Architects Offer Green Lipstick Solution to Piggish Mixmaster, Proposing a New ‘Urban Forest’

This article is part of series on the Connected City Design Challenge, which seeks proposals for rethinking the connection between downtown Dallas and the  Trinity River. For more articles about the project, click here.

The final installment of the four-part Connected City Design Challenge talks took place on Tuesday night at the Dallas Museum of Art with Stoss + SHoP presenting their plan to connect downtown Dallas to the Trinity River. Stoss is a design firm that believes in the productive role of landscapes when it comes to urban and social areas, and their partner in this project, SHoP, provided the architectural know how. Their plan, called Hyper Density/Hyper Landscape, calls for three new mixed-use neighborhoods that extend the city grid as it approaches the Trinity. Interspersed within these areas will be greenspace which creates a stitching of the urban and natural elements that already dominate the city’s relationship with the river.

At the center of the greenspace the team proposed seeding an urban forest. This forest will work in and around the existing highway network and obscuring it while creating recreational space. Beyond the proposed urban forest, Stoss + SHoP envision reclaiming part of the original Trinity River, and the original route of the Trinity River will be the centerpiece of the natural elements of the plan. It will feature various public spaces, including floating cafes, wetlands, gardens, and sport courts that will also serve as flood control basins. Reclamation of the river will take daylighting currently underground pipes and using storm water and runoff from surrounding areas to restore the river to its ancient route. The introduction of wetlands and other features will cleanse the water so that the public can interact with it.

Flanking the natural elements of the proposal are the neighborhoods. To the north is the so-called “DeCCo District.” The “Viaduct” neighborhood would which be centered between the Jefferson and Houston Street viaducts. The third neighborhood is Riverfront South, located south on Riverfront Blvd adjacent to the Trinity. Each of these districts will have unique characteristics that distinguish the neighborhoods as individual communities. The DeCCo district will be dense but inviting, featuring porous architecture and city blocks that shrink in size as they near the river. Once at the river, the district will feature an urban beach and promenade. The DeCCo district will also be the end point of an Art Walk that begins in the Arts District and connects to the Design District. In the center, the Viaduct will be an area of high density. This district will bridge over the horseshoe leading to the Pump House Amphitheater. Closer to the city center, the district’s focal point will be Union Station and a new station for the proposed high-speed rail that will connect the Texas Triangle. Riverfront South will be a medium density neighborhood that extends through the rail corridor south of downtown. This district is envisioned as a cultural area with water and music gardens.

Each of the districts will be primarily residential. In fact, 60 percent of the proposed development is residential. Stoss +SHoP believe that there is not a major need to create more commercial development that will compete with downtown Dallas as there is still so much vacancy in the central business district. Riverfront Boulevard will serve as the spine for the new neighborhoods. It will be the main thoroughfare of a loop that links back to downtown. The plan calls for an expansion of the DART light rail along Riverfront, stretching to the south before turning north though the convention center and into the government district before looping back down into the DeCCo district. The rail line is also extended in a loop to the west side of the Trinity thereby linking parts of Oak Cliff and West Dallas to downtown.

Focusing on that overused and often ambiguous term “mixed-use,” residential development in each district would seem to benefit the urban core. Downtown is slowly gaining residents; estimates of residents downtown usually float around 8,000, but this new Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau’s latest video makes the dubious claim that 40,000 live there now. More people living and working in downtown will spur density and therefore development. Furthermore, turning Riverfront into a complete street and adding light rail or rapid transit bus lines is a sensible step for what would be the main artery of the project. Riverfront is currently a wide underdeveloped barren street. Increasing pedestrian traffic would again create a desirable environment for investment and development.

Understanding the impact that nature has on our urban environment is a central point in this plan. The proposed urban forest will help to alleviate the CO2 emissions emanating from the vehicles on the freeways. Not only that, but it will also serve as a buffer and cover for the blight within the areas that are dominated by infrastructure. However, it is the revitalization of the old Trinity River that will be the focal point of reclamation and conservation efforts. By expanding the wetlands and incorporating features that are submersible during floods, the old Trinity will lessen the burden on the sump system and that of the river within the levees during flooding events while creating active park spaces year-round.

This plan, though, can only do so much to connect the city core to the river. As presented, the Trinity Toll Road is prominently displayed in their designs. However, they have come up with an interesting plan to attempt to mitigate its impact. Each of the districts features a promenade, or urban beach in the case of DeCCo, that extends out and over the toll road in an attempt to link the areas to the waterfront. These promenades would be would decks that could withstand inevitable flooding. By connecting to the river in this manner, Stoss + SHoP believe that they are leveraging the impact of the tollway. It seems, though, that they are simply attempting to bypass yet another obstacle. During the talk both Chris Reed and Vishaan Chakrabarti, the presenters, reiterated that their proposal was not tied down to the toll road. They were simply working within the parameters set by the voters of Dallas.

As with every plan that has been presented during the Connected City Design Challenge, it has elements that warrant merit. Overall, it is light on specifics. This may translate into future flexibility but none of the envisioned plans, if selected, will include every element that was proposed. Stoss + SHoP’s plan includes little on how pedestrian traffic will traverse the jumbled infrastructure that makes up the I-35 corridor. The urban forest that is to flank these roads becomes yet another barrier to those inclined to walk. Yet the biggest barrier is still the toll road. It may be decked in places, but it still serves as a wall that severs the city and all the envisioned greenspace from the Trinity. If Dallas truly wants to connect to the river it long ago forgot about, it needs to do so in an unfettered and unimpeded manner.