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City to explore ‘Better Block’

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe /Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe /Staff Writer

Council agrees to more time to investigate improvement program

After about 100 residents embraced an unusual community improvement program at a meeting in August, the City Council agreed this week that the staff could spend more time investigating a “Better Block” project for Denton. 

The concept came to the city’s planning department through the Committee on Citizen Engagement. Consultants from Better Block, a three-year-old nonprofit firm based in Dallas, help a neighborhood plan a special kind of block party, often in conjunction with another community event, that temporarily redesigns a small area. They call it a “living charrette,” or architectural design project.

Since organizing the first party that inspired the program, the consultants work together with a neighborhood to bring in community resources that temporarily transform the block into a neighborhood destination. Usually, the people building the charrette paint temporary bike lanes, bring in lighting and potted plants, add cafe seating and invite pop-up businesses — with an emphasis on the kind of businesses that might be missing from the neighborhood. 

In similar projects around the country, Better Block has found that the temporary installations more often than not translate into reinvestment and permanent improvements for the neighborhood.

Residents in and around Bluebonnet Circle, a traffic circle just south of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, will have such a block party Saturday to show how the area would look if the city implemented a redevelopment plan that hasn’t gotten off the ground. 

At the August meeting, Denton residents identified a host of places that could lend themselves to a Better Block project, most of them in downtown or central Denton. City planners prepared a map for the City Council to show where a project might go. 

But, they also told the City Council that should Denton go ahead with such a project, it would take about three months to identify a spot, and then develop and implement the charrette. For a $40,000 fee, the consulting firm’s services would help organize the event and include a full report with many metrics — from sales tax receipts to noise reports — at the end that the city can use to spark redevelopment. 

Council members were enthusiastic, saying that such programs typically build community relationships and leadership, too. 

Council member Joey Hawkins said he saw such an effect with a community improvement project at Calhoun Middle School. Council member Jim Engelbrecht said he hoped one metric might be how many people might get involved in Better Block and stay involved in city governance, pointing to the lasting effect of the city’s planning process from the 1990s. 

“I find that those people who were involved then have stayed involved and are asking questions from an informed perspective,” Engelbrecht said. 

Some questioned whether the project wasn’t something the city could do on its own, but acknowledged that the company had experience. 

Since the project wasn’t in the budget, the council will likely have to approve the expense from reserves. But City Manager George Campbell said it was a manageable amount and did not cause concern. 

Council member Kevin Roden recommended the city consider allocating some of the unused funding from last year’s neighborhood improvement grants. 

If a Better Block project jump-started another neighborhood into participating in the grants program, Roden said he would consider it a good use of those funds.

While the council agreed to discuss the matter again, no date for those talks has been set. 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.