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Rewilding the Trinity, and Avoiding the Errors of the Past

A few notes from last night's Trinity River symposium.

Driving to work on Wednesday along a neighborhood street in North Oak Cliff, I saw a hawk hovering over a dead squirrel, a piece of flesh hanging from the bird’s mouth. I steered around it and drove past, not thinking much of it. Dr. Robert Moon, the Nasher’s horticulturist, had a similar anecdote at D Magazine’s Wednesday night symposium on what to do about the Trinity River. One of his clients had called him, he told an audience of about 275 people in an auditorium at Cityplace. There was a red-tailed hawk in the client’s tree, and animal parts were tumbling down.

“You want a red-tailed hawk!” Moon said. “We’ve been having huge problems with squirrels. Squirrels don’t like red-tailed hawks. There’s a balance that we’re going to be looking at. It’s not going to be all perfectionist. It’s nature. It is what it is, and it’s the way it works. Plants are going to be eaten by animals, insects are going to eat plants, and sometimes it’s not going to look good.”  

The wild is part of the fabric of Dallas. Neighborhood Facebook groups light up with alerts about coyote and fox sightings, urging residents to bring pets inside at night. When we walk along the banks at White Rock, or between the levees on the Trinity, we’re mindful that there could be snakes beneath our feet. We don’t notice the white ibis birds on the water as we’re driving along an interstate near the river; they look like white blurs, just part of the landscape. No matter how hard we’ve tried to bend the river to our desires—by damming it, by sticking concrete in it to create sham rapids—its influence sneaks in between our freeways and our skyscrapers and our condominiums. The sunflowers bloom in the summer. The native blackland prairie grasses near White Rock that were mowed for decades grow back. There’s evidence of nature in plenty of places if we’d just look; bending the river to our will has not worked.

That existential conflict—how Dallas has failed for generations to appreciate the Trinity River, what we should do going forward—was the heart of the symposium. Over the decades, we’ve seen nine different plans for the Trinity and not much else. The park has been used as a bargaining chip, its promise tied directly to a toll road or, as former councilwoman Angela Hunt dug up in the central library, a canal. If you want to see how close the road came to being built, drive over the Sylvan Avenue Bridge. There’s not a better place in Dallas to see the skyline, but it’s built so high that something like a toll road could easily fit under it. The street previously was at grade.

This had other consequences, too. It made accessing Trammell Crow Park a confusing headache; the soccer fields recalled by State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) are gone. Instead, for more than a year, silt built up and pooled around the park’s concrete cows. The men and women who addressed the crowd Wednesday night want Dallas to back off. “All we have to do is go in and nurture it a little bit,” Moon said. “Create a habitat and inject man into it softly.”

In 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers okayed the Balanced Vision Plan, a $14 million project that attempted to do just that. It included two versions of the plan, one with a road and one without. It spanned the 2,300 acres in the floodway, from where the east and west forks of the Trinity meet to the Trinity Forest. Don Raines, the Balanced Vision Plan’s landscape designer, joined lead architect Ignacio Bunster-Ossa in urging the crowd to realize just how unique an opportunity this is. It shouldn’t be approached like Central Park; it shouldn’t even be Houston’s Buffalo Bayou.

“There’s nothing like this, nothing in the U.S. for sure,” said Bunster-Ossa, who is also the landscape architecture practice leader for Americas for global engineering and design firm AECOM. “It’s a system connected to a much larger network, a system of drainage that can be used ecologically and recreationally. It’s rare to find that in an urban area.”

We can begin building the plan without a road immediately. Listening to three panels—the first with the lead designers and consultants of the plan, the next with three naturalists, and the final one with current and former elected officials—the Trinity is a story of unintended consequences. The city meddles, and the environment falters. For instance: despite assurances from Mayor Mike Rawlings and then City Manager Mary Suhm that this wouldn’t happen, developers whacked down hundreds of trees to dig a borrow pit for dirt used in the construction of a golf course in the Trinity Forest to lure the Byron Nelson tournament from Irving. That borrow pit has been out of compliance with state environmental regulations since January.

Anyone paying attention knows what came next—a so-called Dream Team of urban planners and designers coalesced under famed landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh’s $250 million proposal to again attempt to morph the Trinity into an amenity-packed attraction, complete with water mazes and grand promenades. Anchia referred to Van Valkenburgh as Van Helsing (“I can never pronounce the last name … I’m a first generation American citizen!”), and noted his concern that it’s another example of Dallas over-engineering.

“I would hate to see that happen,” he said.

Hunt said that the park should be a key issue in the May City Council elections (for the first time ever, each council member is up for reelection; none are termed out). Ask them, she said, “Will you vote to start the park now?” The city has $47 million from an earlier bond election that can go toward building the Balanced Vision Plan. That’s certainly more approachable than Van Valkenburgh-Helsing’s—as Hunt noted, there are contingencies attached to the recent $50 million gift from the Harold Simmons Foundation. Dallas gets $10 million if construction begins on the ornate Dream Team plan. The other $40 million is tied to whether the city can raise the remaining $200 million by September 2019—a feat the likes of which has never been seen. And that’s not even considering maintenance; just look at our beautiful venues in the Arts District, crumbling behind the curtain as the city fails to fund their maintenance. The Calatrava Bridges work the same way. Generous gifts made them possible, but they eat up about $700,000 every year in maintenance costs. As Councilman Scott Griggs reminded the room, “That comes straight out of your streets budget.”

