Oh, Great, Now We Have to Do Oversight for the Trinity River Oversight Committee

Different things can set off my paranoid tendencies, especially a room full of people who look like Masonic Illuminati who parked their black helicopters out back. That’s pretty much how I was feeling last week when I sat down to a white-linen table setting in the Fairmount Hotel ballroom — the 15th annual luncheon of “Trinity Commons.”

This is all about a 19-year-old stalled plan to build an underwater expressway next to the Trinity River downtown. In almost two decades of wrangling, public opinion has turned pointedly away from building an unneeded flood-prone expressway that will cut off downtown from the river and toward creating a grand urban park in its place.

Trinity Commons is one of two private entities created by the road-building crowd to stave off that grand park idea while the roadies try to get their $2-3 billion deal put together, which they have not yet been able to do so far because the public has better things to do with its billions.

What on earth was I doing at their luncheon? Well, that’s a fair question, and I will answer it, but you could have said, “We’re so glad they didn’t stuff you into a helicopter, Jim.” And I was fine. I was actually there for the second year in a row.

Once again this year, Bill Weinberg, a lawyer and member of the board of Trinity Commons, invited a disparate but very involved crowd to sit at his table and hear the mayor’s spiel. Among anti-toll road people at the table were former City Council member and author of the failed 2007 referendum to kill the road, Angela Hunt, and her successor on the council, Philip Kingston. Even though I trust Trinity Commons about as far as I could throw it, I have to assume Weinberg, for one, believes the best policy is hands on the table and a clean deal of the deck for all.

Trinity Commons (a sort of faux-Brit name for a group whose real name, according to tax records, is Trinity River Commission Foundation, Inc) always postures itself as a kind of nature-lovers association. OK, before the mayor’s spiel starts I’m eyeing Kingston’s cunning little bag of chocolate balls by his plate, wondering if he wants them or could I take them with me to possibly give to a needy child should I encounter one before they grow stale, and I look down at my program for the luncheon.

It’s all right here. I can hear the black helicopters revving. Major sponsors of the luncheon include AECOM (“Built to deliver a better world”); Huitt-Zollars (“Transportation | Highways and Bridges”); CH2MHill (“Moving people and goods, connecting communities and advancing global commerce”); Halff Associates (“Halff’s full-service transportation engineers provide excellence from project start to finish”); even Herb’s Paint and Body Shops (“Nobody does bodies better”). It goes on and on, but you get the idea.

So these guys are all here because they’re nature lovers? You know what else I notice? Among the sponsors of the Trinity Commons luncheon, I do not see Antonio DiMambro + Associates, Inc.; Hargreaves Associates; Aspect Studios; T.R.O.P. terrains + open space; Gustafson Guthrie Nichol; Martha Schwartz Partners; Richard Weller; Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.; Turenscape.

Those are all world-famous park designers. I don’t see any world-famous park-designers here in the sponsor list for the luncheon at all. Just world-class freeway builders.

A bit of backstory from last year’s Trinity House of Lords black helicopter party: Some months before last year’s luncheon, the mayor sponsored a “charette.” Related to a charade, a charette is a gathering of fee-based experts who have been paid to come to a certain foregone conclusion but act like it’s their own idea. In this case, some of the charettioteers were legitimate authorities like Canadian urban planner Larry Beasley and Harvard professor Alex Krieger, while others were of the sort I call, non-judgmentally, “architects of the night.” 

At last year’s luncheon, the mayor’s charette team announced its finding that a road next to the river could be built as a beautiful little park road with “meanders,” but should also be built on a great big earthen platform designed for an expressway. The question at the time was why on earth, if you’re going to build a delicate little park road with meanders, would you put it up on a massive dirt bench built for a freeway?
The fear – and source of paranoia on my part – was that this was all some kind of typical, charetty, group-therapy, consultantized, mind-gaming, Masonic, Illuminatoid, cheap magic trick by Mike Rawlings, the Great Meandro!, so that they could go ahead and build their damned expressway while we suckers were still sleeping it off. I think we should always worry about what happens when we sleep.

It took some pushing at the time, but finally Mayor Rawlings was persuaded to appoint an eight-person citizens oversight committee to look at all of the technical plans for the parkway.  The co-chairs of the committee were former North Texas Tollway Authority chairman Jere Thompson, who is a pro-road Illuminatoid, and Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson, a strong ally of Hunt in the 2007 anti-road referendum campaign.

Half of the committee was made up of strong pro-roadies, but the other four were equally strong critics of the road idea, including Hunt, who is now sitting across the table from me, also with a bag of chocolate balls that I am thinking she may not want.

The thing I thought we were all here to hear about at this year’s luncheon was the findings of the Committee of Eight — what they have decided about the technical specs. Is it really going to be an innocent little country lane? Or did the technical specs betray its true nature as a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Before the luncheon, however, I was not exactly encouraged by the reaction I got from Greyson when I asked her for a preview. She said, “You know we’re not allowed to talk about that.”

Not allowed? Really? Not allowed?

So finally the mayor begins speaking, and my paranoia gets worse. It’s sort of hard to tell at first what he’s even talking about (probably sending signals to the Masons). Eventually he meanders into the subject matter I came here to hear.

“Today I can confidently say that we are closer than we have ever been to a park and a parkway plan that will unite us rather than divide us. But we’re not there yet. We have work yet to be done.”

There’s a whole lot of blah-blah about all the wonderful things they have accomplished in the last 20 years, like the fact that last year when the levee system flooded nobody drowned. Sure, OK, but they haven’t built the road yet. So hardly a test.

“What about this trust issue?” the mayor asks. My ears prick up, because, yeah, what about it?

“Too many of us have felt like we were Charlie trying to kick the ball,” he says.

That is definitely code of some kind, because I can’t assign any other meaning to it. Am I Charlie? Or the ball? I’m wondering if now is the moment to grab everybody’s chocolate and run.

The mayor promises that the findings of the committee, a final report on their work and the work of another committee of technical experts will be published on March 21.  And then he sits down. Wait, that's it? That's what the white tablecloths and the chocolate balls were for? 

Nah. Something has happened. I can tell you what this means. The citizens committee was supposed to have finished its work by now. It was already supposed to have made the sign of the cross over the specifications for the road, and Mayor Rawlings was supposed to use this year’s luncheon to announce world peace.

It didn’t happen. Something is wrong. They’ve hit some snag.

I can’t get anybody to tell me that, but I have been watching this stuff for a long time, and I can read the body language. Something is going on with that committee, something that cheated the mayor of this big moment.

In no way do I mean to suggest or imply any level of mistrust or paranoia about Hunt, Greyson or the other road skeptics on the committee. What I’m about to say I state merely as fact, an observation of the obvious.

Nothing that committee finally says can be taken at face value. I can hear them deep in the mountain, their little elfin hammers and chisels ringing on hard rocks, and that discordant music tells me we will all have to wash and scour and closely examine every single thing they hand us up from their grubby paws when they emerge.

They are working on some kind of compromise. Compromise is a fine thing, if you’re trying to save your marriage. But the answers we must look for in this case will be hard technical facts. Do the final specs for the road, the drawings, tell us it’s going to be a sweet little lane with meanders? Or is it going to be a big fat honking freeway that will destroy forever the dream of a vast urban park along the river?

I finally just asked Kingston for his chocolates. He said, “Take them.” Finally, an answer that didn’t arouse my suspicions.

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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