City Hall

Everything City Hall Builds on the Trinity Winds Up Behind Barricades

The city should erect bleachers around the demolition site where the "Whitewater Feature" is being demolished on the Trinity River so we can go down there and cheer.
The city should erect bleachers around the demolition site where the "Whitewater Feature" is being demolished on the Trinity River so we can go down there and cheer. Jim Schutze
My visit Tuesday to the great Dallas Whitewater Feature on the Trinity River confirmed an impression I have been developing for some time — a grand connecting theme in all of the architectural wonders brought to us by the city’s old guard leadership, from woodland trails to the great Margaret McDermott Bridge and now the manmade kayak rapids on the river two miles southeast of downtown.

Sooner or later, they all wind up with police barricades in front of them barring entrance.

Maybe we ought to think about that. The same people who created these barricaded public nuisances are busily at work trying to lock down their control over the entire reach of the river through downtown.

Really? How many police barricades can you have on your record before it’s time to seek another hobby — one no longer involving massive sums of public money?

“I think a central authority is necessary.” — Mark Lamster

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The Margaret McDermott Bridge, as we have discussed here too many times,  includes two free-standing arches designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The arches are decorative. Their entire contribution is to suspend two narrow bicycle lanes, one under each arch.

The bicycle lanes are barricaded with trespass warnings almost a year after their scheduled opening. The project engineer refuses to sign off on the arches’ basic safety, which, in bridges, usually has something to do with potentially falling down.

One of the lovely, modest, jealously shared secrets of the river for years was the Buckeye Trail, a narrow footpath winding from behind public housing in South Dallas across a field of wildflowers to a rare stand of native Texas buckeye trees on riverbanks still almost untouched by man. So the great idea of the old guard decorators was to ram a concrete “footpath” the size of a thoroughfare through there — the better not to muddy the red bottoms of one’s Christian Louboutin shoes, don’t you know.  A couple of rainy seasons and one good whipping by the river broke that mess up into chunks of concrete and rebar threatening to cave off into the river, so, of course, the barricades had to go up there as well.

Supposedly the purpose of these barricades is to protect the public, and I get that. But Tuesday when I walked past the barricades to observe the tear-out project going on at the fake kayak rapids — excuse me, the “Whitewater Feature” — I couldn’t help drawing another impression as well. At least as big a part of the purpose of the barricades, I believe, is to hide these various sins against nature from the public view.

Dallas is spending $2 million to partially demolish fake kayak rapids that the city built in the river in 2011 at a cost of $4 million, all of this in taxpayers' money. The fake kayak rapids had to be closed to boaters days after the feature's opening.

Teresa Patterson, an experienced and intrepid kayaker, almost killed herself demonstrating that the so-called safe bypass feature, designed to keep the river navigable for other boaters, was in fact a giant Cuisinart designed to devour Cub Scouts at normal flow levels of the river.

It took seven years and multiple ominous threats from federal officials — at one point they talked about cutting off of the city’s water — to force City Hall to acknowledge this gigantic mistake and agree to make it right. Given the sheer level of fiasco and public interest associated with the fake kayak rapids, I could see the city dealing with the tear-out quite differently.

If I were the city, I would erect public bleachers next to the tear-out site with adequate awnings for sun protection. I would hand out free popcorn and also give people those little noisemakers that you can whirl around on a stick to make a squealing sound. I would put cheerleaders down in front of the bleachers.

Every time the big claw reached down into the river and ripped loose another bite of that mess, the cheerleaders would all jump up and down and do cartwheels and encourage the people in the bleachers to make a joyful racket with their noisemakers. After all, the tearing out of the fake rapids is the most positive thing City Hall has done on the river in decades.

Needless to say, that was not the scene I found when I wandered down there on my lonesome Tuesday. I hadn’t been there long when a burly security boss of some kind got in my face and started telling me to clear out.  I’m not blaming that guy. He was doing his job. There were barricades. I walked past them.