Trinity champion Kevin Sloan, a landscape architect and urban planner, said we’re over-complicating this process; what is possible is already before us. “We need to look at the world as it is and keep the rules straight,” he said earlier in the evening. “The wild wants to be wild.”


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  • Ted Barker

    Matt, good work on this article which captures the flavor of last evenings symposium. Now, we have to find the political will to get started.

  • bmslaw

    Is “Tom Rogers” Timmy’s evil twin?

  • Gorgonopsis

    I hope we never find the political will to get it (the Trinity whatever is meant by that?) started as stated below. Political will is the problem. All the developers, financiers, city blue suits, and government agencies have been flexing their political wills and spending taxpayer money to get in on developing the Trinity river since 1992, that so far have expenditures approach or exceed $1 billion without any plan. These entities want to get in on the $47 million 1998 bond issue money that Hunt quotes. Supposedly, the bond money hasn’t been touched and has been set aside in an account earning interest. At simple interest of 3 percent (could be higher or lower depending on municipal bonds ) that bond money should have accumulated by 78 percent to have a sum now of $83.5 million. The question is has it accrued and if not where did the money go? The meeting Wednesday night (8 March 2017) sponsored by D Magazine was very nice, held at a very nice auditorium in the Southland building where I had never been before.

    D Magazine provided tasty hors d’ouvres and beverages that must have cost them a lot. So, thank you for the meeting and the food and the coverage of the Trinity but I’m afraid a bit late by at least 20 years, but keep on trying. Perhaps D Magazine could hold a monthly forum for stakeholders (public) where monthly occurrences within the corridor could be discussed, information disseminated, and the community could be informed. As we move forward something like we use to have called Save The Trinity could be started up where interested groups (Sierra, TCONR, Trinity River Action Coalition [the original TRAC], Historic Tree Coalition, Audubon, and others) met monthly perhaps supported by D Magazine and they would instantly have the news.

    The first panel of three that included Mssrs. Raines and Bunster-Ossa who commented the most, were off on some LA LA land fantasy while the 1,000 lb. gorilla was not in the room. That being the NTTA representing the toll road, as the two supported the “wonderful” (my emphasis) Balanced Vision Plan (BVP) the CESWF came up several times in 2004, and 2006. Then, as now, they don’t know if the road is going to be built or not and Hunt, the eternal planner and ex-city council member is a proponent for the BVP plan that supports Plan 3C of Krieger and Eager, etc. that modifies the entire Dallas Floodway. The Dallas Floodway is considered from Hwy. 183 to just south of the DART bridge where the trees start. Beyond the DART bridge south is the DFE (Dallas Floodway Extention) and numerous examples of illegal city activities have occurred down that way in an area covering over 2,000 acres that has nothing to do with the Dallas Floodway such as the un-permitted “borrow pit” glossed over by Mr. Goodman in the article above. Calling it a “borrow pit” is totally misleading as usual as the city stripped 18 acres of trees (n=18,000) and wetland plants, excavated 1.3+ million cubic yards of dirt (mostly sand and gravel), down 25-30 feet to and below the Trinity river level that filled the surface mine with river water, a huge EPA violation. Then, drained a 1.5 acre pond with numerous tracks of raccoons, deer, beaver and their lodges, otter dens and slides, fish, habitat for wading birds like white ibis, wood storks, great blue herons, several varieties of egrets, numerous varieties of ducks and other birds, to list a few of the egregious impacts that have occurred since the 2012 push by the mayor’s Grow South Dallas initiative. Please stay on point in the Floodway.

    This is a prime example of two monstrous Federal agencies that can’t work together, meanwhile milking the taxpayer dollar for the last 20 years (1998-2017, actually longer) with their contractors surveying and testing, creating over 9 plans, planning meetings, and meager public meetings over the years if we ever knew about the meetings. As Mr. Raines or Bunster-Ossa said, “oh well, the bench (for the toll road), forget about bench we will deal with it when the time comes.” And, as Mr. Raines condescended to the audience and said, “we don’t want to overwhelm you (the audience) with terms like fluid hydrology, etc., used by the CESWF in the BVP.” Well, Mr. Raines, the so-called “bench” impedes and constricts flow and will have to go, but it appears that the CESWF doesn’t have the honesty to make that determination and the NTTA wasn’t there to explain.

    Myself and many others have been against any project in the Trinity river corridor from Hwy. 183 to I-20 and beyond. Hunt and others call for the “park” plan in the BVP, let’s plan a park, well, it has been a park since Stemmons willed 2,300 acres to the city for a park 50 years ago. The city needs to just let it go. I have to agree with Kevin Sloan (“Go With The Flow,” D Magazine March 2017 issue pp. 88-91) and leave the river alone from now on. There has been enough damage as the city and other agencies continue to chip away (over 3,000+ acres have been damaged, altered or destroyed) along the river corridor as it looses it’s wildness and no mitigation they can conjure up will replace what was wildness.

  • Cristine

    Kevin Sloan is on target . . . . keep it wild.
    I told Kevin about an idea I had regarding the land between the viaducts, it is always mowed. To me, the beauty is in pre-mowed. In other words, allow nature to grow, bloom, evolve. Mow trails throughout and allow meandering walkability.

    The new Sylvan bridge produced a tragic loss. The original road brought drivers down to the river’s level. Human’s connection to the river and nature. It is now lost. What a shame.

    All residents need to do is utilize the space. Take ownership. If you wait for permission or for all conditions to be just right, utilizing the space will never happen.

    Just do it.