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A Better Way on the Trinity Highway

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Let's be real, for a change, about the debate over building an eight-lane highway along the river at the western border of downtown. Sometimes we say it's a question of traffic needs or flood control or parks. It's not.

This is about the one thing everything is about sooner or later in Dallas — real estate development. On any given day all the other arguments get turned upside down, tossed out and resurrected like cue cards. The plan for an eight-lane toll road inside the flood control levees along the Trinity River has always been about the long-held dream of powerful interests in the city to redevelop an obsolete industrial and warehouse district between the river and downtown.

So what if we talked about that for a change? Would building a new highway along the river create or enable the redevelopment of the land along the river? Would it get the job done?


Trinity highway

I first saw the outline of a redeveloped Stemmons Corridor Industrial district eight years ago, expressed in a series of large renderings on the walls of the conference room at Halff Associates Inc., the Dallas-based civil engineering firm that had a lot to do with putting together the original concept. Halff is a firm well known and respected for its work in the areas of flood control and earth-moving but perhaps not the first to be chosen today for major urban land-use planning and redesign.

But some people who are experts in those areas think at least some of the Halff concept was right. For example, their renderings showed dense high-rise development along the river. Last week I talked to Larry Beasley of Vancouver, the international city designer who is working on our Trinity River questions in between other things like helping redesign Moscow. In some ways Beasley's vision of a redeveloped Stemmons corridor mirrored what I saw all those years ago on the conference room walls at Halff.

Beasley said the big thing is being up high enough to be able to see the river over the tops of the levees. Otherwise the river and the greenbelt don't exist as far as adjacent development is concerned.

"There's one thing that seems absolutely evident to me," he said. "The sites near the Trinity need very high density. We need to get buildings up beyond the levees so that from a market point of view you can really enjoy the added value of being adjacent to the Trinity recreation corridor, particularly as it's further developed."

So Halff got at least half of it right. But what about that highway? What can explain the relentless obsession of the powers-that-be in Dallas with putting a new highway right between the land they want to redevelop and next to the river and greenbelt they want to develop?

No one will ever say it out loud, but if you fly up to a bird's-eye view and look down on the land in question, the basic rationale stands out in black and white. The proposed Trinity River toll road is two things: It is an exclusive dedicated ingress and egress for the land to be developed. And it is a wall.

All sorts of important cultural assumptions are embedded in the design. One is that the river itself, long viewed as a sewer, is at best of tertiary arms-length importance — a thing to be seen from windows but never touched. Another is that both the location and access to the location will be more attractive to the extent they are exclusive. The most profound and encompassing assumption is that value is enhanced by separation, that less valuable land corrodes higher value land by incursion. Therefore higher value land must be physically isolated behind walls.

So if that's what we're really talking about, why don't we talk about it? Does the real agenda of exclusive access stand on its own merits? Will a new freeway along the river enhance values next to the river? And what if the answer were no?

In 17 years of writing about this project I have become convinced you could prove to Dallas that the highway will kill the proposed parks along the river, make traffic worse and cause serious flooding problems, but if people thought nevertheless it would enhance property values, they'd call it a good trade. Hey, we're in the West. Settlers here thought the possibility of having their hearts ripped from their chests by Comanches was a fair trade-off for good farmland.

But what if the road won't enhance values? What if, in fact, the road will take what might otherwise be a huge real estate play and reduce it to a fizzle? Dallas might listen to that.

Or here's another possibility: Maybe the strictly binary choice offered here by Jim Schutze — either the road helps or the road hurts — is dismissive of myriad possibilities in between. Why couldn't there be some crazily original design out there that accomplished a bunch of things at once, shipping those rich folks in and out of the new Hanging Gardens of Babylon like sardines in a fish plant but also allowing Schutze and his hippie friends to go play ukuleles and weave dandelion necklaces for each other on the riverbanks?

All of this freelance mind-wandering occurs because I have been thinking a lot lately about something called the "Connected City Design Challenge," a joint venture of the Trinity Trust, a private advocacy group for the Trinity toll road, and the CityDesign Studio, a private urban design group working with City Hall on land-use questions. The challenge is a contest inviting professional urban design firms and amateurs with big ideas to compete for prize money awarded for the best idea or ideas for connecting the major urban districts along the river in and near downtown.

The announcement of the competition a week ago was greeted by a certain amount of paranoia in certain circles — well, at my house, anyway. The early stories quoted Beasley and former Mayor Laura Miller making it sound as if the toll road could be reduced to some kind of gentle park lane, which I knew not to be true. I would love that, but I also believe it's wrong even to suggest that's any kind of possible outcome.

Just to be sure, I checked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week. The corps, in preparation for a final ruling next year on the feasibility of building a road in the floodway, has been working with the Federal Highway Administration on a handful of alternate routes forwarded to the corps by the FHWA.

Those are all eight-lane high-speed highways. The corps confirmed that the only routes under study and therefore the only ones that are candidates for final approval are those proposed by the FHWA. No gentle four-lane park roads will be considered.

So on the one hand I could argue it's a deception to let people think anything can happen along the river except an eight-lane highway. Once that approval comes down from the corps saying some version of a big honking freeway can be built inside the levees, it seems terribly unlikely the partisans will give up their decades-long fight and accept a measly little park lane instead.

On the other hand, what if the partisans found out an eight-lane freeway is exactly the wrong thing for their real goal of major redevelopment?

I had two long talks last week, one with Beasley, the other with Brent Brown, founding director of CityDesign Studio. Both pointed out that the rules of the contest require contestants to assume the toll road will be built, and both said the contest explicitly is not an invitation to redesign the toll road.

But I heard more. They both spoke of the magnitudes of value that can be achieved by redeveloping and changing the nature of entire urban districts as opposed to developing discrete one-off properties:

"Isolated developments are one kind of play," Beasley said. "If you can tie developments together into something bigger, from a marketing point of view it's just a totally different kind of play."

Brown told me there are lots of landowners and developers in Dallas who can make money on their own scraps of land, which he said they can do, "without having to come in and ask for zoning or things like that. Individually they can probably make some money. It would be profitable."

But he said there's much more money to be made when developments are linked in a fabric. "Connected together in a more uniform city-shaping or city-building effort, it's like all boats rise. When you build the connectivity, the value actually goes up. It's not just a destination, a one-stop. It's about a larger community. It's almost intangible in a way."

So both Beasley and Brown, perhaps sensing my own unhinged proclivities on these issues, told me about 700 times that they are not asking anybody to design away the toll road, and both of them told me they think roads are often a good way to build connectivity.

Fine. I get it. I'm not trying to put anything off on them. But I've been working here on Maggie's Farm a long time. And I'm telling you: The notion that land value can be enhanced, rather than eroded, by connectedness and different kinds of people walking around free in the neighborhood will be very new and very foreign to the crowd who've been fighting for that toll road for 20 years.

I'm not going to get all flibbertigibbet about it. The thing the Corps of Engineers approves next year will be an eight-lane freeway walling off downtown from the river. But I am very curious to see what comes out of this contest.

This is Dallas. We agree on little, but $10 is pretty much universally viewed here as being worth more than $5, even by the Baptists. In this contest we might find grounds for agreement after all.

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