He and I engaged in a brief debate in which I raised what I thought were significant constitutional issues and he described his military career. I don’t think they’ll be playing that one back for the students at the University of Michigan Law School. He won because I left. I won because I got my pictures. So be it.

click to enlarge A security person or construction  supervisor, name unknown, called his superiors to ask instructions when the Observer showed up without permission. - JIM SCHUTZE
A security person or construction supervisor, name unknown, called his superiors to ask instructions when the Observer showed up without permission.
Jim Schutze
They can’t tear out the whole thing. The official story is that it would cost too much. The real story is that they built the whitewater feature out of concrete and steel rebar that they piled on top of all kinds of other significant infrastructure beneath the river, pipes and so on. Now they can’t dig out the whole mistake without risking other, worse mistakes.

Again, here is the thing on which we must focus: The very same people who brought us all of these serial catastrophes are lobbying to be given singular, autocratic private control over the entire river so they can continue to come up with more projects emblematic of the very same culture, the anti-natural decorating culture.

To my great disappointment, the normally brilliant Mark Lamster, architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, had a piece in the paper Sunday talking about how important it is to remove control over the river from messy public input and place it instead under a single authority.

I was so upset when I read it that I messaged him right away and asked, “Is it your contention that a central authority to govern development of the river [between the levees] is essential? Is your nominee for that entity the LGC [local government corporation] recently created?”

He messaged me back: “I think a central authority is necessary.”

The local government corporation referenced in my message to Lamster is an outfit created by the Dallas City Council at the insistence of Mayor Mike Rawlings to oversee development of a new park on the river downtown. That park, to be called Simmons Park, is to be partially funded by a highly conditioned gift from the family of the late Harold Simmons, a billionaire speculator in radioactive waste dumps in West Texas.

Most of the conditions of the gift seem designed to deliver control over the park to the same set of wealthy patrons who brought us the barricade projects. And now, apparently with Lamster as their cheerleader, the Simmons Park people clearly are lobbying for exclusive control over the entire river bottom.

It so happens another group is pushing for a very different kind of land-use along the river, which they are calling “rewilding.” That concept is almost the opposite of the barricade projects: Instead of hiring rock-star architects from far away to come here and impose monuments to their own egos on the river, the rewilders would seek to discover what the river wants instead.

What plants would grow here, what birds would come, what mammals, how would the water settle itself if mankind did everything possible and within safety and reason to get out of the way? We know what human beings can build. Anything they want. But what if we had a window on what nature wants to build? What if that window were at the very heart of our city?

So, a year later, it’s just the collapsed walkways, downed trees and four-feet-high, hundred-foot-long drifts of foul-smelling silt that are problems. Otherwise, good to go.

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Lamster mentions me in his piece — main reason it caught my eye — gently taking me to task for things I wrote after Hurricane Harvey in Houston last year. I wrote some stuff warning against piling up manmade treasures in a flood zone.

Lamster focuses on the damage done to Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston and seems to suggest the park is fully recovered already, with a few exceptions: “… a bank failure collapsed one of the park's walkways, and it has yet to be repaired … trees along the waterline took an especially hard hit from collapsed and undermined banks … the most visible remnant of the storm are large banks of beige silt that washed down the bayou only to be dumped along its banks.”

So, a year later, it’s just the collapsed walkways, downed trees and 4-foot-high, hundred-foot-long drifts of foul-smelling silt that are problems. Otherwise, good to go.

Lamster suggests the problem at Buffalo Bayou wasn’t flooding anyway.

“The bank failures were not a product of the amount of flooding,” he says, “but of its duration: The prolonged period of submersion gradually undermined the fragile bank footings.”

Yes. But prolonged submersion and undermining: I think that’s what is commonly called “flooding.”

Even more notable in Lamster’s analysis is his theory for why so much of the Harvey damage has not yet been repaired and erased from Buffalo Bayou Park: “… to the extent that it hasn't,” he says, “it is a product of divided responsibilities.”

That’s the line I wrote him about because he seemed clearly to be drawing a parallel with the Trinity Park and the LGC. And, indeed, he confirmed that he was.

So the answer Lamster suggests for our river is a “central authority” made up of the same people responsible for the barricades in front of the Buckeye Trail, the Margaret McDermott Bridge and now the Dallas Whitewater (“Get Outta Here”) Feature. I think somebody’s been drinking too much Kool-Aid.
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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