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Imagine Fair Park Without the Fair

I got it. I have the big idea for Fair Park. Really. Not kidding. Let me tell you how I got there.

Mayor Mike Rawlings called and took me to task recently for suggesting in a blog item that his commission on repurposing Fair Park was a secret. He pointed out that he had announced its creation when he set it up.

The idea behind it is both urgent and simple. Fair Park, originally 80 acres developed for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, is now 277 acres in which the park itself is sort of a doughnut hole surrounded by fat parking lots. An attempt at starting up a summer amusement park there last summer was a dismal failure.

The park is enormously popular during the annual run of the State Fair of Texas, usually about three and a half weeks in the fall, but during the rest of the year Fair Park looks and feels desolate and abandoned, whether it is literally or not.

The mayor's commission reflects a thought that seems to occur cyclically to thoughtful people, that there must be something better Dallas could do with that much public land.

As far as I can tell, the thinking so far has leaned heavily toward doing something that would emulate the city's dramatically successful new Klyde Warren Park, built on a 5.2-acre deck over a freeway at the north end of downtown. It's easy to see why thinking might lean that way. Since its opening just a year and a half ago, Klyde Warren's wild success has disproved all of the doubters and naysayers who said it would never work, and that would include ... let's see, I'm looking around ... looking around ... it would include ... oh, yeah, me. When I'm wrong, I sure am wrong.

But I do want to point out what may be an important difference between Klyde Warren and Fair Park. Klyde Warren consists of all kinds of miniaturized attractions jammed into a relatively itty-bitty space, surrounded on four sides and underneath by automobiles. Fair Park is a comparatively vast space, and we should wonder if its simple vastness may not be the defining characteristic on which we should build dreams of its future.

Peter Harnik, author of the 2010 book Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities and director of the national Center for City Park Excellence, generously called me back recently and agreed to talk about Fair Park, of which he seemed to have a certain amount of knowledge. In trying to imagine what could be done with Fair Park, he went immediately to its size, suggesting Fair Park could become a realm unto itself, separated and sheltered from cars and traffic.

"Could Fair Park become more of a [New York City] Central Park, greener and more passive, not necessarily having to have super high-density activities?" he wondered.

"You would need something more natural and human. My biggest problem with Fair Park is that it's overwhelmingly devoted to parking. Between the cars and the buildings, there is hardly any park at Fair Park."

While we spoke I was standing in one of those new super gas stations in the suburbs trying to decide between seven different kinds of cappuccino while 18-wheeler trucks glided by outside the gas station's glittering cathedral-high windows. I had to focus for a moment to even imagine what he was talking about.

A world of trees, streams and shadowed pathways. No cars or trucks at all. Walkers and people on bikes. An entire world apart.

Harnik was talking about Hermann Park in Houston and Piedmont Park in Atlanta. He mentioned Forest Park in St. Louis. Oh, Forest Park. That name pinged my heart. My grandparents used to walk me into Forest Park when I was a little boy to see the monkey shows at the zoo, which probably involved behind-the-scenes monkey torture, but, man, those monkeys could ride bikes. In my child's mind Forest Park was not a place but a world.

Couldn't Fair Park be a world and not a place? It's big enough, isn't it?

But then Harnik punctured my balloon. "To be honest, from my end, thinking as hard as I can while we are talking, I am not aware of any major, terrific, admired city park that does double duty as state fair grounds.

"Probably one of the most famous urban state fairs in the country is in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Minnesota State Fair," he said. "It's got probably everything you've got and maybe even more so. But during the rest of the year it's kind of a nothing park. It might technically be a park, but it's nothing that anybody would think about."

I wondered why. Can't you have a great state fair and a great urban park in the same place? He said no.

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