It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the greatest work of art in Manhattan is Central Park. The controversies that attended its conception—indeed the conception of all of Olmsted and Vaux’s projects in Boston and New York—have largely faded into history, but it bears remembering that 150 years ago many people considered parks as dangerous places, that snobbery and fear of the mingling of the classes in open spaces competed with other ideas about the healthfulness of open walks and of nature in urban settings.

Rus in urbe—“country in the city”—is an ideal going back as far as Imperial Rome, and it has informed all efforts to “green” America in the past two centuries. Dallas has lagged badly behind most other major cities. White Rock Lake—often sluggish, brown, beer can strewn—is the best we can offer, and there’s the nearby Arboretum, which charges an entrance fee. Most people, except the lucky ones who live nearby, must drive to the greenswards. Think of the people you know who, fearful of Dallas’ bicycle-unfriendly streets, mount their bikes on their cars and drive to the lake in order to take a spin around it.

The Katy Trail has filled a noble, necessary purpose, but it, too, suffers from inaccessibility. With more funding, though, the trail will lengthen and widen and have numerous entrances.

And now, into the fray come the plans for the Woodall Rodgers Park, the latest venture to nurture a sense of calm within increasingly auto-choked Dallas. Groundbreaking will take place in the fall. Ground-covering may be a better term. Picture Chicago’s Millennium Park, another deck park, raised over railway tracks, but on a smaller scale. In Dallas, the slightly larger than 5-acre green space will cover a chunk of Woodall Rodgers between Pearl and St. Paul streets.

The plan is to make the “park” into something like the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a space for urban activities of several sorts. Needless to say, unlike the Mall, which stretches along a length of museums, government offices, and symbols of our national greatness, this new park will merely cover a thoroughfare. Real estate values, mostly commercial, will soar on both sides of the submerged freeway. But with the Dallas Museum of Art, the proposed residential Museum Tower and one or two others, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and the Meyerson—not to mention the Winspear Opera House—adjacent or nearly so, cultural venues and domesticity will abut the park.

Who will use it and enjoy it? That’s another matter.

The people in charge discuss the project in business terms. This is Dallas, after all. Linda Owen, president and CEO of the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation (and a former president of the Real Estate Council), talks enthusiastically about the park as a gathering place. It’s what the ancient Greeks in fifth-century Athens called the Agora. Here, the central business district, or commerce-writ-large, calls the shots. All the talk of making downtown Dallas “into one world-class destination” (in the banal wording of one press release) makes one shiver a little. Still, Dallas always impresses with its “can-do” spirit. Can-do often becomes “does.”

The city of Dallas raised an initial $20 million in bond funds; state and federal governments have provided $20 million more in highway funds; and the private Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation has raised yet another $20 million from individuals and foundations. An additional $25 million is needed. Some of this has just arrived: in late March the Park Foundation received $16.7 million in federal stimulus funds, awarded through the Texas Department of Transportation, for construction. This will create an immediate 1,000 jobs. Owen speaks with special pride of the private-public collaboration in the fundraising.

The stated intention of all this is not only to vivify Dallas, of course, but also to make downtown, that much fabled Phoenix always in need of rebirth, come alive in a more beautifully meaningful way. It may be too soon to know what the 322 trees, planned walking paths, restaurant, dog park, children’s playground, performance space, several water sculptures, and environmentally friendly irrigation system will finally do. The pictures are exciting, beautiful. Completion is scheduled for sometime in 2011.

Dallas is filled with schemes that never seem to turn into what they are supposed to: Philip Johnson’s odd Thanksgiving Tower and the still-under-contemplation Trinity River Project. And commercial ventures that disappoint: The West End? The Quadrangle? Both were intended to be “urban” in different ways. Neither has quite managed to succeed. Remember the proposed twin towers of Cityplace? Whatever happened to Deep Ellum? What will happen to Fair Park? Now that the Dallas Opera is leaving the Music Hall, what will we do with and in and to this great architectural space, the second-largest cubic footage of Art Deco (after Rockefeller Center) in the country, other than during the weeks when the State Fair occupies the grounds?

I live on McKinney Avenue, and I am often amused and delighted to hear and watch the sputtering trolley under my window. Sometimes people are riding in it; sometimes it is empty. Often it breaks down. The one time I tried to take it to the Magnolia Theatre, I got out halfway through the ride and continued on foot, arriving earlier to West Village than the trolley did. Whatever it does and is, the cute little trolley is largely a symbol, a reminder of an older, gentler age when trolleys ran through a much smaller, more compact Dallas.

When the weather is right, I can walk easily to the museums and concert halls. Crossing Woodall Rodgers on foot is not a soul-enriching experience, nor is it hazardous. The folks in charge of Woodall Rodgers Park hope that Uptown (which is really downtown) and downtown (which is still mostly a congeries of office buildings) can be joined by an open space that will encourage people to come in and have fun.

But these people will still—alas—in all likelihood have to drive to the park to take advantage of it.  And once there, where will they park? The plan for the access roads abutting the deck includes 70 free spaces. Not enough, by a long shot. Texas Capital Bank has promised the free use of its garage—1,300 spaces—during weekend and evening hours. What about the rest of the time?

Not even its greatest boosters, if they are honest, will claim that Dallas is beautiful. It lacks natural advantages: no rolling hills, little greenery, even less water. The trees here are dwarfed by comparison with anything in Colorado, or even Central Park. Dallas has always represented the triumph of the human will in the face of disadvantage, natural and otherwise. Every blade of grass is a function of art, not nature.

But we keep trying, very much to our credit. It looks as though the park—as seen in its pictures—will soften downtown and increase human visibility aboveground. Still, several questions persist. The first is about climate. Dallas has beautiful days, even whole months together. But who wants to be outside, especially during daylight hours, between May and September?

Architect Andrés Duany, founder of the New Urbanism movement, told a Dallas audience earlier this spring that we must stop blaming the city’s climate for the lack of pedestrian life here. He has a point, but he’s also, at least in part, wrong. In the summer, the climate is awful, the air often unbreathable, the hot sun bad for the skin. Do you want to play in 100-degree temperatures? It is hard to imagine that during the four middle months of the year people who work on Main Street, or Commerce, will want to spend their lunch hours several blocks away and return to work moist with sweat.

One final question is about that other ubiquity: the car. When will we in Dallas have the luxury of leaving our cars at home for, say, an entire weekend and still get out and have fun, in either the city or the country? Or, best of all, both? Linda Owen says the word “connectivity,” and a big smile comes to her face. The deck park connects public and private sources of revenue; it will connect Uptown and downtown. If the stars align, it will become part of a master idea that allows the Katy Trail to reach to Ross Avenue as part of an urban trail system. I think of an updated version of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace through Boston, the Dallas necklace consisting of pavement as well as grass.

True connectivity will demand some combination of the McKinney Avenue Trolley, which in fact has received additional funds for expansion, and DART. This, and a real effort to build bike lanes—Dallas lags laughably behind in this area—might one day make it possible to get into the city and savor the delights of strolling and looking, watching a performance, and hearing an open-air concert. It might even make it possible to return home without having to get into your car in the first place.

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