Van Valkenburgh Plan for Trinity River Park Is Six Flags for Rich People

Jim Schutze
A series of lighted panels on the walls at Gilley's depicted the Van Valkenburgh plan for Simmons Park.
Last week I walked into Gilley’s in the Cedars and found a huge room packed shoulder-to-shoulder with sleek, gray-headed men in great suits or golf leisure clothes, many of them arm and arm with skinny women sporting $220 hair dyes and shoes beyond my comprehension. The event was the unveiling of the plan for the proposed Simmons Park on the Trinity River downtown.

I sucked in a big chest-expanding breath and thought, “GAWD, I love the smell of rich people in the evening.”

Two entire walls of the big open space were taken up with a series of semi-transparent panels lighted from behind, elegantly Japanese in simplicity, like rice-paper windows on what the proposed park will look like according to the design architect Michael Van Valkenburgh of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York.

As soon as I laid eyes on the design, five terms immediately leaped to mind: Marvelous. Splendid. Spectacular. Stupendous. And supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

One term did not leap to mind. Trinity River. Is that a good thing? I’m only asking. But I think I got my answer from one of the speakers.

Matt Urbanski, a member of Van Valkenburgh’s staff, told the audience he felt the river itself was, “just from a design sense, a little boring.”

I think that could be true, and to be fair to Urbanski, he really was not talking about the river as Mother Nature designed it but the river as designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under whose aegis the river was straightened, flattened and walled up behind earthen flood control levees in the first third of the last century. It is boring, from a design sense.

The Trinity River in Dallas is "... just from a design sense, a little boring.” — Matt Urbanski

tweet this
It’s not boring from a natural sense, even though, yes, you can say it’s not very natural. The larger shape of the river through downtown is man-made — Corps of Engineers-made, specifically.

But something you and I have talked about a lot in this space is that the land between the levees, once you get down into it, is a kind of physical natural meditation, maybe even enhanced by its flatness, directing human attention down into the flora, fauna and nature of the place, and, well, frankly, away from human design.

What the Van Valkenburgh firm is proposing for the 200-acre park downtown is Design City, design-design-design, design up one side and down the other — fake hills, fountains, little bridges all over the place and a signature Van Valkenburgh play area like ones he has created in other parks around the country, kind of like Six Flags on acid, with crazily exaggerated play structures designed for very hard-to-amuse children.

I was already a little worried about what I would see at Gilley’s. There had been a signal the day before in a piece about the upcoming Van Valkenburgh reveal by Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster.

Lamster wrote: “But here it is worth noting that this environment is not natural, but man-made, and that the proposed ‘re-wilding’ of it is something of a non-starter, as it has been artificial since the Trinity was rerouted and channelized in the 1930s.”

Not true. Re-wilding is the other concept for what we should do with the vast 10,000-acre tract of publicly owned land along the Trinity River in Dallas, now that we have decided as a city not to ruin it by putting an unneeded high-speed toll road through it.

Last September former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, who led the successful decade-long fight to kill the toll road, convened a series of workshops at which scientists from a variety of fields debated whether the Trinity in Dallas is a good candidate for re-wilding. They agreed it is.

The term, re-wilding, is loosely defined and therefore perhaps forgivably misunderstood by many, including Lamster. It has nothing to do with whether an area has been designed, engineered or even industrially abused by mankind.

One of the world’s great experiments in re-wilding is the Oostvaardersplassen, a 22-square-mile wildlife preserve in the Netherlands created in a dead-flat flood-control area behind man-made dikes, with strong parallels to the Trinity River floodway through downtown.

Re-wilding is not a preservation of pristine wilderness, not even necessarily a restoration, but a new repurposing of land in which human design is deliberately subordinated to the forces of nature. Nor is it a surrender to nature.

As Hunt and Dallas landscape architect Kevin Sloan have articulated in their vision for a re-wilding of the Trinity, the idea is to let Mother Nature take over within certain limits imposed by the need for safety and flood control, see what she does, then design human access back into the picture.

Human design does not disappear in re-wilding, at least not in the kind under discussion for the Trinity River. But it does take a back seat.

