Last week architect and land planner Kevin Sloan told an audience to go home and Google “Bobcat City.” So I did.
It’s us. If you Google Bobcat City, the first thing that pops up is an extremely cool YouTube video produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife about a study of bobcats and other feral creatures in DFW. We’re the biggest urban bobcat center in the country. No wonder people keep seeing bobcats.
“Here we are,” Sloan told a rapt audience of about 125 people. “We have this amazing city that’s low density, and we have a watershed network.
“The old urban paradigm was that the city represented law, stability and culture, and outside of that was lions and tigers and bears. But now the lions and tigers and bears are inside.”
So do we need to send out the troops and get busy eradicating all of that nature? No, no, Sloan suggested. We need to stop. Think about it. How do we know all that nature invading our city may not make us an extremely interesting unique urban place?
Sloan spoke at a symposium sponsored by D Magazine where panelists discussed an exciting new idea for a central urban park along the Trinity River in downtown Dallas: Don’t make it park-ish. Spend less money not more. Leave the land alone as much as possible. As one panelist put it, design the park for nature first and then design man back into it later. It may be that nature and wildlife offer us the city’s most unique quality.
Sloan paraphrased astrophysicist and author Neil DeGrasse Tyson as observing that “true culture” is made up of “characteristics a society can’t see about itself but any other society can only see.” For Americans, Sloan suggested, one of those true cultural characteristics may be our affinity for nature.
“Maybe there is something about North American culture that is very hardwired for nature. Look at how Madison Avenue understood that when they named all the SUVs after landscapes — the Denali, the Sierra and so forth.”
Maybe the true nature of our city — the thing we tend not to see but anybody from elsewhere would see right away — is its unique porosity to nature, especially if we framed that quality in a wonderful central park. If that’s true, then the fact that a major toll road project in the river bottoms has been stalled by controversy for 20 years may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to us.
One of the biggest applause-points in the evening came when District 103 state Rep. Rafael Anchia, who represents pretty much everything west of the Park Cities, said the two-decade-long record of relative inaction on the Trinity River has turned out to be a blessing in disguise:
“I am grateful,” Anchia said, “that there has been a great deal of inaction, because we were on a crash course with a mega-toll-road catastrophe. Had this been done efficiently, we would be looking back in 30 years, and my kids and grandkids would be saying, ‘What the hell were you all thinking?’”
Sloan talked about seizing this moment to create a park able to withstand the cyclical flooding and other inevitable climactic beatings that North Texas is sure to inflict.
“Any new landscape has to be resilient,” he said. A park along the river, he said, “must acknowledge these demands and be forgiving of the deluge and drought cycles.
“The one landscape that can do that is the original landscape. A blackland prairie and wetland would be beautiful and resilient. The grasses in the wetland pools would attract migrations that fly right through Dallas-Fort Worth on the Central Flyway.
“Giving the project a focus like this elevates a designed landscape into a nature project where the landscape is in service to not just us but also to living art work. Beautiful creatures become the object of admiration.”
The panelists at the symposium included several heavy-hitter subject-matter experts who were involved professionally in the “Balanced Vision Plan” for the river created in 2003 under Mayor Laura Miller. All of the panelists see Balanced Vision now as the proper framework for a “re-wilded” Trinity River park.
They were an impressive group. Panelist Ignacio F. Bunster-Ossa has major design credits around the world and was the lead architect for Balanced Vision. Don Raines and Michael Bastian both were top consultants to the plan.
Panelist Tania Homayoun is the urban conservation program manager for Audubon Texas. Dr. Robert Moon is a horticultural consultant whose credits include contributions to Klyde Warren Park, UT-Austin and the Nasher Sculpture Center.
They weren’t a bunch of hippies. I looked around the room. I was the only hippie.
It wasn’t all kumbaya, either. There was a serious note. Former City Council member Angela Hunt, also a panelist, did her best to be diplomatic about the aggressively marketed plan of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to create a $300 million heavily landscaped traditional urban park in the river bottoms. That plan has been the recipient of a $50 million gift from the heirs of the late Harold Simmons.
But the gift, as Hunt pointed out politely, has major strings attached. First of all, it’s $10 million now, $40 million later. Maybe.
Accepting even the $10 million involves ditching the Balanced Vision Plan, which was fully approved by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 2015 after a decade-long review process at a cost to the city of $14 million. So if we take the $10 million, we throw away the $14 million we already spent for Balanced Vision.
And we don’t get the next $40 million unless we raise $250 to $280 million for the rest of the park. Oh, wait, we also don’t get the rest of it until we also raise enough money to pay for maintenance forever — peeling the silt off the pergolas and so on — and no one knows yet how much that will be. And we have to do all that within the next two years or we don’t get the money. Ouch.
Hunt, Anchia and City Council member Scott Griggs all pointed to another scary aspect of the mayor’s plan: At a private luncheon put on recently by backers of the toll road, Mayor Rawlings suggested broadly he would like to see the whole Trinity Park deal taken out of public hands and placed with a private entity, very much like what he tried and failed to do with Fair Park recently.
“I am concerned about that as a concept,” Hunt said, “because that could be done in a way to take the public out of this process. I think we have been removed from the process for too long.”
Big applause from the house at that point.
Hunt says the money for a natural park on the Trinity — $47 million — is already sitting in city bond funds approved in 1998. Using Balanced Vision as the basis, the natural park could be started now, whereas the mayor’s plan probably would require a new decade-long approval process, and, you know, by then who knows if Putin will even let us do it?
An audience member brought up the Dallas Standing Wave, the city-built fake rapids for kayakers that were so poorly built they’ve made the river impassable. Why, he asked, should we trust City Hall to do this new natural park any more competently than it has done anything else in the past?
Griggs said he believes the city’s new manager, T.C. Broadnax, will bring the competence that City Hall has lacked. “I think T.C. can do it,” he said.
Oh, one thing. If we build the natural park, there can be no toll road. So you can guess how that goes down with the toll road maniacs, and you can also guess why they won’t mind stalling things instead with the mayor’s Fancy Pants Park plan. In fact, is it possible? Could that be what the Fancy Pants Park plan is for? The stall? To protect the toll road?
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Well, you can think that, but I’m too sweet.
People in the audience also asked what they can do. Matt Tranchin of the Coalition for a New Dallas, a political action committee created by D Magazine Publisher Wick Allison, said his group is looking for volunteers to help man educational booths at the April 22 Earth Day observation at Fair Park. Anybody interested can go to the group’s web page or Facebook page and sign up.
All of the things said at the D Magazine deal resonated on at least two levels. First of all, the desire to get going on a park and do something practical and within our reasonable means has been expressed over and over again by the people of Dallas since the early 1970s. Secondly, this new focus on nature expresses values of today and tomorrow, instead of the timeworn cultural values of the past.
It’s just too right to ignore. In fact what do you think would happen if somebody could put this one to a vote of the people right now? I think we’d have a wonderful park tomorrow for the far future of Dallas.