Eye Candy

It's overpriced, it's gaudy and we have to put it on a credit card. Yep, that Calatrava bridge says Dallas all over.

What kind of boring, unromantic soul could fail to see the wonder of Dallas' plan for new bridges across the Trinity River? Where now a row of dirty concrete slabs crosses a river that looks more like a drainage ditch, instead a majestic procession of fancifully modern suspension bridges would soar into the clouds like magic beanstalks.

What sourpuss wet-blanket party pooper could be against a thing like that?

Busted. It is I. I have been bitching about the bridge project for five years. My complaints have been based on cost, which is boring; sometimes on hydrology, which is even more boring; and once in a while on criteria having to do with "congestion mitigation," which sounds nasal and vaguely unpleasant.

What if I'm totally missing the point? What if it's not an itchy wool scarf the lady needs to keep her neck warm but a string of diamonds and pearls to make her feel elegant and adored?

Ahhh. A much more elevated and elegant thing that would be.

So. Will you be putting this on your Mastercard?

Do you have any idea how much that means you'll be putting on the municipal Mastercard? The total cost the city admits to is $409 million for new bridges. The first one is sort of a bridge to nowhere. The other two replace bridges that don't need to be replaced. We would be doing it strictly for the aesthetics. And right now the city only has half the money it will take to build the first bridge.

In 1998 we voters of the city of Dallas passed a $246 million bond issue for the entire Trinity River project, which we were told was about lakes and parks. These bridges weren't even in the picture. How in the world did they ever become so important? Whose idea is this, anyway?

Wait, wait. I'm bitching again, aren't I? What about giving romance a chance, Jim?

I can't help it. I am, by profession, a wet blanket. But look: The moment is coming when you and I, the lot of us, either will have to find a way to pay for the first Calatrava "signature" bridge over the river in downtown Dallas or maybe just give up on this whole Golden Gate-for-Dallas idea. Given the urgency, it seems fair to give romance and beauty a fair shot at defending themselves, since clearly that's what the Calatrava bridges are all about.

This is public art, flash and dazzle. Smart people out there will argue that flash and dazzle are the secret to keeping downtown alive. Nobody has to go there anymore. It's just another neighborhood now. The only way to keep it alive, they say, is by making it cool.

"That's what beauty is about," Dr. Gail Thomas told me. She's president of the Trinity Trust, a private group that lobbies for the bridge project. Thomas is also a founder of the Dallas Institute, an urban think tank with a long, proud record on city planning issues.

"The classical Greeks knew that, and Michelangelo knew this when he carved the David.

"The beautiful form draws you to it, and you are transfixed when you look at it. And that is the role of beauty. It's what architecture is about at its highest classical moment."

OK, I'm thinking we don't need Michelangelo's David to get us to West Dallas. But no, no, that's not the way to think, either. Donald Gatzke, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington since 2004, told me that a new bridge is exactly the thing we should make beautiful.

"A Calatrava bridge is a very romantic notion--to do something that is grand and that appeals to the spirit rather than just the pocketbook," Gatzke said.

"So much of American urbanism is controlled by unseen forces. And here's an opportunity to do something that says, 'No, we did this, and we meant to do it.' I think of the Calatrava bridges as in the same category as saying we're going to the moon. We go to the moon because we can."

He makes a valid point.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking of an invalid point: that for the price of the first Calatrava bridge, five or six of us could actually go to the moon. Or pretty close. For $20 million apiece, we could fly on a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the way American millionaire Dennis A. Tito did in 2001.

My point is that Calatrava bridges are not cheap. The city has budgeted a total of $57 million to pay for the first one, which will link the dead end of the Woodall Rodgers Expressway downtown with a very bleak district of disused warehouses and small factories in West Dallas and, I should mention, Ray's Sporting Goods, a great gun and hunting store at 730 Singleton Blvd. with the city's best selection of wool outerwear by Filson, whose motto is, "Might as well have the best."

This, by the way, is supposed to be only the first and actually the most modest of three Calatrava suspension bridges across the river downtown. When the city put it out for bids earlier this year, the lowest bid to build it was $113 million, almost twice the amount the city had in the bank for it.

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