What a Woonerful World
Woonerfs have appeared to me, and now I understand the universe. Even more amazing, for the first time I understand Ed Oakley. Sort of.
Ed Oakley. Dallas City Council member. Candidate for mayor. Chairman of the Trinity River committee. Mr. Woonerful.
Let me say this about that: At least symbolically, the woonerf is at the core of everything that's screwed up about the Trinity River project. And I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that my obsession with the Trinity River project has finally taken a tragic toll on my sanity. You know what I say to that?
There I was a week ago one evening at City Hall sitting through yet another endless PowerPoint presentation, feeling as I always do when subjected to PowerPoint—like I had chugged a family-size bottle of Children's Benadryl. How sane would you be? And then the young city staff gentleman making the presentation said it:
David Whitley, a city planner for the Trinity project, was telling a subcommittee of the Dallas Plan Commission about steps the city is taking to improve a "PD," or planned development district, for design showrooms down near the river on the other side of Stemmons Freeway from American Airlines Center. I was trying to think scary thoughts to keep myself from taking a swan dive into the carpet.
And then Whitley said, "Another interesting concept that the PD deals with is this woonerf concept, which is a Dutch word meaning living streets. It's re-imagining the rail beds and creating a new zone that would be a lot more suitable for multi-modal transportation."
Rail beds! Woonerfs! Oakley!
I have been trying for three years to figure out why Oakley was buying up bits and pieces of abandoned rail spur in this area.
Even though Oakley doesn't represent the Trinity Design District area on the council, he has used his role as chairman of the council's powerful Trinity River committee to keep himself intimately involved in the legal and zoning changes made to the Design District area over the last several years.
Ed Darrouzet, chairman of the Trinity Association ("merchants, businesses, landlords and tenants of the Trinity Industrial District and The Design District") says on his personal Web site that Oakley "deserves the most credit for having the foresight and knowledge to push us ahead and keep us on the right track these past years. He is without a doubt, [the district's] greatest asset."
On its official Web site, the association touts as its No. 1 organizational goal "the election of Councilman Ed Oakley to be Mayor of Dallas."
The association also declares on its Web page that it "vehemently opposes Councilwoman Angela Hunt's ill-conceived and politically motivated idea to place the Trinity Reliever Toll Way outside the already approved Alternate 3-B design."
The association opposes Hunt's call for a referendum to get the proposed high-speed toll road out of the Trinity River park now being developed. It says putting the toll road on Industrial Boulevard through their district would mess up their deal.
The area is occupied mainly by one-story masonry-block buildings on concrete slabs built in the 1950s as warehouses. The plan, already well under way, is to redevelop it as a stylish center for commercial arts and wholesale showroom spaces, among other things.
Nowadays most warehousing is done by truck. Back in the '50s the little warehouses in this district all had their own rail spurs in back. Those spurs haven't been used in decades, and the tracks are gone. So now the area is honeycombed with narrow grass alleys where the tracks used to be.
I could never figure out why Oakley was buying them. Several years ago when I first looked at this, he owned a couple rag-ends of the old rail spurs. Now he owns four pieces, and he has traded others in the meantime.
I was always sort of bothered anyway that Oakley was buying other real estate for himself in the district, right at the point of most impact for the Trinity River project, of which he is the single most vocal and uncritical champion on the city council.
He owns or has owned three buildings in the area. He sold one property two to three years ago at a value at least 70 percent higher than it was on the tax rolls the previous year. He holds two more properties in the district—warehouses for his construction company—that have gone up about 21 percent in value in the last couple years.
But Oakley has been scrupulous, I must say, in abstaining from council votes that bore directly on those properties, and he says he bought the properties for his business.
But what about the rail spurs? A couple years ago when I spoke to Councilman Oakley about his strange habit of buying up little bits and pieces of abandoned rail spur inside the Trinity Design District, he sort of laughed me off. Some were adjacent to property he owned or had an interest in, he said. Others were not adjacent to anything he owned, but he just bought them anyway. So what? They were only worth a few grand. What business was that of mine?
And then last week, the gentleman from the city staff mentioned the woonerfs. And I woke up. Woonerf? What in God's name is a woonerf?
Several members of the Plan Commission had similar questions. In the days since this PowerPoint awakening, I have done a bit of research, enough to learn that the concept of the woonerf is the invention of the one Niek De Boer, professor of urban planning at Delft University of Technology and the University of Emmen in the Netherlands, known far and wide as the "father of traffic calming."
You knew all about this, right? I just assumed you were in that huge mob of people who have been massing day after day outside Dallas City Hall chanting, "WE WANT WOONERFS! WE WANT WOONERFS!" and "WOONERFS NOW! WOONERFS NOW!"
No? Woonerfs new to you? Well, I have to admit frankly, even though I am terribly embarrassed about it, that I had never ever once heard of a son-of-a-bitching woonerf before in all my born days.
It's something about creating little areas where people can drive very slowly and park their cars but kids can also play soccer and you can have planters with tulips in them and play bocce ball and listen to accordion music—you know, the kind of thing you can see going over really big in Dallas, Texas. Myself, I have a vision of some cowboy gunning through the woonerf in his 350 dually at about 70 mph squirting bocce balls out from under his all-terrain tires like grenades, but that's just me. I lack vision.
Not Ed Oakley. He's got vision. Incredible 20/20 vision with a telescope.
Just when the whole woonerf thing is about to take off, Oakley happens to own four little woonerfian properties inside the design district—four that I was able to find.
I looked up the woonerfs in the part of the city code that was written just for this area, and guess what. If you have a woonerf, you can trade your little ragged scrap of land for federal subsidies to renovate your building. And if you have a woonerf you can also apply to be excused from some of the parking requirements! Wow!
Woonerfs are just so...woonerful!
Also in the days since this briefing, I have been able to chat with people who know some of the nitty-gritty history of the district. From the beginning, parking has been a key concern. By changing the zoning for the area—changing the "uses" or types of businesses that could be there—the city was subjecting property owners to a raft of new, more onerous parking requirements.
Many of the buildings cover the entire lots. Without some kind of break on parking, the owners could be forced to tear down their buildings to provide parking spaces. Hence, the idea of using the old rail spurs for parking.
I spoke to Oakley about this a couple times. He went through a very detailed description of each bit and piece of woonerf he owned and told me why he owned it. For example: "There's a little bitty curve that I bought to keep...I bought it because there was going to be a massage parlor going in at 110 Express. I bought it. I would like to sell it because it doesn't really do me...I have to mow it...the only reason I have it, it's just a curve, you can't do anything with it except park it. And the person who owned the lot next to it was trying to sell the property off as a massage parlor."
Yeah. Ed Oakley, out there buying woonerfs to save the world from massage parlors. What a guy.
Let me suggest something to you about the whole claque that's out there banging away so hard against Angela Hunt and her call for a referendum on the toll road. I think council member Oakley and his cleverness on the woonerfs is the least of what we're up against.
We've got hundreds of speculators, most of them way richer than Oakley, who are way ahead of the curve on all this stuff. They all have their little woonerfian scams going, and they all want to tell you and me why we shouldn't be able to vote on taking that stupid toll road out of our park.
There's only one answer. Keep it simple. If you didn't vote for a toll road down there in 1998, go to trinityvote.com and volunteer or kick in money for a chance to vote on it now.
Or you could go the other way and invest in woonerfs. Like Oakley. Maybe you'll cash in big. Woonerf it be woonerful?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.