The civic leaders leading the status quo vision of the Trinity River — collectively organized under two organizations, a political arm called the Trinity Commons Foundation and the fundraising arm called The Trinity Trust — have squandered the public’s trust and lost the narrative surrounding the history and future of the Trinity River Project.
There is no greater evidence of this than yesterday’s Trinity Commons Foundation luncheon. The event was billed as a celebration of progress made on the Trinity, but judging from reports from the event, there was depressingly little progress with which to update donors. If anything, the update was to remind those who purchased the $175 tickets to the luncheon that grand plans and financial uncertainties continue to delay the long-promised Trinity River Project.
Instead of news, the Trinity Commons Foundation offered a discussion with two former Dallas mayors, Ron Kirk and Tom Leppert, and the current one, Mike Rawlings. What the three seemed to agree on was that a highway built between the levees is still an important part of the formula for the Trinity’s future. Then there was the promise of a new vision for the park planned for a tiny sliver of the massive floodplain portion of the Trinity River watershed that runs past downtown Dallas. Mayor Rawlings has put the price tag of building a portion of that grand dream at $250 million to $300 million. In October he announced an initial $50 million gift form the Annette Simmons, widow of Harold Simmons. If anyone expected news of more funds raised for the vision or a feasible financial plan for the beloved road project, it didn’t come. Instead, Rawlings reminded attendees of the deep pockets of this city’s philanthropic class and optimistically assured them that the amount could be raised — at some point.
Over at the Dallas Observer, Jim Schutze aptly explains the problem with the mayor’s philanthropic optimism. What’s troubling is not that the mayor won’t be able to raise the money, but rather that if he does (at time when our city’s roads are deteriorating and the police and firefighter pension is in such desperate shape), taxpayers will have to foot the maintenance and operations bills down the line. After all, this is precisely what has happened in the past when Dallas’ wealthiest patrons have put their hard-earned cash and philanthropic will behind a big projects for Dallas:
Yes, that’s the problem. Look at the Arts District downtown. Rich people in Dallas used their wealth to create a host of dramatic venues, all of which are now dramatically expensive to maintain and dramatically underfunded for operations and maintenance. In fact, forget operations and maintenance even; last year the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which is more or less the whole arts district, revealed that its benefactors had not endowed it with enough money to pay off its bank note.
This isn’t an alarmist or defeatist view; it’s a realistic one. Just look at the city’s list of deferred maintenance on its cultural facilities and you can see how Dallas’ philanthropic approach to city building turns out in the long run. Dallas builds incredible facilities and then can’t afford to keep them up. Meanwhile those philanthropic gemstones suck up funding from the rest of the city’s cultural programs and facilities. It’s all profoundly short-sighted and self-serving.
This has been the problem with the idea of the Trinity River Project all along, and I’m not just talking about the project as it has existed since Ron Kirk kick-started its newest iteration in the 1990s. In the March issue of D Magazine, I write about the long history of the Trinity River Project. Ever since John Neely Bryan showed up on the shores of the Trinity in 1839 and decided to return to the spot two years later to set up a trading post (eventually founding a new city), Dallas’ civic leadership has tried to figure out how to turn the Trinity River into something it’s not. By the late 1840s, Dallas leadership was already lobbying Congress to build damns and deepen the river to accommodate shipping. A succession of civic groups with names not too dissimilar from the Trinity Commons Foundation can be traced back through the decades. Those organizations map out a genealogy of the Dallas establishment.
And what has it produced?
“I wish you could see the view from Mary Cook’s house,” Ron Kirk quipped at yesterday’s luncheon. Kirk knew his audience and got a laugh. Here’s what he was really telling them: “Can you imagine someone like Mary Cook actually lives south of the Trinity River?” But to anyone with a clear perspective of Dallas — or its history or the way this city’s civic, social, and cultural groups function or the state of the Trinity River itself — Kirk’s joke was a transparent, gaudy, and frightfully honest. On one level, that is what the modern Trinity River Project has been all about: the view from Mary Cook’s house.
This all strikes me as pathetic. These are the people who have been entrusted with steering the Trinity River Project for three decades, and they have depressingly little to show for it (except for the same old assurances and promises of grandeur). Ben Sandifer, a tireless advocate and watchdog of the Great Trinity Forest — who often provides much-needed citizen oversight of the very pet projects and misguided initiatives pushed by the Trinity River Commons folk — pointed out on Twitter that the Trinity River Commons people stole his wildlife photographs for their luncheon brochure. That’s not terribly surprising. As Tim noted on Twitter, when the crowd of 300 were asked who had actually been to the Trinity Forest, about 20 hands went up.
Like I said: pathetic.
But here’s what’s hopeful: the city doesn’t need to follow this status quo leadership anymore. We can put the pied pipers of false progress out to pasture.
As Angela Hunt also explains in our March Trinity River package, there is a way forward on the Trinity River, a way to transform the entire floodplain into a wilderness preserve. It doesn’t need a plan or federal approvals or $300 million in private donations. In fact, the project could have started nearly two years ago. That’s because when federal authorities approved the Environmental Impact Statement for the Balanced Vision Plan, they approved a stage-able, road-less version of the Trinity River park that could be realized with the $47 million that still remains from the 1998 bond package. You can read more about that plan here.
I know that to close followers of the Trinity River’s history that the Balanced Vision Plan may conjure images of water taxis and jugglers under overpasses. That’s because as the status quo crowd has been trying to figure out how to finance the highway they still want to see built between the levees, the Trinity Trust was charged with producing a steady stream of watercolors intended to appease — or distract — a skeptical electorate. But the Balanced Vision Plan is really a federally approved road map — complete with engineering and hydrological studies — that allows for a staged “re-wilding” of the entire Trinity River floodplain.
D Magazine’s March cover package is called “Wild Dallas,” and the term derives from the work and writings of architect and planner Kevin Sloan. You can read about Sloan’s vision for “Wild Dallas” here. But here is the key takeaway: Dallas can finally realize the highest and best use of the Trinity River only by respecting, preserving, and working with the subtle and delicate ecology of the Trinity River watershed.
As Sloan explains, this doesn’t mean being anti-economic development, or anti-park, or anti-progress, or anti-Dallas. In fact, he argues, unlike the old, tired visions of the status quo Trinity leadership, if we re-wild the Trinity, Dallas would realize something unique to itself and unlike anything any other American city has: a natural preserve and wilderness right on its doorstep, winding up through the sinewy urban landscape, and providing tremendous opportunities for eco-tourism, education, renewed urban growth, progress on social equality, and more.
These are the topics we will be discussing during our “Envisioning the Trinity: Theme Park or Natural Wonder?” symposium on March 8. I hope you can join us.
The point is this: we can embrace the Trinity River and steward it toward an incredible future by reclaiming its character as a natural, wild space. We don’t need $300 million in Highland Park donations to do it. We just need a little imagination and enough representatives on the Dallas City Council who can see the Trinity River Commons Foundation and company for what they are: the captains of a sinking ship, not at all unlike the captains of those paddle boats that fought the winding, muddy Trinity River a hundred years ago in an effort to prove that the Trinity River could be transformed into something it is not.
It’s time to set aside misguided thinking about this river. It’s time to embrace the Trinity River for the natural wonder it is. We can do that. The money is there. The vision is there. The engineering plans are in place. It can happen now.