, and Dealey Plaza is the primary route from downtown to that park. There needs to be access to that park, to the Justice Center, to Martyr's Park. And we need to have cycling paths, which we don't have at all. We don't have any serious accommodation for pedestrians, either. And this is going to be a primary route from downtown to what's going to be one of the city's principal attractions."

The proposed overlook rising above the Triple Underpass
Stoss Landscape Urbanism
The proposed overlook would start from behind the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza, then rise above the Triple Underpass to provide views of downtown Dallas on one side and the Trinity River on the other.

Which is one reason the proposed additions include an elevated overlook, a promontory that rises out of the parking lot and trainyard behind the Grassy Knoll and becomes a viewing platform above the Triple Underpass. It'll permit vista views of Dealey, West Dallas, downtown, the bridges, the river.

The idea for the plan originated, Lamster said, in a discussion with Chris Reed of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, a Boston firm that was the winner of 2013's The Connected City Design Challenge, a first attempt to overcome the clogged infrastructure that barricades the Trinity from downtown. Lamster brought in two other firms to help with the re-think: MPdL Studio of Princeton and Delineator of Dallas.

Dallas has long had a vexed relationship with Dealey Plaza — for obvious reasons. Stephen Fagin's book, "Assassination and Commemoration: JFK, Dallas and the Sixth Floor Museum," details the many years the city spent wishing the Texas School Book Depository — the perch Lee Harvey Oswald used to shoot President Kennedy in Dealey Plaza — would go away, get bought up and bulldozed. Or maybe just forgotten.

In its defense, no city before Dallas had ever created a museum marking something as wounding and horrific as an internationally witnessed presidential assassination. In the early '60s, Ford's Theater in Washington, D. C., where Abraham Lincoln was shot, was more or less still deteriorating. In Buffalo, where President William McKinley was murdered in 1906, there's just a plaque on a rock.

Houston Street would get stripes, Main Street goes one way and Elm Street becomes a pedestrian walk.
Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Houston Street would get stripes, Main Street goes one way and Elm Street becomes a pedestrian walk.

So there was no model to follow for a memorial or historical preservation. And the potential embarrasments were huge: It could make Dallas look clumsy or banal. It could seem to try too hard to paint over the city's failings. It could be charged with tastelessly cashing in on a tragedy.

So, as Fagin shows, it took more than 30 years, but it was a little short of remarkable that the city got so much right in the creation of the Sixth Floor Museum — like preserving the integrity of the historic building while providing public access to it. The Sixth Floor became a model for other memorials — and remains a significant site for many visitors today. Nearly 60 years after President Kennedy's death, one can still see people tearing up in the museum.

But one of the few things the city didn't get right was the Sixth Floor's location. Not much could be done about that, and as Lamster said, there's little that's right about Dealey Plaza.

How'd that happen?

  • Over the years, the 'gateway to downtown Dallas' got crowbarred together with other functions — or the area's functions were transformed. This is where the city started — as a trading post along the Trinity River — but this is also where Dallas, in a monumental civil engineering project, moved that river (rather than move the city) because of the Trinity's habit of flooding and nearly destroying Dallas.
  • And this was where, once upon a time, more than half-a-dozen rail lines roared and clanged through the West End, sending cotton up north. Instead, today, there's the eternally stalled tangle on I-35 — and all of the frustrated motorists who use the Triple Underpass to escape that jam to roar across downtown or find another access to I-30.
A proposed redesign of Dealey Plaza includes an amphitheater for visitors to contemplate the JFK assassination site
Stoss Landscape Urbanism
A proposed redesign of Dealey Plaza includes an amphitheater for visitors to contemplate the JFK assassination site as well as paths leading to the Triple Underplass, Martyrs' Park and the new overlook providing views of downtown and the Trinity

So here are some of the issues the proposal addresses:

  • Traffic
    Traffic remains one of the plaza's biggest problems, said Lamster: "Anybody who's tried to come in or out of Dallas knows that this funnel is not very effective, especially at the corner of Elm and Houston. It's extremely dangerous."

    That's because tourists, looking up at the Sixth Floor or down at the crudely painted X marking where the president was struck, often wander out onto Elm.

    So what's proposed for all those cars squeezing in there, Lamster said, is to direct them to Main Street, which will be one way headed west (Commerce will remain one way headed east). Elm Street will become a pedestrian promenade — "so that people could actually walk in that space without fear of getting killed."

    But Lamster added, helping commuters should not be a leading priority here: "Dallas needs to start thinking about how to make places that people want to be first and foremost, and then figure out how to implement traffic flow."

  • Updating history
    After the "News" published the extensive proposal, one online commenter observed that many people visit Dealey Plaza precisely because it's more or less unchanged since 1963. Visitors can experience something of what it was like on November 22nd.

    So how can such a history-making site be seriously upgraded and more accessible — without damaging that sense of time and place?

    "I think the plan really is the best of both worlds," Lamster said. "Dealey Plaza itself can't really be touched because it's a national historical landmark, and the primary additions that we make would be mostly invisible, except for the promontory coming up over the Triple Underpass. So really, if you're there to see what this place looked like in 1963, you'll actually be able to do so, and it will be virtually unchanged. In fact, you'll be able to look at it without being run down by moving traffic."

So — what happens with this plan now?

  • Public discussion — with the publication of the proposal to "re-imagine Dealey Plaza," the News also announced a forum about the idea for November 15th. Lamster said response had been so strong that the forum has been moved to the News' own auditorium in its offices on Commerce Street.
  • Beyond that?

    "Well, that's going to be up to the city," Lamster said. "You know, I think there's going to have to be change in that space eventually. And Dallas has this really strong history of public private partnership. You can see it at Klyde Warren Park, at the various parks created by Parks for Downtown Dallas. So there's a strong history of the private interests and the public sector in Dallas working together to imagine public space and park space for the city. "

Register here for the November 15th public forum, "Reimagine Dealey Plaza and the Triple Underpass"

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.