Memo to T.C. Broadnax, new incoming city manager for the city of Dallas: The screwed-up whitewater feature in the Trinity River is everything you need to know.
Figure this one out, and you will have figured out your next five years at Dallas City Hall, which will be perfect, because judging by most of your predecessors those will be your only years at City Hall.
Hint: Before your new staff tries to take you too deep into the weeds, put your hand up and say, “Stop.” Then ask, “What is it?”
That answer will take about 45 minutes, and if you keep good notes you will have your first list of half of a dozen people to fire.
One of them will say very patronizingly, “Sir, it’s a standing wave,” and then he’ll try to run on real fast into some kind of jabber about the possible litigation. Put your hand up again, say, “Stop,” and then say, “What is it?”
Now you’ve got them. They have no idea. It’s some kind a park thing for kayaks that somebody saw once in Colorado. Next question: “Whose idea was it?”
Great question. Excellent question. I have been asking that question for five years. Whose idea was it to spend millions of dollars building a faux Colorado-style mountain-stream rapids in a great big, muddy, sluggish alluvial river like the Trinity? No one has ever answered that question. And no one has ever raised a be-dangled silk-gloved hand to say, “Oh, that was mine! I absolutely thought it up!”
The whitewater feature, in other words, is a bureaucratic waif with no last name. That alone should be of interest to you and perhaps also serve as a caution.
Was it ever a good idea? Or did this idea start out so stupid that the idea itself was already at fault long before people got paid to design it? You know this, Mr. Broadnax: If you be-dangle four or five million tax dollars in front of a bunch of engineers and ask them to build something for you, they will almost always build something for you. It’s your job not to ask them to build something stupid.
Tell them to stop again. Ask them, “How long has this problem been going on?”
I can tell you that one. Five years. And please, sir, while we are on the topic, somewhere along the line you must learn to read between the lines in The Dallas Morning News.
In a column based largely on interviews with Dallas Park and Recreation director Willis Winters and people in the city attorney’s office, the News said yesterday that the city is planning to sue an Arlington civil engineering firm, SRA Design, that the city says gave them a bad design.
But they have been preparing to sue this company and possibly a subcontractor for several years. You might ask yourself why they have been preparing for so long without actually suing anybody. I think I know a possible answer to that one, also.
They may be trying to decide if they need to sue themselves. And that brings us back to the Morning News. You do need to read it every day, but you have to learn how. I heat mine over a naked light bulb, then hold it upside down in the mirror to make the invisible ink appear.
In the case of yesterday’s story, the disappearing ink headline was, “Willis Winters, Park Department, Public Works Department, Trinity River Watershed Management, City Attorney and Pretty Much Everybody Else At City Hall Not At Fault In Whitewater Fiasco Because Bad Other Guys Did It.”
Ask yourself again. How did this happen? The whitewater feature was supposed to be a kind of water park in the river for kayakers. Five years ago a bunch of be-dangled silk-gloved residents of Highland Park held an opening ceremony for it, but the thing had to be shut down that very day. When people tried to paddle canoes down it, it turned out to be a giant Dispose-All designed to eat whole families in one great roaring gulp. I think the legal term of art is “attractive nuisance.”
Two years ago I interviewed Charles Allen, proprietor of Trinity River Canoe Expeditions, the one guy who really does know the Trinity and who knows about canoeing, kayaking, whitewater, flat water and so on. So of course he is the one guy who has never been consulted by the same city staff that you are about to inherit.
Allen explained to me that the kind of small rivers and streams where man-made whitewater parks have been successful typically have a drop or fall of 3 to 10 feet per mile — pretty fast. You can put a few boulders down in them almost anywhere and create a lot of turbulence.
The Trinity is actually bigger but much slower than those rivers, falling at only 1 foot per mile in Dallas. Creating turbulence here required building what is in effect a massive dam across the river with a couple of holes in it for boats.
All of that water rushing through relatively confined openings creates not so much whitewater, in the sense of splashing foamy waves, as deep powerful currents, eddies and whirlpools that could reach up and suck a bus off the road.
Here’s another thing to ponder, not mentioned in the disappearing ink story in the News. The company that did the core design for the Dallas whitewater feature, Recreation Engineering and Planning in Boulder, Colorado, has a stellar reputation for designing successful whitewater parks everywhere but Dallas. In fact Dallas is their one sore thumb.
Ever since Dallas City Hall started dragging their name through the mud and threatening litigation a few years ago, I haven’t been able to get anybody from that company to take my call. But when I spoke with them several years ago, they told me the Dallas whitewater feature was not built according to their design or with the materials they recommended. I notice that they have repeated the same story elsewhere more recently.
They were a sub on the job. The general contractor, SRA Design in Arlington, does a lot of civil engineering for governments. I can’t get them to call me back, and I notice the News can’t, either. I bet you can guess why they don’t want to talk to reporters about this right now.
Look, Mr. Broadnax, I’m not offering you a conspiracy theory about who’s really at fault in this incredibly expensive dragged-out mess. I wish I even had a conspiracy theory. All I have is a bunch of what we call story holes in the newspaper business, otherwise known as unanswered questions. But I’m sure you can see where the questions fall.
Long before you can accept that the best idea is to sue somebody else, you need to find out what your own people asked for and signed off on in the design and construction process. And you shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that they’re all pointing out the window at other people and using the Morning News to help them.
They can’t tell you whose idea it was. They can’t even tell you exactly what it is. But they know for sure it’s somebody else’s fault.
The best evidence trail you can follow through this swamp may well be the otherwise excellent name of the design firm, marred only by this project. What does that tell you? What made this one different?
And here is the larger picture for you to focus on: The entire culture of the institution you are about to take over is about defending its own castle — closing ranks against outside scrutiny, defending the castle against all calls for accountability, pulling strings out in the community and pouring boiling oil on anyone who tries to breach the wall. Get that much down, and you’re on a glide path for the rest of your five years.