City Hall

Too Much Money Could Doom Nature's Stake in a Trinity River Park

Last week’s announcement of a $50 million gift to design and build a park along the Trinity River was scary, mainly because it’s possible to do so much damage with that much money.

Word of people walking around with that much money in their pockets always puts me in mind of a radio show I heard ten years ago about the River Corrib in the city of Galway in the west of Ireland.

The Corrib had been a stink-pot sewer. But in the early 2000s Galway turned its river into a natural corridor, rather than making it a typical 20th century recreational park. Almost as soon as the city stopped actively fencing out wildlife and poisoning the river, all manner of mammals, birds and plants came flooding up into the corridor through the center of the city, as if nature had been marking time out there all those years, waiting to get back in.

The signs are all around us that the same thing is true here – nature marking time to come back into the city. I’m not even sure we ever got it fenced out all that well.

A big difference between Galway and Dallas is that Galway is 1,000 years old. We’ve had only a fifth that much time to push nature out of our midst, and so if anything nature may be even closer and more robust here than on more ancient soil.

I don’t know about you, but I see it all the time, and I live only two and a half miles from downtown. For the last couple of weeks my dogs and I have had an uninvited companion on our late night walks – a large coyote that follows us for a block or so from the other side of the street, shape-shifting through the street-light shadows, then vanishing into thin air.

Coyotes are not uncommon in the inner city. They’re not especially safe, either, so it’s wise to shout them off if they come uncomfortably close. But it’s also haunting and wonderful to know that we share the ground with such wild and elusive beings.

People in Dallas commonly see fox. Raccoons are everywhere. We have enough birdlife to make us worth a bird-watching tour in spring. Along the Trinity there are all sorts of dinosaurian creatures, from alligator gar to actual alligators.

What does that have to do with fifty million bucks? The danger in that much money, if it gets pumped into designing and building the new park the city so dearly desires along the Trinity, is that it will do too much good, create too many wonderful things for human beings to do, sports facilities and amphitheaters and so on. In so doing, that much money may crowd out and even kill the much more wonderful opportunity we have to surrender the entire corridor to nature.

Nature probably is banging at our door anyway, pleading for its own superhighway into the city. But creating that highway for returning nature will by no means be a simple matter of not doing. In fact making it happen the right way, bringing nature back up the river corridor, will require every bit as much design and more science than it would take to cover the same land with soccer fields, if less money.

We have people in Dallas who know how to do it. An example is Kevin Sloan of Kevin Sloan Studio, who designed some of the landscape for Urban Reserve, a 13-acre subdivision near Central Expressway and White Rock Trail. Urban Reserve is a wonderful specimen of urban hardscape that has been both softened and made smarter to seduce nature back into the midst of human dwelling.
And I don’t know that the fifty-million-bucks people will be resistant to a more Kevin Sloan-style concept for the Trinity River Park. They might get it. I know some of them have been Sloan’s clients for their own residential properties.

What worries me is the way the money is being construed, as its own mandate, just because it’s so much moolah. In announcing the gift from the widow of the late billionaire, Harold Simmons, Mayor Mike Rawlings also announced by fiat that at least some part of the park, if not all of it, will be named for Simmons, whose name may be a tough swallow for some, not to speak ill of the dead. But sometimes more moolah can make things harder to swallow.

Rawlings also informed the public that governance of the park will be private. I don’t remember anybody getting a chance to vote on that. And it seems the private group to run the park already has been chosen – the Trinity Trust, which is already changing its name to Trinity Park Conservancy to prepare for its new role. (Shouldn’t it be Harold Simmons Conservancy? Maybe later.) 

At their press conference they didn’t even mention the roaring smoke-and-oil-spilling freeway that the old town fathers still badly want to build cheek-by-jowl with the park along the river. Not even mentioning the freeway is downright chilling.

You can’t not mention a freeway. Freeways are big. Not even mentioning it means they have a plan for the freeway, but they won’t tell us what it is, which does not bode well at all for private management of the park.

The most amazing thing we could do for the park would be planning and designing, thinking and working so hard and so well that the park winds up looking as if we had done nothing at all. And then we can sit back and wait for the wonderful shape-shifters to arrive. Who could make that up?
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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