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Block project needs local input

The Denton City Council agreed last week that city staff members can investigate a “Better Block” project for Denton, and we’ve got to admit it’s an intriguing concept.

About 100 residents embraced the unusual community improvement program at a meeting in August. The idea 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.

The consultants work together with a neighborhood to bring in community resources that temporarily transform the block into a neighborhood destination — temporary bike lanes, lighting and potted plants, 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 the temporary installations often lead to reinvestment and permanent improvements for the neighborhood.

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 city officials can use to spark redevelopment.

Council members were enthusiastic, saying such programs typically build community relationships and leadership. Some questioned whether the project wasn’t something the city could do on its own, but acknowledged the company had experience in developing such events.

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 yet been set.

Like we said, the concept is intriguing, and while we can appreciate the company’s experience in staging such events, we also wonder why the city can’t tackle a similar project on its own.

The consulting firm’s $40,000 fee does not seem excessive and, if the project results in community improvements, it would be money well spent. But we’d still like to see what city staff members and concerned residents can come up with.

Who better to suggest ideas for improving a neighborhood than the people who live and work and own businesses there?

In our view, such a project could pay long-term dividends for individual neighborhoods and the city as a whole. It might also serve as a catalyst to building better and more productive relationships between residents and city officials.