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Architecture & Design

Can Trees, Wetlands Reconnect Downtown With The Trinity River?

The goal of Stoss + SHoP’s design is to use the landscape as the starting point, creating a water spine for future development.

In 2013, Dallas was introduced to the Connected City Design Challenge. The Challenge’s purpose is to link the downtown core back to the Trinity River. Last year, three design and architecture firms’ plans were chosen, out of many entrants, as finalists. In a series of presentations, Richardo Bofill, OMA AMO, and Stoss + SHoP presented their plans to reintegrate the river to the urban environment. You can read about their plans, and the overall project, here. Stoss + SHoP’s “Hyper Density Hyper Landscape” proposal was selected as the preferred theme for the project earlier this year.

Tuesday evening, the Dallas Architectural Forum hosted a discussion on the progress of the Connected Cities Design Challenge. Brent Brown of bcWORKSHOP hosted the event, and Chris Reed from Stoss + SHoP joined via Skype to outline the initial phase of the project. The goal of Stoss + SHoP’s design is to use the landscape as the starting point, creating a water spine for future development. This spine will be realized along the old route of the Trinity River in what is now the sump system which runs parallel to the east levee. The southern portion of the design area is currently the focus of the project with the Able Pump Station (Sump A) and a series of nine ponds to the south being the focal points. These areas control the major water runoff from downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods.

The goal is to activate the existing wetlands found in these locations, improving some while leaving others as they currently are, creating a natural water purification system. Three major wetland locations in the meander of the old river will be created with the largest being near Reunion. Establishing the wetlands will, in turn, allow for the creation of terraced water gardens. By terracing the wetlands and gardens the existing system of wetlands will be able to retain more water than at present. This will also accommodate for flooding. Along the water will be a series of boardwalks linking the wetlands, water gardens, and other natural amenities. In all, there will be seven to 10 acres of wetlands and approximately 20 acres of water gardens. These features will serve as the core to all future development.

Daylighting some, if not all, of the original channel of the Trinity was a major feature in the three finalist deigns. Not only will the wetlands cleanse the water but they will also help to restore the ecosystem that was destroyed when the Trinity was moved and straightened. Beyond that, it creates a natural attraction. By prioritizing the environment, essentially making it a marketing device, Stoss + SHoP’s plan seems to fly in the face of much of the development that has historically taken place in Dallas.

While there is no timetable for the completion of this leg of the project, the Army Corps of Engineers must approve anything that affects the levees after all, Brown did muster a guess for how much it could cost. He estimated that it will cost between $15 million and $20 million. Of course, this is a preliminary number. It would be wise not to hold him to it.

The second half of the panel discussion centered on the urban forest that is central to Stoss + SHoP’s design. Their plan is to plant trees to obscure the obtrusive infrastructure that dominates the western edge of downtown. The Texas Tree Foundation and Downtown Dallas Inc. are working closely with the firm on this aspect of the project with DDI going as far as surveying all the trees in downtown. Part of the plan is to create an urban tree farm next to the Dawson State Jail in order to foster trees for the planned forest. Surely, this is just what Mark Lamster had in mind to liven up the empty building when he recently called it “a grim block that looks like some kind of dystopian Lego project.” According to Dorcy Clark, a member of the city’s Trinity Watershed Management Department, approval for the tree farm could go before the City Council as early as next week.

While the focus on the wetlands makes perfect sense, the addition of an urban forest remains confounding. Historically, trees have not been a dominant feature of the landscape until recently as this region was a prairie. Remnants of the Blackland Prairie still remain within the city. Planting trees may make the area more visually appealing but it doesn’t begin to touch the fundamental issues involved with physically linking downtown to the Trinity. Besides, why plant a new urban forest when the city can’t manage to treat the one it already has with any degree of competency?


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