The greatest project in this city’s history has now been handed over to a gaggle of Army engineers, highway engineers, toll road engineers, and city engineers. I despair.
Engineers are a necessity of modern life, of course. Unfortunately, like most people who know they are needed, they have made themselves into a nuisance.
I began to realize how irritating engineers can be when I considered what Dallas would look like without them. When they built the elevated freeways that cut downtown off from its city, creating acres of no-man’s land underneath, they probably thought the soaring concrete platforms would help connect—not divide—the city below. When they turned downtown’s streets into one-way exit corridors, they probably congratulated themselves for unsnarling the gridlock of two-way streets that were once pedestrian-friendly. When they tore up downtown to build an air-conditioned underground tunnel system, they probably envisioned a kind of underworld NorthPark.
These noble intentions were not enough to save their projects from disaster. If none of the projects had ever been built—the elevated freeways, the one-way corridors, the underground tunnels—downtown would be a better place today. Sometimes a city needs only to be left alone.
Don’t be fooled by the image of the austere engineer with his crew cut, his pocket protector, and his notebook computer. He may make his living off the quotidian needs of everyday life: a sewer here, a speed bump there. In his soul, however, the engineer is a romantic, infatuated with possibility. He dreams of doing something that has never been done. It rarely occurs to him that it has never been done for a reason.
The great error of postwar Dallas was that its business leadership listened to engineers. Engineers spoke in a language they could understand. Those leaders wanted the one thing that engineers could deliver: efficiency. Our first bankers and builders came from small towns to the big city filled with huge ambitions and unencumbered by education or culture. To them, nature was an enemy, as it had been on the farms of their fathers, not a source of beauty and pleasure and connection. So a Dallas that once looked like Austin, with springs and brooks and creeks, was covered with concrete. No wonder streets wash out and houses flood and power lines go down every year during the spring downpours. Nature is still not happy about what Dallas did to it.
Cities are messes, and are meant to be. There’s not much that can be done about it. One type of people moves out of a neighborhood; another type moves in. One day there’s a tattoo shop on the corner, and the next day it is a yoga studio. An empty, deserted street of once-crumbling abandoned houses is suddenly filled with high-rise condos. No business leader or engineer can reduce all this activity into some neat, efficient schematic. But the engineers will never give up. The only remedy is to rein them in.
The opposite has happened with the Trinity River. Instead of being reined in, the engineers have taken over. The civilians have been locked out of the room where the real debate is taking place.
This happened once before in this project’s long history. The engineers took control and produced a plan that turned the entire project into a bigger concrete drainage ditch. That time, Laura Miller reclaimed civilian control and produced the plan we have today.
Mayor Tom Leppert and the current City Council need to take a leaf from Laura Miller’s notebook. Don’t believe a word the engineers tell you. Don’t accept any of their assumptions. They paved over this city once, and given the opportunity, they will do it again.
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