In the beginning was the river. Dallas is often said to have no reason to exist. But it does have a reason. The reason is the river. Not the river we see today: dammed, diverted, and levee-ringed into a tiny trickle of its former self. The river once was big and wild—and some spring floods can remind us of how wild a river it once was. It attracted settlers, and from the settlement grew a city. From 30,000 miles up, the city fades into insignificance. The 896 acres of downtown Dallas can’t even be seen. But the river stands out. It is our greatest natural feature. But for 150 years, we have not figured out what to make of it. In 1992, Dallas again took up the challenge of the Trinity. The result will be a public space—half built by man and half retained from nature—that will be 10 times larger than Central Park.
One Mayor Changes Her Mind About the Trinity in 2002 …
By Laura Miller
There have been three pivotal moments in my professional life: the glorious day I was hired to work as a totally unhindered, gloves-off investigative reporter at the Dallas Observer; the day I went from being the hunter to the hunted when I switched from journalism to politics; and the day I went from representing 1/14th of the city as a councilmember to the entire city as mayor, causing an unexpected and nearly instantaneous broadening of my perspective.
Case in point on No. 3: I couldn’t stand the Trinity River Project when I was a councilmember. The plan as passed by voters in 1998, on the same ballot where I was a new council candidate, had been designed by road engineers, and they had made the miscalculation of giving me a detailed briefing on the project right before the election. At the end of their two-hour presentation, I had only one question: “Where’s the water?” So I voted against it, even though my husband told me I should vote for it because we lived in Oak Cliff, which would benefit if the river was improved. If I were lucky enough to get on the City Council, he said, I could add water later.
Well, I’m glad Mayor Ron Kirk got the project passed, in retrospect, but I never did get to work on it as a councilmember. For those three and a half years, the City Council spent almost no time on it; the environmentalists sued the city over its lack of river attributes; and the unsavory centerpiece of the project—an eight-lane, high-speed Trinity River toll road, split four lanes on each side of the river—reigned supreme and intact. When I ran for mayor in 2001, I was an ardent and vocal opponent.
In the club of Dallas mayors who have served under 14-1, there are only four: Steve Bartlett, Ron Kirk, me, and Tom Leppert. But only I have had the unique experience of going from being a 14 to a 1. The difference is jarring—and instructive.
Within days of my election, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison took me out for coffee at La Madeleine. She said, “I’ve worked hard for years getting money for the Trinity River Project. Are you going to support it?” Reasonable question. A few weeks later, City Manager Mary Suhm, who was then the No. 2, told me it was time to go on the city’s annual trek to Washington, business leaders in tow, to ask Congressional members for federal money for the project; I balked and didn’t want to go. Suhm said fine, but if the mayor was a deliberate no-show for the first time ever, no elected official would support funding us. Did I want the Trinity Project to stall, overnight? Another reasonable question.
Single-member district councilmembers don’t have to worry about such things—it’s not in the job description. They can question and criticize big projects all day long and still sleep well at night, knowing that somebody else—the mayor, the city manager, the councilperson from the district where the big, messed-up project is located—is the one ultimately responsible for carrying the burden. And if you’re a maverick councilmember—and I was one of those, full of passion and principle, short on the art of political tact—the Ultimately Responsible People don’t want you anywhere near them or their problems. Which causes mavericks to get publicly sidelined and even more resolute in their opposition.
My fundamental change of opinion on the Trinity Project was due to the very thing that had made me realize that my days of stalking City Hall officials with reporter notebooks were over: I had switched jobs. And there was nothing subtle about it. It was guttural and felt urgent.
We convened an all-day meeting of the City Council just to openly dissect the project. After an honest and thoughtful conversation, we all agreed we had no idea how to proceed. Some of us wanted an even bigger, wider highway right down the river bottom; others wanted no road at all; everybody wanted more water.
We had no money. We had a worried business community, a hopeful environmental community, and a skeptical city staff.
So we raised $600,000 in private money to redesign the project without delaying it. The first $200,000 came from arts supporter Deedie Rose, the last $118,000 from oilman Boone Pickens. Similarly diverse folks with an interest in the project (i.e., road lovers and road haters) were assembled to interview and hire urban planners from outside Dallas (to avoid bias either way) to create something we could all love. Former Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson (the revered cool head and road proponent) and I (the quixotic new mayor who preferred a donkey trail) became the official “clients” of the redesign, so if both of us blessed the result, it signaled a real truce.
The eventual plan adopted by the City Council in December 2003 was negotiated by all the relevant parties: city of Dallas, Dallas County, TXDoT, North Texas Tollway Authority, Dallas Institute of Humanities, North Central Texas Council of Governments, the Dallas Plan, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
For those who argue the merits of the project today: the first thing we asked the urban planners to do was move The Road, an important traffic reliever for the Mixmaster, out of the river entirely. It didn’t work. What worked was a much narrower, four-lane road on the downtown side, inside the levee, which is the key to preserving the water and park elements.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the road compromise, along with the rest of the plan. And the Corps met with city officials weekly for the next four years to begin implementing it. How then did the Corps suddenly pronounce the project unwise, unsafe, and undoable last year? In my opinion, if their internal rules regarding levees changed after Hurricane Katrina, then it is their burden and their responsibility to find a way to make this project work. Just like the Dallas City Council did in 2003.
