In conversations I have had with various officials and individuals about the Trinity River Project in the lead up to and following our Wild Dallas issue, I have been asked a simple question time and time again from people on all sides of the debate. What, exactly, is the disagreement?
After all, back in October 2016, Mayor Mike Rawlings made it clear that he wanted to make the park “the client” of the Trinity River Project. When Rawlings announced a multi-million-dollar pledged grant to help build a vision of the park designed by world-renowned designer Michael van Valkenburgh, he said that the city was, finally, able to rally around universal support for turning the Trinity River watershed into a massive park for Dallas.
Everyone wants a park – or, at least, a natural or recreational amenity of some sort. We can at least agree on that. So why is there still a debate?
My answer to the question isn’t to cite the lingering presence of the federally approved toll road, or to doubt whether the corps of engineers will allow anything like the van Valkenburgh vision, or to question the feasibility of funding, or long-term maintenance, or any of the other issues regarding the Trinity River Project in its current iteration.
Rather, my answer was much simpler. The disagreement over the Trinity River is all about public trust – or more specifically, the lack of public trust in those pushing for the project.
That’s what I tried to shine a light on in my history of the Trinity River Project in the March issue. The split in the city over the Trinity River relates to a historical attitude. It is the legacy of more than a century of attempts by headstrong city leaders to push forward visions for the river that often served private interests at the expense of the public good. Strategies for achieving these visions often attempted to hamstring the public process. To a certain extent, grassroots efforts to block the Dallas establishment’s plans for the river gave birth to an oppositional voice in Dallas politics. Dallas’ political culture today has largely been shaped by the historic fights over the Trinity River.
As a result, regardless of whether the Dallas establishment was selling a canal, or a high-speed tollway, or even highly manufactured urban park sold as an economic stimulator, these efforts are viewed by many in this city as an attempt to hoodwink the electorate and push an agenda that doesn’t have the environmental or ecological needs of the Trinity River front-of-mind. And history as shown that those concerns are not unfounded.
When two sides of a debate don’t trust each other, compromise is difficult. But when one side of a debate is defined in terms of its opposition to the other side, there can be no real conversation. And so what we get is what we have largely seen in recent years with the Trinity: attempts to out-flank, out-maneuver, squash, quiet, or disenfranchise opposition voices. The distrust deepens. The Trinity suffers for the lack of a multiplicity of voices at the negotiating table.
Case in point: Jim Schutze recently penned a column that takes aim at what he characterized as a “back room giveaway” being orchestrated by the mayor to “give the river away” to a new private entity. What Schutze is talking about is not actually a big secret. When the mayor announced the donation last October, he said one contingency of the gift was to turn over management of the new park to a private entity. This isn’t a novel idea. Around the country, park projects of the scale and character of the Trinity have been managed by quasi-governmental, public-private partnerships with much success. Most recently, Houston’s lauded Buffalo Bayou project took shape thanks to that city’s adoption of a Local Government Corporation to raise funds for and manage the construction and maintenance of the beloved preserve.
But in Dallas, the idea of a Local Government Corporation, which is the model the mayor is pursuing to implement the latest vision for the Trinity River Project, smacks of suspicion. In light of the history of Dallas and the Trinity River Project, it is viewed as simply the latest attempt to remove the river from any kind of public oversight.
The way the conversation over the LGC is beginning to shape up reflects the typical binary character of most Trinity River conversations. It will lead us back to the same old stagnation. It is a reminder that when it comes to the Trinity River best practices that have a proven track records in other cities won’t work in Dallas until the more fundamental question – the question of public trust – is dealt with.
But here’s the good news: I believe that Dallas has never before been as close as it could be to real compromise and vision for the future of the Trinity River. Lost in all the suspicion, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the mayor does appear to be sincerely advancing a vision that priorities transforming the Trinity River into a natural preserve – something like the “Wild Dallas” vision we advocate for in the March edition. While I would still rather see money raised for the Trinity go towards creating an endowment to fund the creation of a Trinity River national preserve or state park, on paper, I have no problem with an LGC taking over management of the Trinity River watershed. It does hold the potential of overcoming many mismanagement issues that have largely hampered the city’s current handling of the river.
But as lingering suspicion of the mayor’s efforts suggest, simply establishing an LGC is not enough to heal the historic loss of public trust that is the legacy of the Trinity River Project. That’s why to truly move forward in good faith, these 10 simple provisions must be incorporated into any effort to realize a new vision and management structure for the Trinity River Project. This is how we restore public trust in the Trinity River Project. This is the road forward for a final solution for Dallas’ long and troubled history with its river, a way to finally embrace the Trinity River for the incredible natural amenity that it is:
1. A city council resolution to formally kill Alternative 3C
Alternative 3C is the big, honking, river-killing road that no one seems to want to build. That said, it is still the only road that the Federal Highway Administration has officially approved for the Trinity. Traffic studies have shown the road would have limited impact on mobility. There is a federally approved version of the Balanced Vision Plan that does not include the road. Formally resolving not to build Alternative 3C would not damage or unravel the rest of the project, and since no one really knows how to fund the thing, a council resolution formally killing Alternative 3C would be a largely symbolic gesture. Yet, it would be an important and significant symbol of good will. A formal restitution by the council to kill 3C would go a long way to assure critics that new plans for the Trinity aren’t just Trojan Horses for the eventually construction of the road.
