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How D Magazine's Wick Allison Changed His Mind on the Trinity Parkway

D Magazine founder Wick Allison. Not pictured: Dallas’ dark barons.
D Magazine founder Wick Allison. Not pictured: Dallas’ dark barons.
Hal Samples

Whoa. I'm in the checkout lane at Tom Thumb reading the May issue of D Magazine so I won't have to buy a copy. Oops, smudged the cover, sorry. Tore a page, sorry. Then I see this story by Tim Rogers: "The Trinity Parkway Is Dead."

On the way to the car I call former City Council member Angela Hunt, architect of the failed 2007 referendum to kill the road between the levees. What the hell is this?

There is no way this story can be in the magazine unless D founder Wick Allison has flipped on the toll road. Hunt suggests diplomatically that maybe I haven't kept up closely. She tells me to call him.

I balk. Pre-Trinity River toll road, back in the day, Wick and I used to cross paths at parties, and we hit it off. He's always funny and smart. My wife was editor of one of his more successful magazines for several years. But since then, bad water.

I do make myself call. Damn it. He graciously agrees to meet. Below you will find snippets from a long conversation. He starts off by telling me how one night in 2009 he and Hunt engaged in an insomniac email duel until 4 in the morning.

Allison: "I hit her. She hit me back. I hit her. We were tooth and nail. Later I decided to check out one of her specific arguments against it."

He says he scrutinized the issue raised by toll road supporters who insisted that the federal money for the road was necessary to pay for the surrounding park project, an argument Hunt rejected but he had always taken as gospel.

When Allison returned to Dallas in 1995 from several years in New York and Washington, he caught up with an old buddy, Robert K. Hoffman, a founder of the National Lampoon at Harvard who had become a Dallas philanthropist. Allison tells me Hoffman was the original source for the concept of the Trinity River project.

Maybe. I have a different view. I think the old Stemmons family interests started fighting for a road along the river near their properties in the 1960s. But today I keep that to myself.

Allison: "I returned in '95, and Robert briefed me on all the work he had done. He said one of the key components, the breakthrough, was transportation dollars. With that, we can afford to do it, but it's this billion-dollar project."

But in 2009 when Allison dug into Hunt's evidence, he discovered that the road had nothing to do financially with the park and proposed lakes. Hunt was right. The parks could be paid for without the road. Today Allison still believes Hoffman was sincere.

Allison: "The road was just a means to an end. It would provide bridges, and you had this wonderful park, and that was the whole point.

"In 1998 we [D Magazine] totally supported it. We even did a special edition sent to every registered voter. We did the sailboats and the whole idea. That's where you got the sailboats, from us, maybe."

The 2009 wee-hours email battle with Hunt, however, was what he calls "the beginning of the unraveling." If the central argument in favor of the toll road, the federal dollar argument, was no longer true, what else might be wrong? And, indeed, more shoes were to fall.

He tells me something I have never heard before. Since 2010, he says, the city has been in possession of expert advice telling it not only not to build the toll road but to tear down, depress or somehow link over most of its existing freeways.

Allison: "In 2010 I received from [former City Manager] Mary Suhm a disc that contained a charette [architectural study] about I-30. The construction company that had been hired by TxDOT to widen I-30 had brought in their brightest people from around the country to look at the project. And these guys had gone rogue. They did a charette saying, 'They [Dallas officials] don't need to widen I-30. That's the exact wrong thing to do. They need to take it below grade, put an esplanade on it and reconnect the city.' It was all new urbanism.

"I go, 'Holy shit!' I had never thought about this. I had read [Robert] Caro's book on Robert Moses. [Uptown developer] Robert Shaw told me to read Jane Jacobs [The Death and Life of Great American Cities]. I started looking."

He points to a map of all the major interstate highways that cut through and around downtown Dallas. "Look at the interstates," he says. He points to I-30 and says, "Blight." To I-35E South: "Blight." I-35E North: "Blight" The rest of them: "Blight, blight, blight." Then he points to the Stemmons freeway.

