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I-Team: What Ever Happened To Dallas' Pedestrian Tunnel System?

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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Ever wondered what happened to the downtown Dallas pedestrian tunnel system? Didn't even know Dallas had such a tunnel system? You're not alone.

Just below the streets of downtown Dallas sit 36 blocks of pedestrian tunnels. Once lined with stores and restaurants connecting many of the central business district's skyscrapers, the tunnels are now mainly empty.

By the 1980s, the city had spent millions of tax dollars to extend the network of tunnels to more than two miles, but in recent years the city and private building owners have shut-off several sections, making the system disjointed and difficult to navigate.

"You can't go more than two or three blocks now without having to come up above ground, so it really doesn't serve any purpose anymore, " said John Crawford, CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc.

Crawford said even if all the tunnels were open at best they were a failed idea to relieve congestion downtown and, at worst, a hindrance to the businesses above.

"As a practical matter, the tunnels stood in our way for a long time in terms of creating that urban street-level retail," he said.

Over the years many downtown developers and city leaders have blamed the tunnels for pulling foot traffic away from the street-level, making downtown Dallas feel empty and deserted.

However, now that street-level retail is booming in downtown and many of the once empty office buildings have been converted to residential living spaces, some say a revitalized tunnel system could be an asset to downtown.

"I think people like the tunnels," said Beth Fancher, owner of Posters and Prints. "It keeps them out of the heat, the rain, and the cold – but especially the heat."

Fancher's framing business has been located in the tunnels for the past 30 years. As sections of the pedestrian system closed over the years, foot traffic to her business decreased significantly.  Fancher said she now has to do home deliveries to make up for the lost walk-in business.

"It's sad," she said. "It's not what it used to be. So many places have closed up, but hopefully it will come back."

Fancher, along with other business owners in the tunnels, said they believe the tunnels could once again be a popular destination in downtown Dallas.

Despite the closure of many of the tunnels, the two food courts at each end of the system (one below the Renaissance Tower, the other below 1700 Pacific) are packed nearly every weekdays during the lunch hour, which some say indicates the system's potential.

However, building owners and developers just haven't seen much of a future for the tunnels.

Crawford said if there was a demand for the tunnels or if anyone thought redeveloping them was a good investment, it would have been done years ago.

"I think the proof is in the pudding, there hasn't been any development down there in twenty years," he said.

Crawford said he sees no reason for that to change any time soon.

(©2016 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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