A truly new idea, immense in scope, revolutionary in purpose but also wonderfully simple, cheap, pragmatic and real, is suddenly on the table in the city’s most ancient and intractable unsolved problem — the damned Trinity River.
It’s this: Stop. Just stop. Stop trying to stick stuff on it, spray it, froth it, pouf it, make it into something it does not want to be, does not have to be and is never going to be.
See it. It’s a water moccasin of a river, shy and thin in summer, muscled up, mean and fanged in the spring, sliding between slick muddy banks under whispering fields of grass. It is a thing we can’t make, can’t do, can’t build, can't even see anywhere but here.
That’s the idea. The thing to see and respect in the Trinity River is everything we cannot make of it ourselves.
The glory in the river is the opposite of what we can make, the final end of the road for every single thing every white settler has wanted to do to the Trinity since John Nealy Bryan first laid eyes on it 178 years ago.
We will not hide it, bury it, gouge it, pave it, plant it, rouge it or dress it up to be what we want it to be. We will see it. And respect it.
The new idea, called “re-wilding the Trinity,” will be formally consecrated on March 8 at the Joe C. Thompson Amphitheater at 2711 N. Haskell Ave. (Cityplace Tower on Central Expressway between Haskell and Lemmon), where D Magazine will sponsor a conference called, “Envisioning the Trinity: Theme Park or Natural Wonder.”
The underlying concepts are the subject of a series of articles in the March issue of D, all great reading, the clearest of which is by former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, who initiated a citywide referendum in 2007 that came close to killing the now still unbuilt tolled expressway project in the Trinity River bottoms.
But first, a tiny bit of backstory. Recently Hunt was indulging in a favorite pastime — reading newspaper clippings from the 1970s about the river. No, I would not call it obsession. Hunt is what I would call focused. Very.
And she came up with a gem. Of course, in order to recognize this simple little letter-to-the-editor from 1971 as a gem when you saw it, you’d have to be extremely … well, I still think focused is the nicer word.
It was a letter to the editor of The Dallas Morning News complaining about then Dallas Mayor Wes Wise, who apparently had made remarks to the effect that Dallas could only have a nice park along the river if it allowed the city fathers to first gouge out and pave a massive shipping canal all the way from Dallas to the Gulf of Mexico.
Eventually the shipping canal concept — very screwball, massively expensive, violently unnatural and probably impossible to maintain — was killed in a referendum led by the late Ned Fritz, an environmentalist, with support from a young smart congressman, Alan Steelman. It was a defeat the city fathers blamed on communism.
No sooner had the monstrous canal concept been laid in its infant grave than the same city fathers began maneuvering for a new reptilian giant to suck the life out of the river, a massive new expressway jammed against the river’s eastern bank all the way through downtown.
In the near half-century that the Trinity River toll road has been sought by the city fathers, every possible totally wacko justification for it has been floated — detour during construction on other highways, “reliever” route to ease congestion, civil rights project (please don’t even ask). In each instance, these specious arguments all have been washed away, destroyed and erased by the determined application of science, math, sanity and the fact that such a project would cost $2 billion that we seriously do not have.
But those were never real reasons anyway. It’s not even a follow-the-money thing where some posse of rascals will make out like bandits on the land play. Probably not. It’s not that strategic.
A small group of people want to do it because their fathers wanted to do it. Crazy, I know, but true. In the current D, Peter Simek has a wonderful piece providing the first comprehensive history I’ve ever seen of the city’s unresolved Trinity River problem all the way back to John Nealy Bryan. Simek doesn’t say this explicitly, but when I finished reading his piece I thought, yes, that’s why the highway won’t die: It doesn’t matter that a multi-lane, high-speed toll road all along the river doesn’t make any fiscal or transportation sense. It’s not about any of that. This is way deeper than money. It’s Jungian.
It’s a bunch of old dudes somewhere sipping single malt telling each other, “By God, we’re gonna kill that damn river before we die, and no bunch of hippies is ever gonna stop us.” Because, because.