 

Allison: "As a sophomore at the University of Texas, I stood with John Stemmons in 1968 in Stemmons Towers overlooking Stemmons Expressway, which had opened in 1963. He was so proud of it. He thought this was going to be the greatest real estate development of all time.

"That was 1968. The last office building built on Stemmons was 1971. Stemmons Towers is for lease today and it can't be leased. It has been a disaster. The market will not go where there is an interstate highway."

Wait. I remember the Stemmons Tower anecdote from a cocktail party about 100 years ago. One line has always stuck in my head.

Me: "I may have dreamed this, but is this a meeting in which Stemmons referred to Dallas as, 'My little village?'"

Allison: "He didn't call it 'my' little village. He had a plate glass window that perfectly framed downtown. He called it 'the' village."

Yeah. I feel like I remember the 'my little' pretty clearly. And why would that be important now?

Me: "I ask that because all this stuff, all this infrastructure, is an expression of culture and politics."

Allison: "Yes."

Me: "It's where it is because somebody wanted it there."

Allison: "Right."

Me: "But you span the generations. How do you see this map changing in terms of who's in charge and how they see the city?"

Allison: "The interesting thing is, I have met with every single civic leader in this town, and there's nobody in charge."

He paints a picture of leadership above the visible level of elected officials — the real powers that be, the people with the checkbooks — and it's a bit of a mess. He sees a bunch of part-time leaders not bonded by shared self-interest like the old Stemmons generation of dirt-flying developers.

Allison: "A part-time guy relies on experts. He goes, 'OK, my job is to get it done, my job is to move it through the process. Who do you want me to call?' He's not a thinker about it, a strategist. So that's kind of where we are as a city, and that's been how the Trinity [toll road] has stayed alive. It became a process of implementation and all the problems of implementation that consumed everybody without thinking about basic strategy."

Me: "My problem with that, if you go back to 2007, I understand Hoffman's vision and the interconnectedness of these things. I understand sort of going ahead with the plan in front of you. But there was such intensity in 2007, such an enforced uniformity of a view ..."

He stops me there.

Allison: "I gotta say, if you don't mind my saying so, that you and Angela added to that. Angela was not at the time as persuasive as she has become."

Me: "Now you have mentioned my favorite person in all this, which is myself. How did I contribute to it?"

Allison: "It's the conspiracy theories, that there is some dark group of people, the barons of Dallas or whatever, who are going to benefit from this. I can tell you, I know them. They weren't going to benefit from this, so you sent people to lock arms."

Quick note to self: Allison knows dark barons.

Me: "It gets so psychological and social. I look back at this, and I sort of hear you — you're not saying this, but I could hear you saying it — I was right about some of this stuff ..."

Allison: "You were totally right."

Me: "But I had such bad manners ..."

He cuts me off again and tells me a story, which I take as an instructional parable intended to be helpful, about how when he disagrees with people, he takes them out to lunch.

Yeah, sure. Gotta throw somebody out of the leaky lifeboat. One guy knows which direction land is in, but he's a lout. Other guy's just whistling Dixie, but he's charming. Guess who goes for a swim? So Park Cities.

But here is what impresses me about Allison. At this late date in both of our careers, he's the one who can still change his mind. Not everybody's that limber.

Allison: "I learned from the Trinity mistake. Maybe the biggest prejudice of all human beings is presentism. That is to say, what is has always been and will always be."

 

I suggest he knows how much neighborhoods can change because he's had offices in most of them. He laughs.

He paints a picture of a whole new Dallas in which all of the old interstates have been torn down or decked over, in which no Trinity River toll road has been built to cut off downtown from the river and all of the vast spaces once occupied by highways are now covered with wonderful urban neighborhoods.

Allison: "Jim, this can happen. This will happen. It's inevitable. I'm going to tell you right now, in 20 years Stemmons will be a parkway of four lanes. That whole market center will be a huge urban development, because we tore down Stemmons."

Me: "I think if somebody tries to tear down Stemmons, the old man will return." He laughs.

Allison: "No, he will love the idea, because it will be a real estate play."


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