A Better Way on the Trinity Highway

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?

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?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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