For now, let’s pretend for a minute that nobody wants to build an expressway on top of the Trinity River through downtown Dallas. For the sake of argument, let’s just pick up that naughty little gnome of an idea by the ears and plunk it down in the center of a Park Cities koi pond. Maybe when we come back, those big, fat fish will have eaten it.
Let’s talk about the river itself, absent all the bitter battling about highway projects. Say there is no highway project. Do you still want the river?
I’m serious. If it were just the river sitting there, would you want it? Can you imagine waking up Saturday morning and thinking, “Man, I need to get downtown and do me some good Trinity River time.” Whatever. Kayak. Fishing pole. Wading with the kids, everybody in matching hazmat suits.
And that’s it, isn’t it? The idea that the Trinity River is a sewer. As for fishing poles, for example, you can go ahead and do that, but the state has made it clear on several occasions that decades must pass before the chemicals in the river can break down enough to make eating a fish caught there safe.
We think of it as a sewer because it is. We made it that way. In fact, for about a century that was what it was for, and treating it that way didn’t make us the Lone Ranger. We were just Americans, and the entire continent was our big, juicy hamburger, waiting for us to gulp it down and toss the wrapper to the ground.
For years I have tended to disparage most of the fancy-pants parks ideas for the river that emanate cyclically from City Hall — thank goodness they never have the money! — as merely pretentious, like we have to stick something fancy down there because we’re just goofy. But now I don’t think that’s it. I’m not even sure we can still blame it all on rich people, and I can’t tell you how much it pains me not to be able to blame stuff on rich people when I feel like it. It’s kind of like the river: I always thought that was what rich people were for.
Now I think almost everybody — rich, poor and in the middle — has a fairly fixed idea that the Trinity River, absent all other issues and taken entirely on its own, naked and alone on its narrow strip of prairie between the flood-control levees, sucks. Smells bad. Makes your toenails fall off. Has dead people in it. Hot. Snakes. Chiggers. Zombies. Now tell us again about that park you wanted us to go to there? Tell us about that quality Trinity River time we’re going to be spending Saturday mornings?
A lot of the impulse to put fancy things on top of the river may be an expression less of mere pretentiousness than of horror. Please, cover it up with something. If you’re going to make us go down there, pile as much expensive architecture on top of it as you can, so we’ll have something to walk on. And how about some nose plugs? And how about you go and we’ll stay home?
I know this much is true: If you and I were to stand atop the levees downtown and gaze out upon the glistening, dubiously tinged back of the mighty Trinity River, both of us might have a hard time imagining it as a thing of beauty. Depending on your experience, I may have a slight edge on you there because I have canoed the river with Charles Allen, the river’s patron saint and protector to whom a statue must be erected one day. If you are lucky enough to have done the same thing or something like it, then you may also have a feel for the mighty power and dignity buried in the river.
Whatever. Right now, we can agree that it sucks. And we can agree that knowing how to fix that won’t be easy. Neither you nor I am likely to be the owner of the whole answer.
A certain very broad convergence seems to be taking place around the power of the river to achieve its resurgence and rebirth once we stop trying to kill it. We are still pouring pollution into it from subpar upstream suburban sewage treatment plants, from point-source pollution and from a travesty of residential runoff. Choking it with trash and poison, then trying to rouge the corpse with architecture: That doesn’t seem like a very sustainable long-range plan, does it?
The ideas that former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt has been promoting — the shorthand is “re-wilding the river” — are built on two concepts. One, to the extent possible, we get out of the river’s way. Every little chance we get, we try not to pile something new on top of it, tempting though that may be. Two, we unchain the great natural force of the river. We allow the river to wash away the insults and heal itself according to its timeless wisdom and power.
But this will still be Dallas. The question is still going to be why. What will we get out of it? And don’t say trails. It’s got to be better than that. Dallas is always going to want to see the money. The payoff from the Santiago Calatrava pretend-suspension bridge over the river, for example, has been substantial in terms of land values at the West Dallas end.
I happen to consider the bridge something of a knife in the heart because of the wave of gentrification it has set off in a poor part of the city, but I am well aware that my opinions put me in the minority. For most people in this city, any major commitment to the Trinity River has got to be premised on a return on investment that will be expressed in dollars.
Great. I’m all for that. In fact, that’s the piece we should have been talking about for the last several years, because the evidence for a return on investment from river parks is so massive. A nonprofit called Riverlife did an economic impact study two years ago in which it summed up the impact on adjacent land values of river park projects in Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Atlanta and Boston. And, yes, I know that most economic impact studies have the intrinsic value of personal tissue paper. But this one seemed to be based on solid, publicly available numbers. It found that in the three- to four-year period after each park opened, the adjacent land increased in value from 24 percent to 49 percent.
A more sophisticated study of Hudson River Park in Manhattan stripped out the inflation in land value that was happening anyway, with or without the park, in order to determine the amount of increase attributable solely to the park. It found a delta attributable to the park alone of up to 26 percent in increased value for adjacent land, and it found that the park premium increases over time. In other words, the park adds even more value to adjacent property as the park ages and becomes better known.
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The concept of a park premium has been a central aspect of the criticism leveled by philanthropist Don Williams at the mayor’s plans for turning over Fair Park in South Dallas to a private entity. Fair Park exercises the opposite of a premium effect on adjacent land. The closer one gets to Fair Park, the lower the land values are. Williams, the retired CEO of what was the world’s biggest real estate company when he ran it, has been insisting that it’s crazy to talk about doing anything with Fair Park until we’re sure we will reverse that value effect and make land near the park worth more, not less.
That should be one of the important tests for the Trinity River as well. And for this purpose, we should rescue that little gnome of an idea for a highway and plunk it down for comparison, too. What plan for the river will have the greatest power to strengthen downtown? A highway? A park? What kind of park?
I already told you: I don’t believe I own that answer. I suspect it will be closer to Hunt’s formula — harnessing the natural self-restorative power of the river by creating as natural and low-maintenance a park as possible. But I also tip my hat reluctantly to the bridge. Certainly the bridge demonstrates that doing something down there, even something goofy, can pay off dramatically.
The one thing that doesn’t pay off is you and me standing here on the levee with clothespins on our noses, hoping somebody will put some concrete over the river. With shopping. No matter how much shopping we put on top of it, the river is still going to be down there, rumbling beneath our feet, hugely powerful and restless. Better to own that power and, sure, maybe also make a buck off it in the local tradition.