When I read a story in The Dallas Morning News this morning about a contest for ideas to link the Trinity River to downtown and saw that the contestants were required to include the city's stupid underwater proposed toll road on top of the river in their submissions, my first temptation, of course, was to write something sophomoric, irresponsible, counter-productive and unbecoming of a citizen of my years. Actually, that was also my second and third temptation.
The contest is called the "Connected City Design Challenge," sponsored by the CityDesign Studio, a worthy outfit as far as I know, and the Trinity Trust, a pro-toll road lobby and huckster outfit that I privately refer to as the Trinity Untrustworthy. So how much can we really expect?
But the challenge is intriguing. The contest offers serious money (the Untrustworthy is always about serious money) to people who come up with ideas for re-connecting downtown with the river in spite of the Maginot Line of freeways and levees sealing off the river from all human or humane contact. I may be a little off on the exact numbers, but I think the Untrustworthy is offering $17 million to anybody with a fairly OK idea. When you go down there with your bill, quote me.
The toll road, of course, is not built. I say it will never be built. Apparently the forces behind it will be able to cover the more than $2 billion shortfall in its budget by using their influence to hack financial limbs off a crucial rebuilding of the existing freeways downtown called Project Pegasus, which at that point will be re-named Project Peg-Leg. So if they can get the money, why do I say it won't happen?
Some things are just to stupid to be. In the case of the Trinity Toll Road, the U.S. Army Corps of Engines will be obligated at some point to say publicly what it has been whispering privately for years to anyone who would listen: the proposed toll road is too stupid to be built because the basic concept calls for it to be built out between the levees in the flood zone.
The flood zone is called the flood zone because it floods. If you put a highway out there, it will flood. It will be under water -- Davey Jones' locker, as the sailors say.
The day the Corps gets honest with the public about the Davey-Jones-locker problem, this undead, grave-rising, night-stalking, neck-biting nightmare of luridly bad urban planning finally gets the stake in the heart it so richly deserves. But until then we are all required to behave as if it's actually going to happen. Therefore, the companies and individuals who submit ideas for connecting downtown to the river are required -- required -- to include the nonexistent toll road in their designs. What kind of design contest requires people to include something that isn't there?
A design contest funded by the Trinity Untrustworthy, that's what kind.
So let's say I yielded to temptation and came up with some of my own ideas? I might have suggested a design that incorporated an underground urban guerilla group that would facilitate access to the river by sneaking down there every so often at night when hardly anybody is on the toll road and blowing up sections of it with Gelignite. Or some other suitable substance.
Ok, that would be sophomoric, right? I might enjoy saying something like that, right? But, no. You know what, soldier? This is actually an interesting thing. So I think I shall depart from my script and say something interesting about it for a change.
First of all, that CityDesign outfit involves Larry Beasly of Vancouver, a city planner and urban thinker who is pretty much globally respected. He's been down here in Dallas off and on for some years sucking consultant fees out of the Untrustworthy people, an enterprise I wholly endorse, and I can tell he's tried to stay under the radar on the undead tolload issue, but I got that guy's number anyway. I heard him speak years ago the first time he came to Dallas.
He said stuff like traffic congestion is a good thing, because it forces people out of their cars and draws them in from far-flung suburbs to live instead in stacked-up walkable urban environments. Don't ever build highways downtown, he said. He said it's good for people of different social classes to rub elbows on the street.
Most of the crowd that day was made up of Park Cities Untrustworthy types. I watched their faces. They were giving each other these brow-furrowed looks, like, "He's a nice-looking man, but why doesn't he speak English?"
Beasley and Dallas city manager Mary Suhm are both quoted in Rudy Bush's story today about the design contest. First, I may have exchanged a few words over the phone with Mr. Beasley years ago, but I have never discussed the toll road with him. Second, I have never heard Suhm say anything oher than that she favors the toll road and will fight for it to be built.
But let me tell you something. He and she are just like every other smart, thoughtful, even modestly sophisticated person who has ever looked at this idea. I know that they know the toll road is too stupid to be built.
In 2007, when city council member Angela Hunt led an almost-successful citizens crusade to have the toll road alignment taken out of Davey Jones' locker, she accomplished one enormous social good, even though her referendum failed at the polls: She got the truth out.
The Untrustworthies spent a king's ransom on lies and conned the public into voting to keep the road between the levees. But once the genie of truth was out of the bottle, it could not be squeezed back in. Now, finally, in this contest, I believe we see genie moving back toward center stage.
Everybody with a brain knows putting a toll road out there is a stupid idea. Somebody with a lot of money and juice has been able to bully all those people into silence for a long time, but now they are beginning to whisper. That's what this contest is. It's all the people who have been biting their tongues finally beginning to open their lips and whisper the word. Stupid.
Why is the Trinity Untrustworthy involved? Oh, listen: you can't even pick up trash out there without their grim oversight. They own the river. Or think they do. There's no way anybody could have pulled off a contest like this and not had the Untrustworthy standing by with a baseball bat. They're entirely the reason why the contest calls on contestants to use their imaginations except for the toll road.
But Beasley is quoted in Bush's story saying a very rascally thing, sort of suggesting there's no way to prevent contestants from breaking the rules and suggesting ideas that do not include the toll road.
"We need to give the freedom to designers to tell us what's essential and what's not essential, and I don't know how the toll road will fare in that," he told Bush.
Thank God for Canadians. A Dallasite who said something like that would be riding out of town on a rail covered in goose down tomorrow night.
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People are starting to say it. Cutting off downtown from a potential waterfront, the only significant natural feature in the city, is more than stupid. It would be a sin. Almost any idea that helped kill that prospect would be a good idea, fully deserving the approximately $21 million prize that I think is being offered.
This contest is interesting. That's why I am not going to be sophomoric about it. I am Googling Gelignite as we speak, but only because I have always wondered if it's true you can really make it easily and cheaply in the comfort of your own kitchen.