So maybe I pulled a small deception on Ben Sandifer when I called him, something I did not fully disclose at the time. Or really disclose at all. But now I will.
Sandifer, a somewhat reclusive person or at least one who does not actively seek the limelight, has emerged in spite of himself as the informal champion of citizen activists who care about the Trinity River, who worry what’s happening to it as the city clumsily pursues its 20-year-old, benighted and very discombobulated Trinity River project to rebuild the entire span of the river that reaches through downtown and southern Dallas.
He’s a 6th generation Texan, an accountant by profession. He began exploring the river bottoms some years ago, often by bicycle. He garnered accolades first for award-winning photographs capturing the area’s natural beauty.
Almost against his will, I think, Sandifer got dragged into a series of tough fights with the city as he and other naturalists caught the city committing depredations against nature in order to build a golf course, a dressage horse park and even a fake white water feature in the river that turned out to be little more than an ugly threat to navigation.
My agenda in calling him? I called him because I was thinking about this latest goofball plan announced by the mayor by which a bunch of socialites are going to spend a million dollars (their own money) for another raft of plans for how to design the park between the two new fake suspension bridges downtown.
What’s wrong with that idea, you ask, if it’s their money? Two things. It’s not their park. It’s ours. And as the anonymous wise man and civic guru “Wylie H” pointed out on Facebook the other day, we’ve already got a plan for that. It’s been on the books for years.
What’s wrong with more plans, you ask? Everything. Everything is wrong with more plans. We’ve already got 1,000 chefs in this kitchen and no restaurant-owner. The reason the city keeps making terrible mistakes is that no one is in charge of the overall deal. At the very least the project needs a hall monitor. What it really needs is a czar.
Ben Sandifer. Yeah. He should be the czar. But I didn’t tell him that’s why I was calling. I just asked him a bunch of wide-eyed innocent questions about what’s wrong with this project. After all, we were supposed to see the Trinity River bottoms turned into one of the world’s great urban parks, the Central Park of Dallas, and that was supposed to have happened 10 years ago. And all we have down there is a mess.
We just chatted. I asked him how things were going. He said not so good.
“It’s been about one year since they [the city] promised to do a lot better job with stewardship of the land,” Sandifer told me. “Unfortunately with the new projects that have come in, the heavy hand of construction is still continuing down there, whether they’re taking out too many trees or whatever. The covenants that were established just don’t hold a lot of water. It’s business as usual down there.”
I asked for an example. He told me about the “Joppa Connector,” a bike trail they’re working on.
“This past spring a contractor bulldozed down a bunch of bur oak trees,” he said. “I had emailed and spoken with a number of people and copied a number of people on the emails. I sent some to Willis Winters, who’s the head of parks and recreation, about preserving the growth of bur oak trees.”
To no avail.
“When the day came to clear a path to build the actual trail, instead of being real minimalist and conservative, they say they accidentally bulldozed down all the trees.”
Instead of a sensitively designed bike trail, carved shrewdly through the forest to avoid maiming nature, what they are building, he said, is a “runway big enough to land a Cessna on.” Perhaps that should not be surprising, since the people involved in the actual construction are highway builders.
“They had private consultants they had hired from Halff Associates and Freese and Nichols, all these guys that are heavily involved in the [Trinity] toll road project and everything, just to work on this small little bicycle bridge project.”
We say “they,” I noted. Who are they? Who from the city?
“The same guys who were in charge of the standing wave project, which is that whitewater project, the same two or three project managers are in charge of this big Joppa Connector project.”
Oh, man! I’ve been looking for those guys for years! I sent Willis Winters public information act demands years ago asking for their names, which he illegally ignored. Who are they?
Sandifer suavely brushed off my question, unwilling, I guess, to rat them out even though he has problems with their work. See! Czar-like!
He did tell me what it was like working with them: “I went out in the field with them before the first shovelful of dirt was turned on that Joppa Trail connector. We walked the whole trail, the whole thing. We looked at every single tree. They showed me exactly what was going to happen. I came away from it feeling pretty good, that everything was going to go the right way. And then in less than 90 days it was all screwed up.”
We talked a little about the mayor’s new socialite plan for the area between the Maggies (two fake suspension bridges named for socialite ladies named Margaret). He said it was an issue of piling plans on plans and losing the center.
“I kind of thought the masterplan for the park in that area was already brought out long ago. I thought it was just a matter of moving forward, hiring construction guys to do the work and then, you know, do it. So when they say they’re going to spend a million dollars on consultants to look at this, I thought, ‘Well, jeez, at the end of the day all we’re going to get are some more of those fancy watercolor renderings.’"
I tried to ask him in a sneaky way what a sort of czarish-type person, an overlord, a master builder might do to smooth the way. He told me part of what needs to be done is to take all of the players out into the river bottom and show them physically how their own pet projects engage with what other people want to see done.
“I would take them to this place of profound beauty that’s real delicate, that has 10 feet high hibiscuses, beaver dams and a bunch of rare birds from South America that are down there at this time of year. I would tell them, ‘Your group wants to build a concrete bike trail over this, pave it. Do you really think this is the best use of land that’s basically pure unspoiled untouched wilderness?’”
I asked him what a sort of czar-like individual might find most worrisome about the way the project is being carried out now.
“I have had lunch this past summer with the head of every nonprofit I could find,” he said. “I called them all up and said, ‘Let’s go do lunch.’ I had lunch with all of them.
“I said, ‘Where is this all going in five years or whenever the money runs out? Who is in charge of doing the maintenance? Where is the money going to be to clean up all this stuff after a big flood?’
“It’s all question marks from them. There needs to be an exit strategy pretty soon for what we are left with when the money runs out.
“You look down there and this isn’t much of a park yet. Where is the park part? People say, ‘I want to go down there and do park stuff like White Rock Lake.’ Where is the nation’s big Central Park? Where is it? I’m just not seeing it yet.
“It’s concerning me a little bit, because there is a lot of stuff I would like to see completed down there.”
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Like what, I asked? How would you have it come out, if you were, I don’t know, like the “czar” or something?
“I think you could find a really good balance between nature, recreation, conservation and preservation down there, where you could really take a lot of the real interesting parts of the Trinity River and make them a showcase place that would really put Dallas on the map.
“There are pockets, special areas that are really special, that would compete with any other venue in the Hill Country or East Texas.”
Doesn’t he sound like the perfect czar? Wait. I’m weak on European history. Whatever happened, exactly, to the real czar?