Behold: A Trinity River Park Plan That Actually Makes Sense

Think of it this way. It's Saturday morning. You could sleep some more. Oh, wait, you're awake. That's why you're lying here thinking. So you need something to do.

You could go to NorthPark Center and buy a monogrammed mother-of-pearl hairbrush that's also an antique music box that plays "God Save the Queen" for 400 bucks. Oh, wait, you don't have any money. And you're not English.

What if you could put on some grubby clothes, get on your bike, ride down the street, away from your apartment or house, slip past tall buildings and industrial plants, then pedal hard over a rise and suddenly find yourself looking down on a bike trail winding through more than 2,000 acres of forest and grassland?


Trinity River

What if that could be your Saturday morning in Dallas, Texas? Imagine riding lonely miles along the banks of Trinity River where herons stalk, then cruising past cheering throngs at soccer fields, and then it's only the sound of your breathing and the soft buzz of the bicycle tires carrying you deep into a vine-tangled forest? And then you go home and take a shower. Who needs a monogrammed mother-of-pearl whatever?

You know what? This is actually going to happen. Soon. Fast. It is about to start happening. It is going to be here while you are here. It will not cost huge money. There will not be a huge political fight and elections. There will not be endless newspaper columns about it by me, although there could be a few, because I still have to pay the rent.

East Dallas city council member Angela Hunt and soon-to-be-seated new Oak Cliff member Scott Griggs are putting together a plan for a system of trails along the Trinity River downtown, trails that will be created quickly and at low cost with a lot of volunteer labor.

The trails will get in the way of absolutely nothing. They will interfere with no plans for anything else. The trails will be made by turning sod, amending it with some other kind of dirt and then tamping it down.

Simple. Quick. Cheap. And all of a sudden, the whole experience of living in the center of Dallas becomes an entirely new and different thing.

You know what I mean. Too many of us for too long have accepted this notion that you can't really get out into nature in Dallas, because we don't have an ocean or mountains.

But look at what we do have. Depending on how you measure it, we've got between two and four thousand acres of natural area at our fingertips. Central Park in New York is only 843 acres.

And this isn't Central Park, built and planned and under control. The land along the Trinity is wild, because the city has ignored it since the city's inception in the mid-19th century. That's the best part. The people who go out there now and help to create these trails will be pioneers on virgin terrain.

Dallas has been locked in a battle for 14 years over a huge multi-billion dollar program called the Trinity River Project, which was supposed to involve man-made lakes, a super highway, parks, amphitheaters, fake suspension bridges, fake rapids in the river, on and on. It was as if Madam Dallas went down to the river one day, put her chin on her hand, played with her pearls, looked out at the river, pondered, and then said to herself, "I shall turn this into Switzerland!"

It turns out there was one thing missing from Madam's plan: A magic wand. Well, a magic wand and about $2 billion we don't have.

In spite of having spent tens of millions of dollars already, almost nothing from the original plan has been accomplished. Every year the grand plan seems to sink deeper and deeper into debt, controversy and enmity. People on all sides just get crazier and crazier with each other. The environmental issues are almost worse than the money problems.

But now this. This is so utterly new and different. It's not just a new approach to the Trinity River. It's a new approach to life in the city.

I talked with both Griggs and Hunt about it last week. They're serious. They're talking to people who know how to build durable trails using very low-tech methods at an extremely modest cost. Griggs told me that the three most important ingredients in the whole scheme are that it can be done quickly, cheaply and on a human scale.

"The only way to move things forward," he said, "is to do things that are small and quick."

He said getting people out there right away on their bikes will be a much more powerful and important agent of change than any amount of planning or high finance. The trick is to get things done fast enough to change the lives of people right away, on a scale modest enough for everyone to comprehend but significant enough to make a real difference.

"Experience is so much more important than planning," he told me. "It demonstrates that change can be pertinent to people's lives."

The concept of human scale is a requirement in every aspect of the process. This has to be done quickly so that people can use it within the time-frame of their own lives, and cheaply so the money won't become an insoluble problem. And it needs to be of a size that doesn't dwarf and intimidate people.

It needs to be sustainable, too—easy to maintain, easy to change, no big deal if people stop using it and it needs to go away. But it needs to be huge in its impact on the life of the city.

Hunt says the trail project would require "some kind of consensus" from the city council, but she's a little vague on what kind. She says there is no cost estimate yet, but she says the total cost for the trails should be "less than one swanky party," a jab at the business community's high-society approach to the rest of the Trinity River project.

Hunt is the veteran on Trinity issues, and Griggs is the neophyte. In 2007, Hunt led a campaign to stop the city from building a high-speed, limited-access highway inside the area now proposed as a park. A citywide referendum to ban the road from the park failed at the polls, leaving open the possibility that the highway still could be built there.

But not long after backers of the highway won the election, their project, like the rest of the grand vision for Switzerland on the Trinity, sank into a bog of environmental and fiscal problems.

Hunt says those problems aren't what she hears about when people talk to her about the Trinity River Project. What rankles the public, she says, is that nothing gets done. The Zilch Problem. How can it be that in all this time, with all of these people talking and all of this money spent, the results are still zilch?

"I think the public has become so disillusioned by the delays on the project that it has become critical to provide some immediate benefit to the average citizen that they can see and feel and touch down in the Trinity River basin," she told me last week. "Instead of waiting for the grand vision, the chain of lakes, the meandering river, the toll road, the bridges, let's get something done here and now that will draw people to the Trinity River."

So what would it be, exactly? Hunt and Griggs are talking about taking the existing scattered bike and hiking trails that the city has developed already and connecting them to a new system of trails on both sides of the river, around where the river extends from Northwest Dallas into the Great Trinity Forest in Southern Dallas.

We're talking about two years from now, max. Imagine that you live in an apartment somewhere near Mockingbird Station, at Central Expressway and Mockingbird. You jump on your bike, ride a short distance to the top of the Katy Trail, take the Katy three and a half miles down to the West End, then jump over the levee and find yourself on a trail along the river.

Oh, man, it's hot out! You're dry! You're dusty! What are we going to do for you? Does the city need to bring in a hot-and-dusty consultant to do a master plan for a food pavilion requiring $40 million in bond funds and a seven-year build-out?

Could do that. Or, as Hunt suggests, we get some of those Hispanic pushcart guys down there to sell paletas, the Mexican fruit popsicles. Those guys could make money off the bike riders, soccer players, kite flyers, escapees from the jail and whoever else is down there.

We spend no money. Starts tomorrow.

Remember a key point about this whole idea: In terms of how this will affect your actual day-to-day life in Dallas, this will be way bigger than any other single thing the city of Dallas has done ever. It will change living in Dallas from an all-indoors, air-conditioned, drinking and shopping experience to a life with its own entirely unique and very gnarly outdoor aspect.

And this huge change will be brought about by a project that will be deliberately small and quick.

"This is the direction the city needs to start going," Griggs told me, "going from big plans with long horizons to small projects."

Hunt and Griggs think their idea is so low-impact that it won't stir up any political controversy. Me, I'm not as cheery a person as they are. I fully anticipate that some people in Dallas will oppose this idea precisely because it is not expensive enough and does not involve a foreign architect, therefore making people in the great capitals of the world think we're poor.

But I would love to be wrong.

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