Trinity River

Council Approves Local Government Corporation to Oversee Trinity River Project

After a prolonged debate, the council gave the thumbs up to hand over control of the Trinity River to a new public-private organization.

Today the City Council voted 9-6 in favor of approving a plan to create a Local Government Corporation to take over the development, maintenance, and construction of a new Trinity River park. During a prolonged debate on the issue that took up most of the morning and stretched on until after 2 p.m., the Council added a laundry list of amendments to the proposal, most of which were introduced by Councilman Scott Griggs and added to an amended motion initially introduced by Councilman Dwaine Caraway. The details of all of it will have to be sussed out as final printed versions of the patched together legal documents are released.

The amendments generally attempted to address issues of governance and the scope of powers of the new LGC. It was complicated legal contract writing that played out in the public sphere, a result, in part, of the fact that the legal documents creating the LGC were released just two weeks ago and the mayor pushed hard to rush through approval. Griggs attempted and failed to delay the vote 30 days, but was otherwise successful in amending some of the original LGC proposal. Caraway stood in the middle as a broker of the final agreement. As political spectacle, it was a demonstration both of the balance of power within the Council and the transparency and compromise possible within Dallas’ oft-derided 14-1 council-manager form of government.

In addition to the attempt to delay the vote, other amendments that failed to pass muster with the full Council included an attempt to give Council authority to nominate LGC board members (a power reserved for the mayor) and an attempt to not name the park after billionaire Harold Simmons, who operated nuclear waste dumps in West Texas and whose widow put up a $50 million gift to build the Trinity River park. That gift required the city to hand over control of the 4,000 acres of city land between the levees to a public-private partnership, and that, ultimately, is what the Council did with today’s vote.

There was a lot of off-the-cuff legalese banging around the Council chambers, and it will take some time to go back and figure what the final shape of the approved LGC actually is. Positive amendments to the agreement that stood out included a provision ensuring that at least one of the LGC’s seven board members will be a conservationist and another one that added limits to board members’ terms.

However, my overall impression from watching the process was that despite the decision on the LGC, Dallas still hasn’t addressed the real meat of the matter: it still harbors ambiguous ideas with regards to Trinity River planning and conservation.

The good news is that the Trinity toll road is dead and we can move forward with thinking about how to manage the Trinity River watershed. There is a federally approved plan (the Balanced Vision Plan) that will allow for some adjustments to the floodway to help guide the transformation of the land into a recreational amenity for the city. Now there is also an organization that has the authority and leverage to realize that transformation and potentially oversee a master vision for how Dallas relates to and realizes the potential of its river.

The bad news is that city leadership still doesn’t have a clear vision or policy directive with regards to how to best steward and realize the potential of the city’s largest natural amenity. An oft-repeated phrase during today’s proceedings was that “Everyone wants the park.” But specifics about what kind of park ranged wildly, from talk of soccer and baseball fields, to paths and access roads, to bushes and ducks and lakes. The LGC will have jurisdiction over building something in the 4,000 acres that stretch from the confluence of the West and Elm Forks of the Trinity River toward the Santa Fe Trail that crosses the river just north of the Great Trinity Forest. The initial phase one of the park project that was part of today’s approval vote is to concentrate efforts — and the allocation of that $50 million gift — on a 200-acre segment between the downtown bridges. Presumably, this park will follow the vision laid out in renderings drawn up by urban designer Michael van Valkenburgh.

But at other points in the meeting, council members asked whether or not, while this downtown park project was moving forward, the city’s parks or watershed departments could make improvements in areas that fall outside the new LGC’s jurisdiction. Could some of the $47 million in city bond money left over for the park be allocated in other parts of the watershed? For what? Baseball fields at McCommas Bluff? Bird blinds at the Turtle Creek spill-off? Concrete bike trails through forests south of Bonton? Who knows? Did the Council create a new agency today that will be able to bring clarity and singularity of vision to the stewardship of the Trinity, or will it simply be another layer of governance over a swath of the city that is already managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Dallas Parks and Recreation, and Dallas Trinity Watershed Management? Perhaps the answer to that question lies with the quality of vision and leadership offered by the head of the new LGC, real estate developer Michael Ablon.

While the Trinity toll road was finally killed at today’s Council meeting, the meeting also demonstrated the true cost of the toll road. For the better part of three decades, public conversation around the Trinity River has largely been framed in binary terms: save it or lose it, us versus them. Furthermore, it was an indication that in the 100-year-plus history of the city’s dealings with the river, leaders have mostly been bent toward trying to figure out what to do, what to build, how to develop the Trinity River. What Dallas hasn’t done — or done enough of or well enough — is had an extended conversation about what the Trinity really is and what kind of amenity it represents to the city.

The Trinity River is not a park. It is a complex ecosystem, a dynamic natural space that is unique in the world. Should we build baseball fields in it or amenities like the Audubon Center? We have a park plan in the Balanced Vision Plan, but do we also need to draw up conservation management plans, archaeological excavation plans, wildlife protection plans, and botanic management plans? Should the LGC lead that effort? This is what Dallas should have been debating over the past 30 years, not the stupid question of whether a highway should be built in a floodway.

But let’s remain hopeful. An LGC could be the organization that helps begin a process of public input to finally shape a full-size vision for the city’s management and conservation of the Trinity River watershed. In addition, the LGC that was adopted today, thanks to the many amendments introduced, will be a better tool than the one first introduced a couple of weeks ago. As I said, the LGC was adopted by a vote of 9-6. For the record, the council members voting against the measure were Scott Griggs, Adam Medrano, Philip Kingston, Mark Clayton, Kevin Felder, and Omar Narvaez.

Now we’re at the beginning of the conversation, not the end. What does it mean to build a park between the Trinity River levees? What kind of park will the Trinity let us build? What kind of natural civic amenity could exist between the levees? I suggest that conversations starts here.

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