There is in re-wilding a certain humility, a kind of pause or hesitation, maybe driven by a sense that, in a world already covered head to toe and huggermugger with human design, it’s actually more interesting to see what might happen if human beings could just once make themselves sit down for 10 minutes.

The only people sitting down at Gilley’s were the several hundred rich people, targets of a pitch by the Van Valkenburgh team who were on their feet and tap-dancing, trying to help local sponsors pry $100 million out of the house. Of course, no mention of money was made that evening, because, when you’re trying to get $100 million out of people, the last thing you want to mention is money.

The hundred mil, by the way, is in addition to $50 million already pledged by the family of Harold Simmons, the late nuclear waste dump king. So the total going in, even before the inevitable change-orders and elaborations, is $150 million to create a park on only 200 of the 10,000 acres that the city needs to manage one way or another.

Hunt has estimated that a re-wilding effort for a much larger expanse of land would cost a fraction of that, and she thinks the money for it ought to be left lying around somewhere in the hundreds of millions authorized by voters but not spent for the toll road.

The $150 million for Simmons Park, we have been told repeatedly, will include no tax dollars. The full amount is to be raised privately, a lot of it, I suppose, from those richies who sat on folding chairs at Gilley’s the other evening watching Michael Van Valkenburgh and His Amazing Singing Seals.

The other thing Hunt and Sloan have insisted on is that there should be no conflict or competition, in their view, between Simmons Park and their own concept for re-wilding the area outside Simmons Park but within the levees. Both have said repeatedly Simmons Park ought to be able to proceed on its own merits without bumping into a re-wilding effort at all. Sloan is even an adviser to and supporter of Simmons Park.

Ah, but that’s why the little dig against re-wilding in the Lamster piece jumped out at me. I know Lamster is an insightful writer, and I think his jab sheds light, deliberately or not, on an all-important truth playing out right now on the banks of the Trinity River. There just is a conflict.

click to enlarge
Matt Urbanski, a principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh & Associates, shows off a typical Van Valkenburgh play park.
Jim Schutze
Hunt and Sloan may be right in strictly logical terms or in talking about procedure. There is no logical or physical reason a fancy-schmancy, architect-designed sort of amusement park could not sit on 200 acres at Simmons Park and coexist peacefully with a re-wilded area up and down the river from it. But there is a huge cultural reason.

I couldn’t really tell how the house was receiving the Van Valkenburgh show at Gilley’s. I’m not a great judge of rich character. But the culture conflict I’m talking about is not necessarily about rich and not-rich, and I’m not sure all the rich people at Gilley’s were buying.

“But here it is worth noting that this environment is not natural, but man-made, and that the proposed ‘re-wilding’ of it is something of a non-starter." — Mark Lamster

tweet this

The differences on this are much more generational — where the big differences on everything are now. Younger rich people and younger not-rich people these days may be a lot more like each other on the issues we’re talking about than either group is like older people.

The Trinity toll road died because over the course of a 20-year political battle, the generational ground shifted beneath it. Younger people were never going to go for a new expressway. They want a place to ride their mountain bikes and look at birds. I don’t think that’s a rich/not-rich thing. It’s a generational thing.

The Van Valkenburgh design for Simmons Park, in spite of my snide asides (sorry, sorry, can’t help myself), is probably exactly what Lamster strongly suggested in his piece — a highest and best exemplar of its species, the fancy-schmancy, super-expensive, totally design-driven project for hard-to-amuse children and adults. As such, the project and Van Valkenburgh and his people and I guess Lamster all perceive a pernicious mortal threat to themselves and their own bowl of rice in the very essence of re-wilding.

Re-wilding is a concept that says stop. Stop tap-dancing and pitching. Shut up. Sit down. Don’t build stuff. Don’t tell us you are more interesting than nature.

We don’t believe you.

As such, yes, re-wilding really is a mortal threat to an entire approach to life. It’s a threat to the materialistic relationship with the planet.

Re-wilding tells us to stop buying things, stop stacking stuff up on the land, sit down, be quiet, watch and see what the planet can tell us. It’s an approach that wants to scrape away design and search instead for a window of truth in the dirt. I didn’t see any windows like that at Gilley’s.