You may not believe this. I can’t do anything but tell you. The same people who brought us the absurd and embarrassing $6 million fake kayak rapids fiasco in the Trinity River, the folks who brought us the $115 million bicycle bridge that’s too dangerous to use, the same social and political set of people who caused this city to waste 20 years and $200 million on a toll road on top of the river that was never even capable of being built: exactly this same crowd of people is now engaged in an elaborate park project on the river downtown that is about to hit the same wall for all of the same reasons their previous incredibly stupid projects did.
Their new project, like every single one of the previous ones, will not work on the river. The Trinity River downtown is a dangerous floodway in the center of a part of the continent called “Tornado Alley.” It was exactly the wrong place to put an over-complicated roller-coaster freeway. The kayak thing was such a life-threatening disaster the city had to shut it down the same week the goofy socialite nincompoops who sponsored it held a party to congratulate themselves for getting it built (with taxpayer money, of course). The $115 million bike bridge can’t be opened because it keeps getting blown apart by high winds.
Now this. This new thing with the river park is just boggling. According to Andrew Quicksall, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at SMU, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which more or less owns the river, informed a group of local sponsors of the park at a meeting last month that their plans are not going to happen.
“The design, by the interpretation of the Corps, was a no-go,” Quicksall, a member of the group overseeing the river corridor, said in a verbal report to his board.
That’s breathtaking. I reported on the design for the park last December. It was presented at a typical over-the-top fashionable event in which huge silk screens were arrayed around a vast room depicting a kind of New York Central Park knockoff. The design was by — who else? — a famous New York architect, and the park in the pictures looked like — what else? — New York. It was just what a certain kind of person keeps wishing Dallas could be.
Judging by what Quicksall and another member of the Trinity River Corridor Local Government Corporation or “LGC” told their own board, their recent meeting with the Corps sounds like it was an abrupt slap-down. “There was a level of surprise,” Quicksall reported to the LGC board. “There was a direction of the meeting going one way, and it was an about-face U-turn, and it went another way. And that’s no secret. Everyone here knows that.”
The LGC was headed by real estate developer Mike Ablon until he resigned to run for mayor in the current election.
Brent Brown, executive director of the Trinity Park Conservancy, the private group raising money for the park, denied at the same LGC board meeting that the Corps had said anything like “no-go.” Brown said the issues raised by the Corps were typical in what he called the “iterative process” of getting a big project done. Brown pointed out that the park project is only at 10 percent of completion, and he urged that all of the Corps’ objections will be met and satisfied eventually.
In a later conversation with me, Brown and several of his staff members repeated the same things Brown had told the LGC and said it would be inaccurate to characterize the project as hitting a wall. But when Brown told the LGC board that the Corps’ objections to the Michael Van Valkenburgh design were minimal, Quicksall and another LGC board member who had been present at the meeting with the Corps pushed back. They said they didn’t think the problems were minimal at all.
LGC board member Linda Owen said, “I heard what Andrew heard.”
I must give Brown credit for calling me back and answering my questions, but I can’t help smelling some of the same process that fell into place when the Trinity toll road project began to fray at the edges. The Corps, which hates getting into hot water with what it calls its “local partners,” gave me a response that was Trinity-toll-road-shmoozola all over again.
I asked the Corps if its problems with the Valkenburgh design have to do with hydrology, the flow of water between the levees downtown. The Corps’ principal responsibility in the river is to protect the city from anything that would increase the risk of a disastrous flood. The city resisted doing anything to correct the flood risks posed by the kayak thing so stubbornly and for so long that the Corps at one point had to threaten to cut off the city’s entire water supply to force Dallas to get rid of it.
But the Corps wasn’t about to tell me what’s going on with the new park project. Spokesman Clayton Church wrote to me: “The Fort Worth District has had preliminary meetings with City of Dallas representatives concerning several courses of action with recreation features within the Dallas Floodway. We have not received an official request from the city so would be premature for us to comment on any of the courses of action which have been proposed. The Dallas Floodway System continues to function as designed providing flood risk management for the citizens of Dallas.”
That may sound innocuous enough to you, but it’s a red cape waved before people who went through the toll road battle and the kayak thing and who are even now trying to straighten out the bicycle bridge boondoggle. This is what happens. When these things start to go wrong, everybody involved goes dark, and the Corps is so averse to public controversy that it winds up helping them hide.
City Council member and mayoral candidate Scott Griggs, who is running on an anti-boondoggle platform, said the bland assurances that all is well, combined with a stern code of silence on real problems, are what the public faced in trying to learn what was really going on with the toll road. “This is exactly what we heard for years from (former mayor Tom) Leppert and the rest of them about the toll road,” he said.
Griggs pointed out that the Trinity Park Conservancy is a new, marginally different iteration of the group, now disbanded, that called itself the Trinity Trust. The Trinity Trust was the private lobbying arm of the social and political crowd, based largely in the affluent enclave communities of Highland Park and University Park, that pushed for the failed toll road project for 20 years.
“They said, ‘Oh, the Corps has already approved all of it, and the money’s already there.’ Those were lies. Now both lies are back. It’s the same crowd. They just reformed the Trinity Trust into the Trinity Park Conservancy, and they are lying. They are lying.”
Over the last weekend, one of the people I talked to about this turn of events was former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, who led the successful effort that finally shut down the toll road project. I wasn’t taking notes when we spoke, so I can’t quote her word for word. I asked her a sincere question that had been bedeviling me ever since last week when I first saw video of the LGC meeting where Professor Quicksall had his wonderful moment of candor (will there ever be another?).
I asked her why in the world Michael Van Valkenburgh, the architect, and Brown, the executive director, and all of the city staff involved in planning for this park would not have gone to the Corps of Engineers first and asked them if building a Central Park knockoff with fake hills was a good idea in the Trinity River floodway. The Van Valkenburgh firm flew all kinds of staff to Dallas for that big “reveal” with the silk screens last December. Hunt, who has years of experience with public presentations like that one, said the silk screens and the food and the rest of it all had to be terribly expensive. She said everywhere she looked she saw dollar signs.
She has watched just this same kind of show, when various consultants were flying in from Vancouver and New York and San Francisco to tout the Trinity toll road, for a long time. She said she knows exactly why the consultants and the architects and the executive directors don’t ask the Corps first before they build a kayak thing or a wobbly bicycle bridge or design a park with fake hills in the floodway.
They don’t, she said, because in each and every one of those cases, had the consultants asked first, the answer would have been no, and that would have been the end of the gravy train.
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For all their cringing reticence, the Corps of Engineers and the private project engineers have certain lawful mandates from which they cannot escape, things for which they will be held accountable eventually, like disastrous floods and bridges falling down. So there comes a point each time when they have to say no.
Hunt said she has come to believe that the consultant class knows all of that better than most of us. They know what not to ask in order to keep that train running down the tracks as long as possible.
I think she’s right. After all, that was one of the lessons of Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Afterward, the civil engineers all said they had known long ahead of time that Katrina would happen. But saying something like that is never a good way to get work.
It’s why you hear anger and outrage in the voices of Hunt and Griggs. They know all too well how this stuff works and why it keeps happening. Apparently it’s happening again. Believe it or not.