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.”