Very surreal experience for me yesterday sitting at a white tablecloth luncheon among the mucketies at the annual Trinity Commons Foundation affair. I think they assumed based on my appearance I was a waiter and let me in. I sat there listening to endless blah-blah-blah from three Dallas mayors, one current and two former, about what needs to be done along the Trinity River.
Oh my God! The blah and the blah of it! Can’t they just leave the poor thing alone? All of their ideas for the Trinity include two things guaranteed to destroy it: 1) putting an expressway down it and, 2) allowing rich ladies to spend $300 million to decorate what’s left.
Typical old-school Dallas, the way things used to be. So everything winds up looking like the world’s fanciest casket, with similar air quality issues. They never seem to be able to comprehend that Dallas, the old one anyway, already has fancy up one side and down the other.
Old Dallas absolutely knows how to spend money and make things fancy. Look at Highland Park. It’s like an urban hair-do. The last thing Dallas needs is more hair-do, and that’s the worst possible idea for the Trinity River. The river is our one shot at creating a truly natural space in the center of the city, our one and only chance to make downtown a place where people can live in towers on the border of something like wilderness.
The irony for me at the thing yesterday was that I was sitting right across the table from former City Council member Angela Hunt, with whom I had just had this very conversation the night before. Hunt is adamant that we already have the governmental authorization and the funding we need — it’s in the bank already — to create a truly natural park on the Trinity River.
All of the plans for a fancier and schmancier park will do much worse than merely delay creation of a park on the river. The plans the mayor and his wealthy patrons have in mind — hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new design with tons of stuff, stuff, stuff in it — would absolutely destroy and annihilate any natural park on the river.
At the Trinity Commons event yesterday, Mayor Mike Rawlings said the question is, “How are you going to get it done, because we’re not going to do a massive $300 million bond election just for the Trinity Park. So we felt that the private sector would make the park.”
The key phrase in there is $300 million. He says the voters won’t approve a $300 million bond election for the park. Yeah, no kidding. This is the same mayor who just got done saying the city may be on the verge of bankruptcy and we can’t afford to even slow the deterioration rate for our streets.
I’d love to see how they’d pitch that bond election: “No streets, no pension for cops and firefighters, probably no cops and firefighters, but, please, we do need $300 million to give to the Park Cities ladies so they can spend it on azaleas and flower beds for the Trinity River.”
I’d say the mayor is right on the money to call that one a loser. Ain’t gonna happen. The real threat, however, is that he wants to make it happen anyway with private money. At yesterday’s thing, he went into his favorite rap about how many rich people Dallas has and how easy it is to get money from them.
Yes, that’s the problem. Look at the Arts District downtown. Rich people in Dallas used their wealth to create a host of dramatic venues, all of which are now dramatically expensive to maintain and dramatically underfunded for operations and maintenance. In fact, forget operations and maintenance even; last year the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which is more or less the whole arts district, revealed that its benefactors had not endowed it with enough money to pay off its bank note.
ATTPAC, as it is called, owed its bank $151 million. They told the bank to forget it. That money wasn’t ever going to show up. ATTPAC did manage to find some $56 million under the mattress. The bank wrote off $45 million, as in kiss that $45 million good-bye. ATTPAC said it would raise another $34 million. But it needed City Hall to kick in an unexpected $15 million that the city was in no way obligated to supply, which of course the city did anyway. And sorry to be so cynical after all these years, but I truly wonder if that $15 million may not have not been the only actual cash money to change hands in the deal.
So that’s a big part of my own problem with everything they were going on and on about yesterday at their gala. The mayor talked about how the city had already received $50 million for the park from the Simmons family, and he gave the impression getting the next $250 million will be a snap.
I’m really worried that he’s right. In the first place, that’s the kind of money that can saddle us with operations and maintenance costs we can ill afford. But worse, in exchange for all that moolah he wants to turn the whole park over to a private entity to design and build it.
You may not know this if you have never been out there, but the Trinity River is a very cool sort of eerie remnant of the black-land prairie that used to cover this entire region before white settlers brought in trees and landscaping. The most exciting things we could possibly do with the river is “rewild” it, allow it to return to a truly natural state while providing safe access for human beings.
I told you last November about a guy here in Dallas, Kevin Sloan, who is a national leader in this whole field of natural space-making. He has wonderful ideas in which design and architecture are servants to nature rather than its would-be master.
The thing Hunt and I had discussed the night before the Trinity Commons deal was that all of the money and all of the governmental authorizations needed to create a natural “rewilded” park, such as what Sloan might design, are already in place. We have $47 million in bond money still left, miraculously, from the 1998 Trinity River project bond election. And full authorization for a park was granted years ago by federal agencies under former Mayor Laura Miller’s “Balanced Vision Plan for the Trinity.”
With a catch. The Balanced Vision Plan was approved two ways: 1) with an expressway through it; 2) without an expressway.
On the phone the other night, Hunt said her vision for the park would be, “The Balanced Vision Plan that does not include the toll road.
“This is a vision for our Trinity that comports with modern transportation analysis, and it is a vision of our natural ecology that does not include a high-speed tollway within the park.”
She called it a shared vision “for a rewilded Trinity and a park we can move forward with right now, immediately, without waiting another 10 years, without spending another 10 million dollars on yet another design, not working toward another approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but rather moving forward right now.”
So, you know, my job is to be a totally paranoid nutcase so you don’t have to be one yourself, and I am happy and proud to serve you in that capacity. Yesterday I’m looking around the hotel ballroom, and I see the main rich ladies table right in front of me.
They’re getting all kinds of flirty call-outs and thank-yous from the three mayors up onstage, and they’re ducking and smiling, and I don’t begrudge them any of that. I think they are totally sincere and well-intentioned in what they do.
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But I can’t help noticing that all of the men in this thing, especially those three on stage, want that damned toll road come hell or high water. They’re probably $2 billion short of the money they need for it. But if they can stall long enough and make sure nothing gets started without them in the meantime, then they might be able to come up with that money somewhere someday.
Whereas, if we actually did what Hunt is talking about and got to work on a cool natural park along the river — one that doesn’t include their road — they’re screwed. I would think they probably have that figured out.
The ladies’ plan for a fancy-fancy-fancy park will soak up at least a decade to fundraise, design and authorize before a shovel’s worth of dirt is turned. That works out pretty conveniently for the toll road guys who don’t want to see any shovels down there until they can find the money for their road.
A wonderful and globally unique natural park that we can build right now for money we already have in the bank, or a long-delayed fancy knock-off of parks in Paris and London that we can’t afford to keep up, doesn’t belong in this climate or geography, and it has a highway through it. That just does not seem to me like a tough choice.