A view of the Trinity River after heavy rains in 2015. Can you believe some people wanted to put a toll road here? Photo by Tim Rogers.

Trinity River

Harvey Offers Stark Warning: Dallas Should Build a Trinity River Preserve, Not Park

Houston's Buffalo Bayou was devastated by the hurricane. Dallas' plans for a Trinity River Park will be too if the city doesn't learn the hard lessons of Texas floods.

In the lead-up to the unveiling of the grand plans for a future Trinity River Floodway designed by renowned landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh, the project’s designers and backers weren’t shy about their inspirations. They traveled around the country, looked at examples around the world, and found that a great model for how to turn a muddy Texas river prone to flooding into a grand urban park lay only a few hundred miles south of Dallas.

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou is the most obvious model for the current iteration of a 285-acre park with a $250 million price tag currently planned for a strip of floodway between the downtown bridges. Leading up to the unveiling of the van Valkenburgh plan, the Dallas Morning News’ architecture critic Mark Lamster practically gushed over what Houston accomplished in its floodway:

The centerpiece of that project, the $58-million, 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park, will be completed over the summer, bringing a wonderland of verdant landscapes, scenic bridges, bike and pedestrian trails, restaurants and cafes, watersport facilities, a skate park and performance and art spaces to Houston’s downtown.

If it seems like a bit of nirvana, that’s because it is. Dallasites may rightly wonder how their neighbor to the south has managed to achieve so much, so quickly, while plans in their own city have stagnated.

Oh, what a difference a trillion gallons of rain makes. In an article in Houston Press last month, Diana Wray takes stock of what happens to a “wonderland of verdant landscapes” when the harsh reality of Texas’ temperamental torrents – super-sized by climate change — come down hard. The photos look much like the Trinity does after a episode of flooding: massive deposits of silt, debris, trash, and sewage. The parts of the park that echo the natural ecology of the Texas landscape have fared okay, but any designed, architectural, or park-like features have been devastated:

Buffalo Bayou rose to a record 38.7 feet at the Shepherd Drive bridge during the course of the hurricane, and while the upper portions of the park weathered the storm and the subsequent torrent of water that rushed down the bayou, with little damage to the perennial gardens, upper-level trees and trails on the higher portions of the park, water swallowed the bottom two-thirds of the park. That has made it difficult for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the entity that oversees Eleanor Tinsley and the rest of the 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park system below Shepherd Drive, to actually assess the damage that has been done, let alone to start making repairs. Johnny Steele Dog Park, wiped out in every major flood in the past two years, is still underwater post-Harvey and an odor, a mix of brackish water and a heavier stench of manure, permeates much of the area near the bayou banks throughout the park.

This assessment of the Bayou’s damage was picked up on earlier in the week by Jim Schutze, who, once again, rolled through the parallels between Houston and Dallas when it comes to flooding — regular flash flooding exacerbated by antiquated flood control management and massive sprawling development. He arrives at a conclusion familiar to anyone who has traipsed through the Trinity after a rain storm or read our Wild Dallas issue: the Trinity River is a floodway, and we’d be fools to build a park in it:

As Wray reports, Buffalo Bayou Park has been inundated three times in two years: in Houston’s Memorial Day and Tax Day floods and by Harvey. This time, the damage was so severe that people in Houston are rethinking the whole idea of a fancy park in a floodway. Here in Dallas, we’re just getting ready to build a new one.

Our opportunity is to look with horror and deep commiseration on what the rains of Harvey did to Buffalo Bayou and then go another way here, allowing nature to design our park. A natural preserve, as [Landscape architect and Wild Dallas concept originator Kevin] Sloan has urged, is the only design that that will spare us the worst of Houston’s fate.

Our region, variously called “Tornado Alley” and “Flash Flood Alley” by meteorologists, also is subject to violent inundation. A slick, grassy, open floodway full of migrating birds and bobcats would be a more unique urban treasure, anyway, than yet another manmade fantasy version of nature.

The Trinity hasn’t been on the tip of anyone’s tongues for a few months, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of work being done to sort out all the details needed to build the van Valkenburgh-designed park between the levees. A chunk of money has been donated to that effort, and yet still many millions need to be raised to realize the grand vision that – and this part we can be certain of – will only wash away downstream or be covered in heaps of silt and sewage the next time this region sees a major rain event. I can’t believe that Dallas, the city, its patrons, its most ardent park boosters would want to see hundreds of millions of dollars wasted.

The mayor is fond of saying that everyone in Dallas agrees that they want the city to build a park in Trinity River Floodway. I think this is too simplistic a summation of the consensus.  What Dallas wants is a Trinity River that can be enjoyed by the city, that can enhance the quality of life, expand environmental education, and fully realize the potential of a long-neglected natural amenity. A park won’t do this. A preserve will. It is an important distinction. Creating a preserve looks like the process that gave birth to the Trinity River Audubon  Center. It requires an attention to land use, ecology, conservation, and stewardship similar to the practices exemplified by the state and national parks systems. It is not a master plan design drawn up by a name-brand landscape architect that is then back-engineered into the existing floodway.

The good news is a preserve is cheaper and easier to implement than the $250-million park currently on the table. The city and those who have been handed the authority to oversee the implementation of the Trinity River Project should heed the witness of Buffalo Bayou. There is a lot to love about how Houston approached Buffalo Bayou, but also much that can be learned and improved upon. It starts with a simple distinction: preserve, not park. It’s the only way Dallas can ensure the Trinity fulfills both the promise of realizing a unique and admired natural recreational amenity while providing its citizens adequate flood protection.