2. Disband Trinity Commons Foundation
The existence of multiple Trinity-related non-profit foundations has muddied the political waters around the road, and stoked suspicion by creating cover for various political, private, and business interests who are pushing their own agendas through the Trinity River Project. Some of these organizations, like the Trinity Commons Foundation, are the heirs to similarly named groups that stretch back to the days when the business establishment was trying to push a canal-ing of the Trinity. The lack of a single voice to steward the vision for and conservation of the Trinity River has also allowed for a multiplicity of sometimes contradictory, competing, or misguided interests to introduce poorly conceived amenities into the Trinity. From concrete trails to intrusive horse parks, the vision for the Trinity in recent decades has often been steered by well-meaning individuals with deep philanthropic pockets, rather than a coherent and comprehensive set of best practices for creating access and realizing the full-potential of our natural amenity. That’s no way to run or build a park.
The only way to establish a coherent vision for the future is to have one group with authority for the maintenance and conservation of the watershed. As the Trinity River Trust transitions to the Trinity River Conservancy and establishes itself as Local Government Corporation, there is no longer a need for the Trinity Commons Foundation or groups like it. To ensure that there are no competing interests in creating a singular vision for the Trinity future, the Trinity Commons Foundation should be dissolved and its assets (roughly $130,000 according to its latest 990) should be donated to a new park maintenance endowment managed by the Trinity River Conservancy.
3. How to Appoint the Local Government Corporation Board
The fact that the Trinity Trust, the non-profit responsible for both the infamous juggler under the overpass Trinity visions and the debacle of the white-water course, is the organization that is evolving into the Trinity River Conservancy Local Government Corporation is rife with understandable suspicion. In order to quell that distrust, a clear and transparent means of creating a board and ensuring public oversight of that board must be established from the get go.
This can be achieved by having all LGC board members nominated by any individual member of the Dallas City Council and appointed by a full vote of the council, similar to how DART board members are appointed. Board members should not be solely nominated by the mayor, as is the case in Houston. In addition, in order to restore trust, the founding board of the LGC should also be made of up individuals who have not served within the leadership of the Dallas (i.e. former city managers) or served on the staff of any of the foundations that have historically been involved in the Trinity River Project (i.e. former executive directors of the Trinity Trust or Trinity Commons Foundation).
4. Establish conservationist and neighborhood-designated LGC board seats
At least one-quarter of the seats on the LGC board should be reserved for “conservationists,” defined by a demonstrated background as a naturalist, ecologist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist, or any similar field. Also, one-quarter of the seats on the board will be reserved for city of Dallas residents who reside in neighborhoods near, adjacent, or impacted by the floodplain of the river.
5. City will maintain ownership of Trinity floodway land and renew the LGC contract annually
This may already be taken care of with city charter, but like the zoo and other public-private management organizations affiliated with the city, the LGC should have an annual contract that is renewed by a vote of the city council. At any time, the city will retain the right to dissolve the LGC and bring management of the Trinity River watershed back under city staff. The city will not sell or cede ownership of any of its land in the Trinity River watershed. By state law, the LGC will not possess eminent domain power, and any questions of land acquisition, donation for the Trinity River Project will go through the city.
6. The LGC will not have road building authority
It is a good idea to create a public-private entity that can overcome he bureaucratic and economic obstacles that have hampered maintenance of the Trinity. However, this new organization should be limited in its power to construct improvements in the floodway. The LGC should not possess the authority to build a roadway, toll road, highway, or any similar transportation infrastructure in the city-owned floodway.
7. The Trinity River Conservancy LGC must adopt established national or state park maintenance guidelines into its bylaws.
The Trinity River Conservancy must truly be a conservancy. The organization should hold itself accountable by formally adopting a version of either the National Park Service or Texas Parks and Wildlife, and/or Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s established policy standards and protocols for operating, maintaining, and conserving public park lands into their bylaws.
8. Council should lobby Congress to restore federal environmental oversight of the Trinity River
In 2010, former-Senator Kay Baily Hutchinson slipped a provision into the back of a tax appropriation bill that removed the Trinity River Floodway from the oversight of two federal environmental regulations concerning historic sites and wetlands. Not only does this kind of backroom political play breed suspicion and squander public trust, but it seems to undermine the sincerity of the argument that those advocating for the Trinity River truly have the conservation as a natural waterway front-of-mind. To restore that trust, as well as to ensure protection of the Trinity as a natural asset, the council should formally lobby its federal representatives to restore federal environmental oversight of the Trinity River watershed.
9. Lay out a transparent public process for stage-building the park
Part of the fiction of the Michael van Valkenburgh “vision” for the Trinity is that it is both too expensive to build all in one shot and many of its features have not been engineered, and so there is no definitive answer to the question of whether or not they can be built according to the federally approved guidelines of the Balanced Vision Plan. The implementation of a “wild vision” for the Trinity or a “rivertine” floodway will require a staged, iterative engineering and design process in close consort with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that any changes in the floodway have a net-zero impact on flood control. The determination of what aspects of the park are constructed first – from the reintroduction of native flora and wetlands to paths, access, and even a potential re-meandering of the river – must be made via an open and transparent community public input process.
10. Establish a maintenance endowment for entire watershed with strategic plan for use/conservation of the watershed
There is a large multi-million grant on the table for the construction of the park, as well as a mayoral promise to raise upwards of $200 million for the build-out of the Trinity River Project. But the real problem with the river is that its maintenance and conservation has been grossly underfunded. City hall does not possess the staff to coordinate environmental stewardship or sufficient maintenance of paths and trails. In addition to pledging to raise the funds for the construction of a park, an endowment must be established that specifically funds the maintenance of the park. This will include hiring a staff of environmental coordinators, naturalists, and others who can work year-round on monitoring, maintaining, and conserving the Trinity River, its watershed, forest, and wide-reaching environs.