From the People Who Brought Us Dallas' Fake Rapids, Collapsing Concrete Trails

The city's new concrete thoroughfare through the buckeyes is collapsing into the Trinity River already, which is probably a good thing, as long as they don't rebuild it.
The city's new concrete thoroughfare through the buckeyes is collapsing into the Trinity River already, which is probably a good thing, as long as they don't rebuild it.
Ben Sandifer
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At some point after Dallas recovers from the current crisis of life-threatening 40-degree temperatures and snow dustings, work should begin on removing the fake kayak rapids that the city built in the Trinity River near downtown in 2011 at a cost of $4 million. And our struggle to figure out exactly where we are on the planet shall continue.

Oh, sorry, no, I didn’t mean to say the removal will cost $4 million. That was the cost of building the fake kayak rapids in the first place in the middle of the Trinity River near downtown in 2011. This year’s removal, which will be only partial, will cost a mere $2 million.

Apparently, a full removal to restore the river to its condition before construction of the fake kayak rapids would have cost two to three times the mere $2 million. So you can see that the partial removal, which will leave large, jagged gobs of steel-reinforced concrete in the river until Mother Nature gets angry enough to tear them out, is quite a savings. I didn’t want you to get the impression your tax dollars were being ill spent.

Why did the city build a fake kayak rapids in the middle of the Trinity River in 2011? It’s really hard to find anybody at City Hall who wants to talk about that now.

My memory, perhaps snow-dusted by time at this point, is that a group of wealthy Park Cities women were vacationing in Colorado and saw a fake kayak rapids in a city there. They were chagrined to think that we didn’t have any in Dallas, kind of the same way I feel about Lake Superior.

This was back when we were commissioning multiple suspension bridges across the meek expanse of the Trinity because people traveling to Spain had seen wonderful bridges there designed by Santiago Calatrava, and … the chagrin thing again. Ah, those were the days.

Now, of course, we have two Calatrava suspension bridges across the river, one a total fake like a Hollywood movie set and the other one iffy, both of them raising the question that must come to the mind of anyone who stands on the Trinity River levee and looks across. Why suspend? Why not just roll up your pants?

The bridges may be absurdly over-grand for a muddy flatland alluvial river, but at least they are minimally functional. So far, cars and trucks have been able fly across the new Calatrava bridges without falling off.

The same cannot be said for the fake kayak rapids, which had to be closed for lawyer reasons the very same day they opened. Early test runs by some courageous canoeists proved that the fake kayak rapids were so ill conceived, so poorly designed and badly built that they actually functioned like a giant version of those in-sink garbage disposers that are sometimes made by InSinkErator. In a rueful reference to the young people who enjoyed canoeing that part of the river before this massive peril was installed, I called the fake whitewater feature “the Cub-Scout-Erator.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the city the fake kayak rapids had to be removed because the Trinity, by law, must be navigable, and people could not navigate the fake rapids without risking getting Cub-Scout-Erated. City Hall’s first comeback — and, please, I am not making this up; it’s history — was to suggest to the Corps that it ask Congress to change the law so the Trinity would no longer be deemed to be a navigable river. I said at the time it was kind of like blocking a public highway with your wrecked doublewide trailer and then, rather than cleaning up your trailer, asking your congressman to get that stretch of road declared no longer a public highway. Not exactly civic-minded.

Anyway, the Corps blew that off with barely a shrug. I’m convinced that at regional Corps of Engineers Christmas parties, attendees do skits based on things Dallas has requested.

Finally, Dallas had to agree to make the river navigable again, so, rather than do the right thing and clean it up, the city will begin work this spring cutting out just enough concrete and rebar to let the Cub Scouts through with only minor bruising. But I’m afraid I have a bit more bad news.

The same crew of city engineers who brought us the fake kayak rapids has been busy, of course, building other things along the river because that is their work. I’m afraid this does not get better.

One of the original discoveries that spurred the preservation of the Great Trinity Forest along the river was the 1.6-mile Texas Buckeye Trail at the foot of Bexar Street in the Bonton neighborhood in southern Dallas. In the 1990s, when city officials were still insisting the Trinity River bottoms held nothing but trash trees and tire dumps, the late great pioneering environmentalist Ned Fritz started leading groups on spring hikes to a gorgeous stand of blooming buckeye trees near the river’s east bank.

Fritz, a lawyer, was an environmental visionary but also a battle-scarred political tactician. He knew that every person who stood in that fragrant grove, every eye and heart opened to its beauty, was at least another vote and probably a new activist for saving the 6,000 acres of forest looming all around the buckeyes.

Eventually, volunteers built a thin, gentle pathway through the forest from the levee to the buckeyes and the river just beyond. Walking it was less like treading on a trail than following Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs because the trail was built as much to protect the forest as to protect people’s shoes.

As Fritz’s team began to win more victories, especially when former City Council member Angela Hunt joined their cause, City Hall was forced to accept that the river had a significant voting constituency of defenders. But that acceptance was always so grudging, it seemed almost malevolent.

One manifestation was the Cub-Scout-Erator. By God, if they couldn’t cover up that damned river somehow, they were going to make it look like something they might see on their vacations. The other manifestation of this cruelty was the Buckeye Trail.

Elaborate paved approaches to the fake kayak rapids, which may or may not have been part of the $4 million construction cost, have long been lost beneath thick cakes of silt.EXPAND
Elaborate paved approaches to the fake kayak rapids, which may or may not have been part of the $4 million construction cost, have long been lost beneath thick cakes of silt.
Jim Schutze

Claiming that it was only doing what it was required to do by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the city built a massive concrete “trail,” actually a roadway, right in the heart of the buckeyes and up to the river’s bank. Think about it. The ADA didn’t require the federal government or the state of Arizona to build a concrete roadway graded to be wheelchair accessible down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

There is no concrete ADA-compliant roadway along the banks of the Buffalo River in Arkansas. But we have a concrete roadway and a concrete “lookout” over the river where Fritz once led visitors to discover the hushed splendor of nature.

Or we did. Now, as naturalist Ben Sandifer revealed on his Facebook page last weekend, we have the same thing on the city’s buckeye roadway that exists at the Cub-Scout-Erator — barricades and signs with lawyer words warning that only “authorized persons” are allowed to approach the buckeyes.

Built by the same team of engineers who brought us the white water feature, the city’s ADA-compliant roadway is now collapsing into the river because it was built too near the river’s mighty erosive forces without enough support. Like the fake kayak rapids, it was designed and built by people who don’t know rivers.

“When it comes to these projects,” Sandifer told me, “there are a lot of people that vote for them. There is a lot of discussion.

“But when a project has enough votes to get through,” he said, “one thing they have to remember is that the river always gets a vote. That’s always the last vote, and it’s always the majority vote.

“The river gets 51 percent. Everybody else on the human side only gets 49 percent of it.”

Sandifer tells me that other city-built trails near the river are faring no better and for similar reasons: They are the work of civil engineers who may know how to build sidewalks and streets but know nothing of dealing with nature.

Along with tearing out the fake kayak rapids, another big item on the city’s agenda this spring will be some important decisions about how to approach a new city park on the banks of the Trinity downtown. The scary thing there is this: Mayor Mike Rawlings wants to turn all of those decisions over to a private entity made up entirely of the vacation-chagrin crowd that brought us the fake rapids and the make-believe suspension bridges.

Also working on ideas for a park is a group centered on Hunt. If we judge the two groups by their works, the difference should be easy to spot. It’s Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs (sighs of wonder) versus the Buckeye Interstate (roar, sploosh, oh nooo).

Me, I’m not having a hard time making up my mind.

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