City Hall

Time for Trinity Park Plan to Get Airborne or Give Up and Go Lay an Egg

The Trinity River has far grander things to offer future generations than man-made pergolas and fountains.
The Trinity River has far grander things to offer future generations than man-made pergolas and fountains. Scot Miller
Ahem. One hates to be Miss Penny Pinch-Pinch, but the deadline is now two weeks gone for the outfit in charge of the proposed fancy park on the Trinity River downtown to come up with about $150 million to pay for it.

They’ve had three years. One doesn’t see a check yet in one’s mailbox. And you know how one gets.

Part of the penny pinch here lies in the terms of the original gift. In 2016, when wealthy widow Annette Simmons promised to pay $50 million toward a full cost of $250 million for an elaborate new park in the Trinity River floodway downtown, she actually turned over only the first $10 million. The rest would flow, she said, if backers of the park mustered the rest of the $250 million by Sept. 15, 2019.

Right. Three weeks ago. No moolah.

Through an elaborate spider’s web of quasi-public and private corporate structure, the job of raising the moolah fell eventually into the lap of a group called the Trinity Park Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. I tried at the end of last week to reach Brent Brown, executive director of the conservancy, but my multiple efforts were a failure.

If I had to bet, I would guess no deadline really will be enforced, at least not yet. Simmons did not put a hard trigger in her conditions, only a requirement that she be personally satisfied she wouldn’t get stuck with the whole tab. She didn’t want everybody else at the table suddenly running off when the waiter shows up with the little black tray, which seems fair. I doubt she’s going to pull the plug right now just because the conservancy is maybe $100 million or so short of its share.

But here is the other, much more important part of the pinch. This project, well-intentioned as it may be, has become the new Trinity River toll road in terms of gumming up the works and boring people. Backed by the same people who wanted to build a new highway that would have been underwater a third of the year, the park is an iteration of that same unlikely thinking.


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The great thing at this point would be for everybody to shrug it off. Something could be done to honor Mrs. Simmons for her gift, and then we could move on. But we sort of can’t.

Because of the way the park plan was structured, with a lot of deliberate offshoring to shield it from public control, it’s just sort of sitting there on 200 acres in the center of downtown, a great undone thing that doesn’t seem to be getting done but prevents us from getting anything else done because it isn’t done yet. At least until something happens to break the logjam, we should change the name to Undone Park.

What else could be done, you ask? I had a wonderful conversation at the end of last week with landscape architect Kevin Sloan, who has been urging that the Trinity River and its urban tributaries offer Dallas an opportunity to become the global leader in re-wilding, now the fastest-growing trend in urban parks worldwide.

Re-wilding is not a program to return urban acres to a primeval natural state. Instead, it is a designed landscaping compromise aimed at creating spaces within cities that will help offset climate change and promote biodiversity. At least as important as that, re-wilded urban parks will help urban-dwelling humans comprehend the challenges facing the planet by connecting them with nature.

Some people have objected that the Trinity can’t be re-wilded because most of it through the city is a man-made channel. That’s silly. They just don’t know what re-wilding is. Chicago is building floating man-made islands to be re-wilded refuges, part of its “Wild Mile” project, on a walled urban river.

Europe has a continental re-wilding program. The U.K. has a national re-wilding director. The largest urban re-wilded park in Europe is Phoenix Park in Dublin, at 1,752 acres. The amount of land already approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and available for re-wilding along the Trinity River in Dallas is 2,300 acres.

Sloan sees re-wilding the Trinity as a chance for Dallas to live up to its brag, that gauche thing you see at the airport: “DALLAS, BIG THINGS HAPPEN HERE.” I look at people’s butts walking away from me out there sometimes and think, “No kidding.” But it’s what we say, so we might as well at least try to live up to it.

“Suddenly,” Sloan says, “Dallas lives up to its claims, where big things happen. ‘The Trinity River, Bigger than Phoenix Park in Dublin!’”

There are two key differences between the re-wilding concept for the Trinity and Simmons Park. The first is money. We already have the money for re-wilding.

Experts who have come here to look at the Trinity as a candidate for re-wilding have said the $47 million left over from the failed toll road scheme would more than pay the initial cost of re-wilding the river. And maintenance costs would be a fraction of what it will cost to dig the elaborate pergolas and fountains proposed for Simmons Park out of the silt after each year’s monsoon flood seasons on the Trinity.

The second may be even more significant in terms of feasibility. The re-wilding plan can be carried out entirely within the approvals already signed off on by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has final say over anything done within the floodway.

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Phoenix Park in Dublin, Ireland, the world's largest re-wilded park, would be dwarfed by a re-wilded Trinity River in Dallas.
Superchilum Wikipedia Commons
The Trinity Balanced Vision Plan, carried out 16 years ago under Mayor Laura Miller and approved by the corps, even includes elaborate lists of specific plants the corps has approved within the floodway, compatible, Sloan says, with re-wilding. That plan and the federal authorization supporting it were the product of a years-long approval process that cost millions of dollars.

Last April, the Trinity Park Conservancy and the city bureaucracy attached to it hit a big brick wall in their first meeting with the corps. According to people who were there, the corps said the Simmons Park plan is so extremely at odds with the approved Balanced Vision Plan that it would require starting over from scratch. Starting over from scratch, in case you wondered, would mean more years of approval process and more millions of dollars in new studies.

I had to wonder at the time if the people at the corps may not feel the way I do about the Trinity at this point, the way I think a lot of people do. That would be irritated, exasperated and, quite frankly, just bored.

“Suddenly, Dallas lives up to its claims, where big things happen." — Kevin Sloan

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Oh, no. Here they come again. The same people who wanted to build the underwater freeway. Now they want to build an underwater Central Park.

They’re going to have big gala announcements. They’re going to have big gala “reveals.” They’re going to have lots and lots of big gala parties. Just tons of gala things. And they’re going to tell us we should build some kind of huge gala stuff out there in the mud.

Have we not heard this before? No, in fact, let me ask it better: Have we not heard this for more than 20 years from the very same people? I change my mind. Don’t call it Undone Park. Call it Underwater Undone Park. Or maybe Underwater Undone Mud Park. UUMP.

Is it any great wonder they might be having trouble raising money? Let’s look at this the Dallas way, meaning entirely in terms of cash and real estate. Say you’re rich and they come to you: “We’ve got this new park idea, out where we were going to build the underwater freeway, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers absolutely hates it. No idea if or when it will ever get built. Please give us a million bucks.”

Compare that to re-wilding. If you’re a potential donor or maybe a big landholder/developer hoping to do something next to the river, re-wilding would offer you a sure thing, already approved and already paid for. Unlike the idea for a mini-Central Park knockoff buried in silt twice a year, a re-wilded river would put your property next to a true global destination, the biggest cutting-edge urban park of its type in the world.

I offer all that not because it’s what I care about myself, but because I know it’s important to a lot of big players. They want to know what it would cost and what it would do for them. Probably even more than that, they want to know if it’s a settled business, a done deal, or is it going to be another 20-year political root canal like the failed toll road effort.

The answer to all of those questions lies in what I do care about and what I do believe makes re-wilding the winner. I’m talking about buy-in.

Whatever we do on the river will take at least a decade to really finish and harden in. In that time, kids just now finishing their educations will have become the next wave of taxpayer citizens. Already, even while they’re still in school, that generational wave cares more about climate change than any other social issue, maybe because they’re worried about getting killed by it.

Re-wilding 2,300 acres along the Trinity River in Dallas will make Dallas a global center of thought, observation and moral argument for saving the planet. Then big things really will happen here.
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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