The lesson learned from my long relationship with the Trinity River Project is simple: every journalist should know what it’s like to be in public office, and every councilmember should know what it’s like to run and serve citywide.
And since those two things will never happen, I’ll just be grateful that, somehow, I got to do both. Hopefully, it made some small difference.
Laura Miller was mayor from 2002 to 2007.
… But another mayor started it all in 1992
By Steve Barlett
There it was: the Trinity River. Mostly, we had used it to carry treated sewage (untreated originally), to divide north from south, and to give the protesters a campsite during the 1984 GOP Convention. (That was our little joke.) But I had hiked in the lower Trinity’s Rochester Park with famed environmentalist Ned Fritz and had come away with the feeling that the Trinity could be so much more.
Dallas knew about San Antonio, Fort Worth, Austin, and even San Angelo, and how they had converted their downtown rivers into positive features, statements about their cities. We knew this on a theoretical basis, but we didn’t really believe it could happen in Dallas. Then Vision Dallas, sponsored and funded by the Dallas Morning News, offered a view of what Dallas could be. In 1992, I asked Dallas visionary Robert Hoffman to organize and lead the Dallas Plan, so named by Deanne Kirby, my assistant in the mayor’s office. She left me a phone message, “That nice man Robert Hoffman called again, something about a Dallas plan.”
The Dallas Plan was founded on the premise that Dallas’ dominant features will shape our future: DFW Airport and Love Field, residential neighborhoods, downtown, Fair Park, and, most important, the Trinity River. They will be major assets or major liabilities, but they will not be neutral. The second premise was that we in Dallas could shape our own future. And third was that the citizens had to do it, not City Hall, or the federal government, or downtown business, or urban planners.
Thus thousands of citizens began to plan and dream and figure it out collectively. The Trinity wasn’t the only part of the Dallas Plan, but it fast became the central feature. And the citizens of Dallas began to feel the excitement. That was followed in 1994 with the more formal 400-person Trinity River Corridor Citizens Committee, supported and led by my successor, Ron Kirk. That report, adopted by the citizens in 1998, was modified once more by Laura Miller in 2003.
The Trinity Project is big. It’s a major parkway, parks and recreation, signature bridges. I don’t know what the future will bring, but the Trinity will be an important and positive part of it.
Steve Bartlett is president and CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, D.C. He was mayor from 1991 to 1995.
The Cattle Baron's Ball Redefines Fundraising
by Jacque Wynne
In 1974, a group of 10 decided to throw a black-tie affair without the black ties. Stetson hats and cowboy boots were the dress code for that first Cattle Baron’s Ball, which raised $56,000. Although the dress code remains the same, the amount raised has not. In the past 35 years, the ball has generated more than $40 million, making it the largest one-night fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Each year, Dallasites look forward to a boot-scootin’ good time when they can throw off their constricting couture and get down and dirty in blue jeans.
It really was my big mouth that got this started. A girl named Patti Hunt (the other co-founder of the first Cattle Baron’s Ball) and I were new members of the Park Cities American Cancer Society branch. The previous year, they had a dance marathon, and it raised only $1,000. I said, “Dallas is a big city. I can’t believe you raised only $1,000.” They said, “Well, why don’t you think of something?”
Men already thought there were too many black-tie events, so we came up with the idea of a Western-themed party for the society’s 1974 fundraiser. The men were thrilled that they didn’t have to dress up. We also geared some things to men, including auction items, as everything back then was mostly geared toward the women. The Stetson company provided a Stetson hat for every man who donated at the higher ticket price ($150 instead of $75). When they bought a ticket, we would ask for their hat sizes without telling them why. Then the night of the ball, when they arrived, we had a Stetson hat for each of them. We called them the barons of the ball. Inside the hats, it said, “Made especially for so-and-so” with their names.
We personally invited 500 people to come, and that was it. We thought that from those 500, if the word got out how much fun it was, then everyone would want to come the next year. And that’s what happened. My husband was a prominent man in the city at the time, so we really just invited a lot of his friends. They were people who were admired, a who’s who in Dallas at the time: Tom and Alicia Landry, Betty and Al Meadows of the Meadows Foundation, the Murchisons. Charley Pride was a guest. He paid his money like everyone else and came. He wasn’t expected to perform, but when he was there he just got up and sang as a gift to the ball.
There were 10 of us on that first committee, and we did everything ourselves. We used a girl’s garage to make decorations. We made all the centerpieces ourselves. We used bartenders whom we had used for our parties at the time, and they refused to take any money, so we paid each with a bottle of scotch. We raised $56,000.
I had no idea that the ball would become as big as it is today. I remember that after the first ball we were up for a national award from the American Cancer Society for the best fundraiser. But we didn’t win it because they thought our idea was just a regional thing and wouldn’t go over anywhere else. Within a year or two, we won the national award, and they came down and said, “Teach us how to do this.” I believe there are more than 24 or 26 Cattle Baron’s balls in other parts of the country now, all fashioned after the Dallas event.
If you make something work the first time, then you’ve got it made.
Jacque Wynne is a real estate agent with Allie Beth Allman & Associates.