Imagine Fair Park Without the Fair
I got it. I have the big idea for Fair Park. Really. Not kidding. Let me tell you how I got there.
Mayor Mike Rawlings called and took me to task recently for suggesting in a blog item that his commission on repurposing Fair Park was a secret. He pointed out that he had announced its creation when he set it up.
The idea behind it is both urgent and simple. Fair Park, originally 80 acres developed for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, is now 277 acres in which the park itself is sort of a doughnut hole surrounded by fat parking lots. An attempt at starting up a summer amusement park there last summer was a dismal failure.
The park is enormously popular during the annual run of the State Fair of Texas, usually about three and a half weeks in the fall, but during the rest of the year Fair Park looks and feels desolate and abandoned, whether it is literally or not.
The mayor's commission reflects a thought that seems to occur cyclically to thoughtful people, that there must be something better Dallas could do with that much public land.
As far as I can tell, the thinking so far has leaned heavily toward doing something that would emulate the city's dramatically successful new Klyde Warren Park, built on a 5.2-acre deck over a freeway at the north end of downtown. It's easy to see why thinking might lean that way. Since its opening just a year and a half ago, Klyde Warren's wild success has disproved all of the doubters and naysayers who said it would never work, and that would include ... let's see, I'm looking around ... looking around ... it would include ... oh, yeah, me. When I'm wrong, I sure am wrong.
But I do want to point out what may be an important difference between Klyde Warren and Fair Park. Klyde Warren consists of all kinds of miniaturized attractions jammed into a relatively itty-bitty space, surrounded on four sides and underneath by automobiles. Fair Park is a comparatively vast space, and we should wonder if its simple vastness may not be the defining characteristic on which we should build dreams of its future.
Peter Harnik, author of the 2010 book Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities and director of the national Center for City Park Excellence, generously called me back recently and agreed to talk about Fair Park, of which he seemed to have a certain amount of knowledge. In trying to imagine what could be done with Fair Park, he went immediately to its size, suggesting Fair Park could become a realm unto itself, separated and sheltered from cars and traffic.
"Could Fair Park become more of a [New York City] Central Park, greener and more passive, not necessarily having to have super high-density activities?" he wondered.
"You would need something more natural and human. My biggest problem with Fair Park is that it's overwhelmingly devoted to parking. Between the cars and the buildings, there is hardly any park at Fair Park."
While we spoke I was standing in one of those new super gas stations in the suburbs trying to decide between seven different kinds of cappuccino while 18-wheeler trucks glided by outside the gas station's glittering cathedral-high windows. I had to focus for a moment to even imagine what he was talking about.
A world of trees, streams and shadowed pathways. No cars or trucks at all. Walkers and people on bikes. An entire world apart.
Harnik was talking about Hermann Park in Houston and Piedmont Park in Atlanta. He mentioned Forest Park in St. Louis. Oh, Forest Park. That name pinged my heart. My grandparents used to walk me into Forest Park when I was a little boy to see the monkey shows at the zoo, which probably involved behind-the-scenes monkey torture, but, man, those monkeys could ride bikes. In my child's mind Forest Park was not a place but a world.
Couldn't Fair Park be a world and not a place? It's big enough, isn't it?
But then Harnik punctured my balloon. "To be honest, from my end, thinking as hard as I can while we are talking, I am not aware of any major, terrific, admired city park that does double duty as state fair grounds.
"Probably one of the most famous urban state fairs in the country is in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Minnesota State Fair," he said. "It's got probably everything you've got and maybe even more so. But during the rest of the year it's kind of a nothing park. It might technically be a park, but it's nothing that anybody would think about."
I wondered why. Can't you have a great state fair and a great urban park in the same place? He said no.
"I would maybe go out on a limb," he said "and say it's going to be hard to have great state park and great state fair grounds in the same venue. Nothing comes to mind to me where you've got a really iconic park that also functions as an iconic state fair grounds."
He said the presence of a state fair, even though it only takes place once a year, pretty much obviates turning the venue into an enchanted forest during the rest of the year. He said the logistical reality of a state fair — "the need for a massive amount of setup and take-down and trucks and cars and beating the hell out of the grass and hundreds of thousands of users" — is incompatible, plain and simple, with a real park.
As he spoke those words, the light bulb appeared over my head in the cappuccino aisle in the super gas station in the suburbs.
Get rid of the State Fair of Texas.
Oh, please, I can hear the howls, and I must tell you that I love the State Fair of Texas, have never missed a single State Fair since I came to Texas 135 years ago and never want to miss one in the next 100 years. But hear me out.
Get rid of the State Fair of Texas. Amicably. Wouldn't the fair be happier anyway up on the former cotton land far north of the city, maybe in conjunction with one of those auto racing tracks or something? Or it could go west toward Fort Worth. Maybe it's time for Dallas to loose its hold on the fair anyway and allow it to become more of a truly statewide entity.
Just for a moment, imagine what we could do with Fair Park if it were ours alone to do with as we wished. The very next thing to do, after unshackling it from the State Fair, would be free it from the grip of all those 1930s exposition buildings and whatever kind of collective historic designation they've got on them. Most of them are crap. All but the very best need to be blown up and hauled to the landfill.
The next thing to free it from is the Dallas Park Department. The land itself needs to be liberated from its legal status as parkland. Why? Because whatever money is needed to rebuild the park as a forest realm will have to be generated by the park itself. There is no other money.
Some of Fair Park should be sold or leased and commercially developed in some use or format that would be compatible with the new park itself. One of those tax recovering mechanisms like a tax-increment finance district, scammy as I have always thought them to be, should be created to reap profits from the commercial development so the money could be used to pay for the park in perpetuity.
We own the greatest piece of it already — the land. We have it in our power as a city to free that land for a new use by asking the State Fair to take a powder, politely. We have it in our power to create a revenue-generating mechanism. And now what?
At that point, when we have freed Fair Park from the shackles of old age and disuse, we will have bestowed upon ourselves a fantastic blank slate. Then the question becomes less what we can do with Fair Park and more whether there is anything we can't do.
Think of it. What if Fair Park became an entirely different kind of planet within the city's solar system, a green world almost without reference to the urban environment outside? And what if you not only could visit there but even live there in a cobblestone village of bicycles, streams, copses and greenswards?
All right, all right, yeah, maybe I'm getting a little too high on all this. Greenswards? I don't even know where that came from. Gotta look it up. "Grassy ground or turf." OK, sure, you would have a lot of grassy ground and turf.
I'm not entirely serious about evicting the State Fair, although I could talk myself into it. But I do have a serious point to make. In order to truly rethink and re-imagine Fair Park, we have to tear it down to the studs in our minds. And then tear the studs down. We need to daydream Fair Park as an entirely new world, not just a fixed-up place.
Part of getting that going is looking outside ourselves and talking to people like Harnik. I believe he offered me a truly valuable insight that I was never going to get from any of the usual suspects locally — can't have a great state fair and a great urban park in the same place. Who in Dallas would have said that? Who knew?
To truly rethink Fair Park, Dallas must exorcise its fear of new ideas and search for just that — something we never dreamed of, but should.
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