A 'lovely' and 'beautiful' Pleasant Grove parking lot? How Better Block made it better
Once a gray stretch of concrete, the parking lot in front of Pleasant Grove’s Inspired Vision Compassion Center is now bursting with green, orange, yellow and teal murals.
Children run across a new basketball court where swirling waves are drawn on the concrete. Meanwhile, community members enjoy tacos and café underneath a recently-built shading structure made of wood and stretches of dark blue fabric.
Torrie Peterson, creative director at Dallas’ Better Block Foundation, said it’s an effort to better serve the Inspired Vision food bank and the surrounding community.
“So we have a couple different objectives,” she said. “One is to help better serve this Inspired Vision Compassion Center and help them build a better system for the people that are coming. We can also bring in art, color and vibrance to that area in particular.”
The transformation of the space was launched after Dallas City Council Member Jaime Resendez reached out to the team at Better Block. What Better Block does is called placemaking: reimagining public spaces to better serve the community. Using art and design, the nonprofit transformed the Pleasant Grove parking lot by adding elements like a new basketball court, shading, ground murals, planter boxes and benches.
More than 1,800 people a day come to the Inspired Vision Compassion Center, a food bank which has become a hub for the community. The center also distributes food to 48 local schools and offers health clinics, school supplies, furniture, pet vaccines and an annual Christmas giveaway.
Teadran White, who runs the Inspired Vision Compassion Center, grew up in Pleasant Grove and went to junior high school down the street from the food bank. She said the parking lot revamp around the center is greatly needed.
“So this is such a blessing to us because…this right here is where we usually run our lines," she said. "We could have, at any given time, 150 people in line waiting for groceries, and to now have an awning and it is a little more structured. Usually we use cones, so just not having to put cones out every day is going to save us time.
Better Block has been transforming public spaces in North Texas and around the world since 2015. Their mission of using art and design to revitalize communities has had an impact. The temporary transformation of a lot along Malcolm X Boulevard in Dallas led to a 212% decrease in violent crime around the 8-block radius around the lot, according to data from the Child Poverty Action Lab.
Every Better Block project starts with a community survey. It’s an effort to ask locals what they want rather than telling them.
“Our goal is to really have our projects be born from what the community needs and try to help them in the best way that we can,” Peterson said.
Axel Juarez served as a community liaison for the Pleasant Grove project. Juarez is an ICU nurse at Parkland Hospital who grew up and lives in Pleasant Grove. For the project, he helped survey over 100 community members.
“We just kind of camped out over here and we handed out both English and Spanish flyers with QR codes and physical surveys,” he said. “We just kind of asked the community, like, ‘What do you guys want from this?’ ”
Over 60% of people in Pleasant Grove are Latinx, which is why Juarez said it was so important for him to include the opinions of Hispanic residents.
“I wanted to talk with some of my Spanish-speaking residents here and give them the opportunity to voice their concerns and what they want,” he said. “Because sometimes it can be intimidating when you have a group and there's nobody who speaks Spanish.”
Back at Better Block’s home base along South Ewing Avenue, the team uses responses from the Pleasant Grove survey to identify the key amenities community members want: shading above the food bank distribution lines to endure the hot summer months and seating areas.
Then, the Better Block team turns on lo-fi music and brainstorms ideas on a Pinterest board, adding everything from technicolor crosswalks to shading solutions.
“What kind of color should we use? We're looking at shapes. We're looking at all kinds of designs to really figure out what is the best way to really tackle this. So this is where the creative process really starts and where we get a lot of our ideas,” Peterson said.
Once the team finishes their Pinterest session, Peterson uses a 3D modeling software to create a design. She prints out a base map of the food bank parking lot and tries to map out where the shade, basketball court, planter boxes and seating will go. There are also other environmental factors, like the movement of pedestrians and cars, that she considers.
“Then I look at my existing conditions and I say, what makes the most sense? Like, where can I really utilize the elements that they want the best way that I can and the design?” Peterson said.
But design constraints aren’t the only challenges in a project. Materials must also fit in budget and be easy to build for community members who help bring the designs to life.
For the Pleasant Grove project, they use an outdoor paint that is meant to help vibrant colors last. They also print out the pieces for planter boxes referencing a design from their open-source library Wikiblock. They use these designs for many projects to make it possible for anyone from the community to participate in building regardless of their background.
Building with the Community
In the week leading up to the reveal of the renovated space, the Better Block team coordinates with local community members who help bring designs to real life.
Before getting to the Pleasant Grove parking lot, Draven Pointer, the architectural designer at Better Block, uses a CNC machine to cut wood pieces that community members will later assemble into planter boxes.
Once volunteers arrive, members of the Better Block team host workshops showing volunteers how to do tasks like install the basketball court and paint medians. The idea is to empower community members to carry out the project and future placemaking efforts in their community.
On the first day of building, Azael Alvarez, Better Block’s project manager for the site, paints the ground mural of the waiting area with volunteers. By the end of the day, he looks around to admire the finished murals. Everything is on schedule, but there’s still more work to do before the big weekend reveal.
“We're getting ready to basically install the shade here. That's the next big thing,” he said. “We're also going to stain a lot of the plywood and we just have a lot of stuff to do. It goes based on how much we can get done per day. Then we adjust to that and we get it going and getting ready for Saturday.”
The work of community volunteers is what makes it possible to transform the parking space in just three days. Leslie Delgado, who lives in East Dallas, pushed a roller back and forth across the cement to paint a teal grocery line.
While she isn’t from Pleasant Grove, she mentors someone who lives in PG through a program called Los Primos Dallas that pairs young Latinx professionals with high school students. Delgado said it was important for her to get involved with the project for her mentee but also to make her own impact.
“It's great to lobby and ask the government to help us out, but at the end of the day, there's so much that we could do as individuals to make changes even if it's something so small as painting the sidewalks,” she said. “We could definitely make a difference here in our community just really by showing up.”
Axel Juarez said the investment into The Grove is long overdue.
“It's [Pleasant Grove] a very, in my opinion, underserved area that doesn't get a lot of attention or a lot of funding from, like, whether it's public or private projects,” he said.
The project will directly benefit people like 74-year-old Lillie Hervey, who walked around the grand opening of the renovated space with her great grandson, 7-year-old Kyng Wynn.
“It’s lovely. It is beautiful,” said Hervey, who lives down the street.
She regularly gets her groceries at the Compassion Center and was especially grateful for the new shading where she would normally wait in line.
“During the summer, it gets so hot you can’t breathe. It’s so hot,” she said.
Kyng, on the other hand, liked the basketball court.
“It’s good for kids so we can play.”
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