Wilonsky, Spare that Tree, Especially If It's Just for a Parking Garage

Over the weekend I received a long, thoughtful email from Susan Cantrell Holloway, a downtown resident worried about a recent story in The Dallas Morning News by Robert Wilonsky. He was waxing rhapsodic about plans to tear down an old tower and eliminate a city park at the north end of downtown to make room for a gigantic new parking garage with a digital sign on the side.

I looked at his piece and thought, "Oh, that's just Robert. He loves digital." But my eye did stop at the same line that had stymied Cantrell Holloway. Wilonsky described the park to be decimated as "31-year-old Aston Park, a triangle of cracked concrete, desiccated tree trunks and dirt at Pacific Avenue, Harwood and Live Oak streets."

I thought, "Wait a minute. I know that park. What happened to it?" Last time I was there it was a charming deep-shaded copse with a perimeter wall that was one long bench all the way around. It had a bit of design to it -- a mentholated oasis in a part of downtown that otherwise has always been a merciless ant-burning hellscape. Walking around that end of downtown in August requires dodging a cross-fire of incinerating death-rays from reflector-lined battle towers. I always manage to make a course through Aston Park just to allow my skin a couple milliseconds of healing. And Robert wants to replace this with a parking garage with a digital sign on the side?

I read his piece a couple times and just got more confused. Part of the idea is for the parking garage to be built over Pacific Avenue forming an above-ground tunnel, which the developer seemed to be comparing to Klyde Warren Park, where a park was built on a deck above a depressed freeway. But one is a park over a thoroughfare. The other is a parking garage over a thoroughfare.

I mean, I get how both of them involve something being on top of something else. But the connection beyond that is eluding me. Somehow I don't think the lesson of Klyde Warren's success is that we should build a lot of stuff on top of a lot of other stuff. That concept may be missing at least a couple of important synapses.

The point is, I drove down to Jimmy Aston Park, and it's still there, just as I remembered it, which was a huge relief, because I was just there two weeks earlier. You never know in this town. Things desiccate in a hurry. But it's still the same lovely little oasis it has always been, named after a guy who was Dallas city manager at age 27, later president of a huge bank. My late mother-in-law knew his family in Farmersville, probably in the '30s. She always said, "Those Astons were doers." So anyway it's there, and it's sweet, and it commemorates a bit of history.

The story is more complicated than I have let on, so far, and there are arguments to be made in favor of the floating digital parking garage. The developer has suggested the money he would pay the city for Aston Park (surely he will pay, too, for air rights over Pacific) could go toward the development of the proposed "Pacific Plaza" park just across the street from Aston Park.

Right now Pacific Plaza, nearly an entire city block, cannot be developed for want of funds, supposedly. That's the story. But the area designated for the park, already in city hands, happens to be covered with black-top parking lots that the battle-towers don't want to lose, since apparently the nearby towers were developed without adequate provision for parking of their own. The plot tangles, you see.

And maybe building a parking garage with a digital sign on the side in the air over Pacific and on top of Aston Park is the way to untangle it, if that plan really produces enough cash to develop a large urban park across the street (Pacific Plaza) and provide an adequate endowment for its perpetual maintenance, which is the real fiscal challenge for the city. Sounds like a lot of really good questions that surely have really good answers.

But let's do talk. Let's hear all of it, so we can see how it will work. The price for the air rights, the price for Aston Park, the money for developing Pacific Plaza, the money for operating Pacific Plaza. Let's put all those cards on the table where we can all see them.

And then we need to put this card on the table. What is the value to the public of a unique little green copse in the middle of a bunch of death-rays? What's our price for that? Parks, especially parks downtown, are not just raw dirt. They have the unique added value of providing respite. We need to see some dollar values put on that, too.

Doesn't mean an airborne parking garage is a bad idea. It means we don't know yet what the idea is. Cantrell Holloway was right. This all needs a closer look.