Once counci lmember has already dubbed this addition to Klyde Warren "The asthma porch."

Urbanism

When Will Dallas Learn to Just Say No to Bad Gifts?

Klyde Warren Park has proposed an new expansion. But does the design really have downtown Dallas' best interests in mind?

We’ve all had our giggle about the new proposal to extend Klyde Warren Park by building a parking garage in the park. I mean, the irony couldn’t be richer. A park project acclaimed for the way it adapts Dallas’ car-centric environment to pedestrians now wants to re-adapt itself for the automobile.

That said, it isn’t really the worst idea in the world. The proposal, which you can now experience in video form, does try to address some real challenges facing the park, namely its lack of connectivity to surrounding areas and the need to find ways of funding the maintenance of a park so popular it is often overrun with visitors.

But what bothers me about the idea isn’t so much its poorly conceived urban design, but rather the fact that, once again, a new design for an important area of Dallas has seemingly appeared from nowhere, dropping out of the sky and into the laps of elected representatives, who are expected to get in line and pony up public dollars to make it happen.

Sound familiar? Isn’t this how, from Fair Park to the Trinity River, so much of the planning around Dallas’ most high-profile districts happens? It is characteristic of the way the city operates when philanthropy touches the public sphere. There seems to be an attitude in this city that when the private sector has an idea and is willing to put hard-earned charitable dollars behind it, the city’s role is to applaud the generosity of our enlightened civic patrons and swallow what they are given.

That’s happening again here. In fact, this is the line that jumped out at me in the DMN report:

“This is a gift to the city,” [Woodall Rodgers Deck Park Foundation chair Jody] Grant said Monday, referring to the park itself and the millions in added property tax revenue the park has generated since opening. “Therefore, in our eyes it makes every sense for the city to step up and help pay for this. … We think this is entirely justifiable.”’

Let’s use an example to show how silly this sounds. Museums are given gifts all the time – it’s how they build their collections. Generally, what happens is a big donor or collector comes to them and says, “Hey, when I die, you can have all my art.” The museum says thanks. They may even throw a party or something. But what if you or I went to the Dallas Museum of Art tomorrow with a U-Haul full of your crazy aunt’s cat paintings and said, “I would like to donate my art collection to your museum”? What would the DMA say? Probably something like “You’re insane.”

It is nice to receive gifts, but when you are dealing with institutional gifts, the gift is only as good as its service the institution. The problem with this latest “gift” to Dallas is that it has been generated in such a way in which the needs of the receiving “institution,” in this case the city of Dallas, are secondary to the needs of the foundation that is generating the vision.

I can empathize with Jody Grant’s position. Klyde Warren does face myriad issues, including connectivity to surrounding areas, congestion, and the need for new sources of funds for park maintenance. This proposal addresses each of those, some of them better than others. But throughout, the vision suggests that the thinking that went into drafting the proposal had the needs and desires of Klyde Warren Park — or its foundation — front and center, while it doesn’t fully consider how the solutions will impact areas beyond Klyde Warren’s borders.

There are plenty of things to critique about the proposal. For example, will 70 spaces really impact the tight parking situation around the park or merely induce more demand for parking? Will the location of the garage on the edge of the park draw more cars to the area, creating traffic lineups and congestion in and around the park? Does the idea of the parking lot in the first place suggest that the foundation views its park as an island amenity that needs to be accessible to visitors with the same ease and user experience that we associate to visiting a sports arena or a strip mall?

Furthermore, if the desire is to improve connectivity and access to the park, then why doesn’t the foundation consider working on a plan to improve the existing streetscape around the park? What about improving public transit to the area, or making strategic investments in the immediate areas adjacent to the park so that visitors feel like they are in a city while at Klyde Warren and not sitting on an island of urbanity in the middle of a concrete dead zone?

I think the answer to these questions is simple: the vision and the solutions it proposes were generated by the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation and so they have the needs of the foundation first in mind. That’s the foundation’s job, of course, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the foundation’s job is not to think holistically about how to develop the central part of Dallas; it is to meet the needs of its particular mission and the desires of its board. Which is precisely the problem with large-scale urban planning proposals that are generated by private interests: they meet the needs of the private interests first and foremost but end up being less than ideal (or bad) deals for the city.

Just like a museum wouldn’t accept an artwork that doesn’t meet its own expectations of its own quality as a museum, the city shouldn’t be so willing to rubber stamp any new “gift” that arrives readymade in a water colored PowerPoint in the Council chambers. There are real challenges facing Klyde Warren. They need to be addressed. But let’s pursue solutions to those challenges by taking the conversations out of the shadows of foundation boardrooms and into the public sphere.

Rather than coming to the city with renderings of a new floating parking garage, the foundation should engage a public process to come up with a way to expand or improve Klyde Warren as well as the part of town that is increasingly functioning as Dallas’ front doorstep. Let’s engage the community and planning and design experts. Let’s invite architects and urban planners to submit proposals. Let’s have a design competition and have the public weigh in on those proposals.

Let’s stop acting like a pauper city with its hands out, willing to take any pennies well-heeled passersby are willing to drop in our little cup.

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