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NOTEBOOK: Development tips from a lawbreaker


A whole bunch of organizations got together with the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to bring lawbreaking, big-thinking, cancer-surviving Jason Roberts to the atrium of the Historical Building for a noon presentation. 

He’s a funny, thoughtful guy whose Better Block Foundation (http://betterblock.org/) started on a bit of a whim and now is international, with operations from Tehran, Iran, to Melbourne, Australia. 

Roberts spoke at length about Oak Cliff, the Dallas-area neighborhood that he helped rejuvenate. He has fought against the idea that getting Starbucks, Chipotle or Whole Foods is the crowning sign that a neighborhood is back. He has worked to slow traffic, encourage lingering, and to make sure people can walk or ride mass transit to restored areas. “There are two axioms: It’s hard to find parking in a great place and traffic flow is poor in a great place. … We are making the worst-case scenario now — places no one wants to be.”

Some key points from the hour:

• Roberts wondered if one day our legacy will be flyover ramps on wide highways. He hoped not. He was more interested in the conversion of Times Square from bumper-to-bumper traffic to a heavily used area where people walk to theaters to watch the New Year’s Eve celebration and partake in other nonmotorized fun. “They were told it would be the end of life as we know it.”

• City governments had a lot of rules and procedures that can bog things down. Roberts decided to launch a brigade of people to place trees, benches, tape and paint to make traffic lanes narrower and to create shady places that would attract pedestrians. The Dallas city manager wasn’t amused, but an assistant city manager became a big fan of the makeovers.

• One project involved the then-shuttered Texas Theater, where police arrested JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The group decided to hang canvases to show that the place could be renewed after a decade of being shuttered. “We discovered that if we start today and make incremental changes, we can build a place up to what it could be,” Roberts recalled. Seven hundred people showed up to see the canvases. There was no sound system, so they wheeled pianos in that were played while people watched silent films. The theater was later restored and reopened in 2010. 

• At another point, he put up a website for the nonexistent Oak Cliff Transit Authority with trolley cars shown. The Dallas Morning News did an immediate story. All kinds of people inquired. A bike movement started. “We really didn’t have a bike culture; we just kept telling people we did, and it started to happen. 

• Neighbors turned a vacant lot into a pop-up dog park. “All this is a fence,” he noted. 

• He ignored many laws to show the city it should be changed. One of the lawbreakers in his organization was elected to the City Council. “You can break any law you want as long as you have an orange vest,” he quipped.

• Roberts played on the local “Think Big” motto by pushing “Think Small.” Little steps can make a big difference, he said. 

• He showed a photo of a Walmart with a large parking lot and said, “It takes a lot of Prozac to be OK with something like this. We have taken beauty out of the equation.”

• He and his group have created bocce ball courts on street corners, tried American versions of Italy’s piazzas, and turned an old building into a bicycling center.

• His crews have come in with plans and digital forms for making furniture, bike racks and whole buildings. 

• When he was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in 2012, the networks he had created helped. Two years later, he was declared cancer-free.

• Roberts’ visit to Iowa included work on plans in Ottumwa, Keokuk, Greenfield, Cedar Rapids and Dubuque.

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