A Simple Plan for Redesigning the Trinity Toll Road: Don't Build It

Two moments caught my ear last week when Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings addressed a well-heeled, smoothly coiffed crowd about the latest effort to get a new highway built along the river through downtown. He's hiring a panel of experts to help redesign the road, months before a final federal ruling up or down on the existing design.

Huh? Yeah, that's a tough one to crack. We'll come back to that here in a second.

The gathering was in a fake-rustic barbecue restaurant in a kind of restaurant theme park where people try out national franchising concepts. So just in sitting down we're already a couple steps removed from reality.

Rawlings said at one point: "I want to thank the Dallas Citizens Council, the Dallas Regional Chamber, the Real Estate Council, Downtown Dallas Inc., the Trinity Commons Foundation, the Stemmons Business Corridor and anonymous individuals who have helped us fund this initiative."

When he said it, I gazed around the room and saw 100 or so beautifully coiffed heads, connected, I was sure, to 200 or so cute shoes tucked beneath the tables. I thought, "It's true, he's right, they're all here, probably including everyone's favorite Dallas band name, The Anonymous Individuals. What a hoe-down (as in farm implement)."

Then the mayor read from a handout describing the résumés of several experts already hired to come in and help redesign the final design for the Trinity toll road just before the final design is finalized. I promise I am going to explain this in a minute.

It's possible that during the reading of the résumés I may have taken a couple of micro-naps, but I popped up wide-eyed and rabbit-eared again when I heard him talking about great political battles in local history. "Nothing big in Dallas has ever ever been accomplished without a big old fight," he said. "It's just true."

Among the examples he cited was a bitter battle over reconstruction of Central Expressway in the 1980s, when the state wanted to double-deck it because that was the cheapest fix. "The state's answer to Central was double-decking," Rawlings said. "It inflamed the neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods were right."

Then, maybe because he had just mentioned neighborhoods, the mayor veered from his notes and went in a direction most of the coiffed heads probably took for an off-topic wobble. Rawlings said, "We are in the fight of our life right now in regards to how we are going to improve our public schools. I wish this many people would show up for those school things, just parenthetically. That is our future, guys."

There was polite applause and a lot chagrined head-shaking, as if to say, "Oh, yes, it is our future, and it's just awful."

Funny. Former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt has a column in the current edition of the Lakewood Advocate Magazine describing a public school phenomenon in East Dallas that I bet few of the coiffed heads know about or would even believe if somebody told them. Building on the germ of two historically strong elementary schools, each surrounded by its own belt of strong real estate values, parents and community leaders in East Dallas have carried the spark to two more elementary schools and a middle school, creating a feeder pattern of schools leading to Woodrow Wilson High School, a general attendance school that also offers a competitive and certified International Baccalaureate program.

What does that mean? One thing it means is that while the coiffed heads of the city have been prattling on about the dismal state of public education, the people on the ground in East Dallas -- PTA-members, school board trustees, neighborhood associations, district executives, merchants, alumni, clergy -- have been doing the painstaking twig-at-a-time beaver-dam construction that is required to really change a landscape.

Good effective city building that stands the test of time just doesn't happen top-down. It never has. The case Rawlings cited of Central Expressway and the battle over double-decking in the 1980s is the perfect example. Back then the Citizens Council, the ultimate top-down club in the city, was fervently committed to double-decking the freeway from downtown to the perimeter.

Evidence from around the country and world that double-decked freeways were poisonous to residential real estate values fell on deaf ears, because nobody in the Citizens Council believed anyone but tenement-dwelling paupers would want to live in old neighborhoods along the freeway like the M Streets area anyway. Robert Dedman Sr., founder of a company that builds subdivision country clubs worldwide, a man who would have been delighted, had he lived long enough to see it, with a start-up franchise restaurant theme park, told me he couldn't believe the M Streets would ever be a viable neighborhood again because, "I don't understand why nice young people would want to live in used houses."

Somewhere along the way I must have lost my superstitious reverence for the popular will in all cases. Now I believe what a local official once said to me: "The problem with democracy is that sometimes the people vote the wrong way."

But when neighborhoods and communities are smart, particularly in long-haul processes in which everybody gets multiple bites at the apple, neighborhoods and communities tend to be way smarter, way more effective at city-building than coiffed heads. The Central Expressway of today is a supreme illustration -- really an urban masterpiece -- that has everything to do with gradual, carefully woven, organic city-building.

None of this is remotely original thought. It's stuff everybody in cutting edge urban planning has been saying for some years. Of the six outside experts listed on Rawlings' handout at the thing last week, three have been to Dallas in the past, and I have been able to speak with all three. They all get this.

Larry Beasley, retired chief planner of Vancouver, Alex Krieger, Harvard professor, and Jeff Tumlin, whose work includes award-winning plans for Moscow and Abu Dhabi, all have been to market here before with their baskets over their arms, looking for fees. All of them have spoken wisely and persuasively about the importance of grassroots daily living conditions in grand design.

The question here about the Trinity River highway, tolled or not, has never been bells and whistles. It has always been about building the road or not building the road. Especially now after 16 years of debate and with public sentiment running heavily against it, no amount of last-minute rouging or tweaking can take a highway between downtown and the river and turn it into something that is not a highway between downtown and the river.

The mayor's "redesign" effort is only the most recent of a series of clumsy attempts from the very beginning by the coiffed heads to change the topic to bells and whistles in order to head off any discussion of not building it.

Years ago I attended a workshop in West Dallas put on by a consultant who had been hired to "build consensus" for the project. Neighbors in a tough working class area were invited into an elementary school classroom where they were asked to squeeze into little kid chairs and play a board game sort of like Monopoly.

The board was a map of the whole Trinity River project including the highway. People were given little tokens for hot-dog stands, benches, puppet shows, stuff like that, and they were supposed to arrange them on the map to show their preferences.

An older man in work-grimed blue jeans put up a calloused hand. "Excuse me," he said. "What if we're against the whole thing?"

The lady from the consulting company said, "I'm sorry, sir. That's not one of the choices."

He sat there staring at the board for another five minutes. Eventually he pried himself up painfully from the little kid chair and slipped out of the room. For a split second I felt the weeping impulse at the corners of my eyes.

I promised to try to explain why the mayor and the coiffed heads would spend money bringing experts here to redesign something whose overall dimensions and features are already carved in stone as far as the federal approval process is concerned. The answer, I believe, is this: They are worried that the community, having mulled this for decades, is ready to change its mind and kill the thing. They hope to do what they have done in the past and take killing it off the table by changing the topic.

These carefully catered exercises, including the mayor's new panel, are all efforts to tell that gentleman with the work-chapped hands -- and the rest of us -- that we are not allowed to think certain thoughts, that the road is a done deal and all we may weigh in on is the color of the carnation in its lapel.

Krieger, for one, knows explicitly from his own experience in Dallas that this is how the coiffed heads here work. He was here not long ago: I sat in the audience while he apologized for having taken part in an earlier exercise just like this one that turned out over time to be a scam for building the highway.

Any one of the six people named so far to Rawlings' panel of experts brings truckloads more authority and expertise to urban planning than I could ever offer. One thing that means is that they have the right to entertain any thoughts and ideas they feel like, including carnations.

But they had better not come here and tell us not building the road is not one of the choices. In fact if we don't hear a fairly robust discussion of the not-building-it choice, I recommend throwing our toy hot-dog stands at them and walking out en masse.

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