Ever been downtown in Dallas on a weekday and felt like you were the only person for miles? Don’t worry, the city’s not deserted, and you aren’t losing your mind. You’ve just got to look down — underground, that is, to the subterranean tunnel system known as the Dallas Pedestrian Network.
Seemingly unknown to anyone who doesn’t have the pleasure of working in a downtown high-rise, the network’s purpose is to connect the suit-and-tie crowd to various office buildings, restaurants and parking garages. The system, designed by Modernist designer Vincent Ponte and built at the end of the 1960s, also includes several elevated skybridges between buildings, collectively allowing pedestrians to cross several blocks without ever hitting the surface.
Climate-controlled pedestrian networks through major downtown areas aren’t so uncommon, but they’re often built as a refuge from extremely cold, snowy weather in cities like Toronto — hardly a relevant concern in Dallas, although our summers aren’t too mild either. The main problem with the network? Everyone kind of hates it.
If I could take a cement mixer and pour cement in and clog up the tunnels, I would do it today. It was the worst urban planning decision that Dallas has ever made. They thought it was hip and groovy to create an underground community, but it was a death knell.
– Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, The New York Times, 2005
Well, that’s not entirely fair. It’s certainly a boon to office workers in the area looking for a break from the sad desk lunch, but that’s about it — go exploring down there in something besides business casual and you might get a few funny looks. Everyone from the former mayor quoted above to the city council thinks the network is a sort of invisible eyesore, representing an unfortunate generation of urban planners who believed foot traffic should be isolated from automobiles and streets. These secret tunnels just don’t jibe with current trends of mixed-use development, green spaces, or shared street layouts.
To make matters worse, it’s hard to even access the network unless you work in one of the buildings it crosses. Large portions of the tunnels are privately owned by the buildings they pass through, leading to locked doors and a lack of necessary signage explaining the network’s route. In fact, at present it’s not actually possible to traverse the entire length of the network without ascending to street level and walking to bypass various closed segments, as the most recent map of the network shows.
The tunnels are also closed at night and on the weekends, meaning that many visitors will never get the chance to access the system. Major entrances to the network are located at Thanks-Giving Square on Pacific Avenue and Ervay Street, the Plaza of the Americas on Pearl Street, and Bank of America Plaza between Elm and Main Streets.
Despite the network’s lack of glamour and general reputation as a relic of unfriendly urban design, it doesn’t look like the tunnel system is going anywhere. Still, you might want to sneak in a tour soon — there’s killer Thai food hiding down there.