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Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

Less than one month from now, this very spot will be where the city plants Thomas Balsley's 60-foot-tall Christmas tree.
Less than one month from now, this very spot will be where the city plants Thomas Balsley's 60-foot-tall Christmas tree.

Willis Winters, assistant director of the city's Park and Recreation Department, was kind enough to give Unfair Park a tour of the $17-million Main Street Garden this morning -- and by "garden," I mean mud pit and swimmin' hole. Hence, Winters's acknowledgment that, yes, it's quite likely the garden -- the first of several planned downtown parks -- won't be quite ready for its November 13 official debut, especially with more rain in the forecast for week's end.

"The rain is killin' us," says Winters. "We were originally shooting for November 5, and actually there will be quite a bit done by November 5. It will be presentable by November 13. We're trying to prioritize what will be finished right now. There's a slight chance that date will change. But that's due to scheduling, not construction." He's referring to the fact several council members are scheduled to attend the National League of Cities convention in San Antonio that week.

Park and Rec's assistant director, Willis Winters, standing where the stage will be in Main Street Garden
Park and Rec's assistant director, Willis Winters, standing where the stage will be in Main Street Garden

Still, he says, the park's "in good shape" for the November 20 City Lights Christmas-tree lighting ceremony, when DowntownDallas will debut New York-based landscape architect Thomas Balsley's 60-foot-tall tree. (Addison-based Excitement Technologies, which has done work at Cowboys Stadium, is handling the lighting and production, says DowntownDallas's Kourtney Garrett.)

"As you can see, we're trying to work around" the mud and water, Winters says. "All the activity today is on the perimeter, and we're trying to scrape the mud to the center. That's the easiest thing to finish at the last, so now they're just using it as a staging area."

After the jump, Winters walks us through the park's amenities. But first question's first: Will the Lily Pad, the city's first foray into the eat-and-drink business, serve alcohol? "They want to," he says, mentioning beer and wine and the TABC. So, with that out of the way ... jump, but watch the mud.

Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

Our first stop is The Lily Pad, which, as we mentioned last week, will have a menu planned by Chef Doug Brown (Sala, Amuse, the Cliff Cafe). The generic "cafe" name will be replaced by the actual moniker in coming days. It's perched slightly above the park on a wooden deck; the chairs and tables will be movable beneath a canopy that will also have misters installed on the posts. "So that'll help during the summer," says Winters. The rooftop will also be green -- as in, covered in grass, "so people from the surrounding buildings won't have to look down on a plain ol' roof." Hence, the need for a rooftop irrigation system, as mentioned last week.

Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

Next to that is a fountain filled with marble boulders, which Winters says will resemble a river: "Along the edge, it'll shoot out a stream of water that will sort of rush across the surface of the fountain. But it'll be very shallow so folks can walk out and get on the boulders. They're welcome to. Kids love water, and this'll be very, very shallow. It's also filtered, so we won't have a crypto issue. It also has some misting nozzles that won't shoot up very far."

Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

We then wander into the shadow of the Statler, where, on the first floor, there's a hard-to-see blue sheet of plastic representing a failed attempt to shroud the old hotel. Winters says he hopes the garden "can make something happen at the Statler."

He points to the lonely square and says the city's working with the winning architects to come up with a better concept for a shroud.

"That's the shrouding concept that failed, and it has been rejected," he says. "Everyone agreed it's not appropriate, so they're looking at other options." 

Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

The next stop is the "toddler lot," where, Winters points out immediately, the spongy, rubberized surface is being replaced because, frankly, the tiny green and purple beads have resulted in a "murky color, really bad."

Behind the workers, you'll also see the framework for the shade canopies, which will be topped with tinted glass. Actually, says Winters, "the glass will be suspended under the metal armatures, so there will be shade for the parents."

Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

And directly next to the kids' play area is the dog run.

"As you can see, it's an all-concrete surface, so we can hose it down and keep it clean," Winter says. "And we built those things for dogs to jump on and over, so it's more interesting than just a straight run. A lot of seating here for the dog owners." He also points out the drinking fountain, which will have, at the bottom, a fountain from which dogs can drink.

At which point we were stopped by mud. So we circled around construction workers boot-deep in the sludge toward the center of the park, where the tree will go next month -- aligned dead center with the front door of the old Municipal Building.

"This will be called The Great Lawn, and it provides a nice urban park -- something the Municipal Building never had," Winters says. "An example of this relationship is from the City Beautiful movement from the early 20th century. ... These grand public buildings were always fronted by public green spaces and plazas, and City Hall never had that till, what, 100 years later? It's finally happening."

Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

At which point we encounter Leni Schwendinger's garden shelters about which we wrote a few weeks ago. In front of them are two light towers the New York-based artist also designed; Winters says they'll "give the park a nice glow at night ... much like Austin's moon towers." Which prompted my question: When, precisely, will the park close at night? Because right now, it's scheduled to shut down at midnight. But, Winters says, "The Park Department is studying whether that's the right time. It may change. There's a lot of activity down here on the weekends till 2 a.m., so we need to take a look at that."

Which means, right about now you're wondering about safety -- which will be handled by DowntownDallas's security patrol, Dallas police and security cameras perched on each corner, with two additional cameras mounted on the moon towers.

As for the muddy patches next to them, Winters says those will be filled in with a "striated" rotation of season plantings (shrubs and grasses), which will be paid for by DowntownDallas, which is currently in the process of trying to round up sponsors to pick up the tab, which he guesstimates will run around $200,000 to $300,000 annually for the entire upkeep of the park. 

Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

Which brings us to an area that, at present, looks like a cemetery -- but only because, well, it is. What you see here are rescued remnants of buildings that once stood on this part of downtown, which Winters, who's also a noted city historian, was delighted to keep in order to pay homage to downtown's past.

"For example, if you look across the street and look at the limestone on the original Hilton, we took the stone and saved them to redisplay them here," he says, noting that they do, indeed, look like tombstones. "It's an artifact to commemorate the buildings. And there will be an interpretive graphic that will talk about the history of this part of downtown and its development from the 1870s to current day and show how it transformed from small houses to big buildings."

Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

And, finally, our last stop: the stage. Though Winters says there will actually be two -- including a smaller one just to the left of the main one, closer to Commerce Street. Also near there will be the old neon "PARK" sign once directing people to the gold-ringed parking garage that used to sit on the spot. It's being refurbished for installation next month.

"I just love the fact this park is surrounded by so many eras of Dallas architecture," Winter says. "There's the 1913 City Hall, the 1926 Hilton, the Tiches building from the '20s, the Mercantile from the late '40s, the Statler and library form the late '50s and the Comerica building from the '80s. It's surrounded by all these significant buildings, and we felt by putting this park here it would open up all these great vistas and remind people of their prominence and importance."

In a later post, I've got some other things Winter said about how the park will be run and the city's expectations for it. But right now, that's probably plenty. Here, then, one last look -- a view of the Merc from the benches in the dog run. Nice.

Willis Winters Gives Us a Slightly Soggy, Kind of Early Walking Tour of Main Street Garden

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