In her piece, Hunt, who in another life is a sharp-eyed litigator, lays out the way a succession of completely fantastical and absurd so-called park projects have been dangled before voters over the years, sometimes as bait, sometimes as a saber, to get them to support the highway. The trick, she points out, the thing to pay attention to, is that we are now on our ninth plan in 40 years. Now the mayor and the fathers are talking about something called the Van Valkenburgh design, which is even more whiz-bang, outlandish and shockingly expensive than its predecessors.
And none of the plans ever gets built. Hunt says that is the point. These are stalls, things to keep the public busy and to make sure not one spade of earth gets turned down there in those Trinity River bottoms until the fathers find their $2 billion to get their river-killing road built.
In an introduction to the issue, D Magazine Editor Tim Rogers says of the Van Valkenburgh plan, “It is gimmicky, bloated, and, most important, like every other plan you’ve been told about over the past 40 years, unfeasible. It is also unnecessary.”
Unnecessary, he and Hunt say, because if we blow the whistle, stop the music, put up our hands and call a halt, we will see that we already have a wonderful plan, a plan already bought and paid for, already funded enough to begin without new money — the Laura Miller Balanced Vision Plan. Perhaps most important, Hunt says, two years ago the Balanced Vision Plan completed a decade-long tortuous path of federal approvals and was declared good to go by all of the relevant federal agencies.
That’s amazing. The approvals are harder to get than the money. If we focus on that one point, the approvals that the Balanced Vision Plan already has in hand right now, all of a sudden not launching it immediately seems unforgivably profligate.
Approvals are political. They don’t last forever. It’s like, if when I asked my wife to marry me and she said yes for some reason, instead of doing what I did — drove her straight to Oklahoma and did it — I had said, “OK, but I want to check with a couple other girls first.” The moment can fade, if you are unlucky.
When Laura Miller was mayor in 2003, she looked at what the fathers were selling along the river and immediately saw the game — that the park plan was not a park plan. It was a road plan wearing a park plan for a hat. She was not able to kill the road, but she did succeed in pushing it out of the way.
As soon as she was out of office, the fathers pushed it back and bulked it up again to what they wanted, a great big fat thing that would kill the river. Because how cool! They could put the river’s head on their den wall with their leopards and rhinos.
But Balanced Vision stayed on the books. In fact, Hunt discovered, it stayed on the books in two forms. The feds finally gave it full approval both with a highway and without. Hunt and her successors on the council, Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston, also have pried out of the city the fact that $47 million in bonding capacity is still on the books for the park.
By no accident, $47 million is filthy cheap nothing, dirty pocket change for the kind of park the mayor and the fathers want to build — more like $600 million for phase one, and who knows, billions for the rest. But $47 million would be plenty of money for a plan of “re-wilding,” ceding the river back to nature first, then designing human access back into it, rather than the other way around.
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And, look, we have seen already what the river does to the kind of stuff the fathers like. Their crazy, ill-conceived and ultimately unusable kayaking park at the downstream end of downtown is already mummified in thick layers of silt laid down by the river when it was flooded and angry. It gets like that.
Also in D, Dallas architect Kevin Sloan lays out what probably ought to be the perfect Dallas argument for all of nature — that nature is good for real estate values. Sloan tells us to look at Turtle Creek and see how land values have stacked up like ingots because the land is adjacent to water and nature. He proposes creating a “Branch Waters Network” for the entire region, using stream-side land and right-of-way already in the public domain to foster a whole new wave of development, not to mention a new way of life.
When I talk to normal people about the Trinity, they all say the same thing: They can’t believe how long people have been talking about it. The sheer conversational time-frame — a local blah-blah that drags on unresolved for decades — is out of scale with most human social and political experience.
In Hunt’s piece, she says two things. That’s not an accident. And we must stop it. Now. Take what we have. Understand what we have. Show respect to the river. Love the river. But love our money, too. Actually count it. Do a wonderful park now for what we have in the bank already.