A rendering what Harold Simmons Park may one day look like. (Photo Courtesy the Trinity Conservancy)

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The 200-Acre Harold Simmons Park Between The Trinity River Levees Moves Forward

After months of quiet, behind-the-scenes work, the Trinity Conservancy reveals its plans.

Get ready to hear a lot more about Harold Simmons Park between the Trinity River levees.

The Trinity Conservancy is now moving forward on its development with purpose. Brent Brown, its president and CEO, invited members of the media last week to walk the levees, ask questions, and stare out at the 200-plus acres that will eventually house the park if the money can be raised. It was a quiet morning; the only movement near the Beckley Overlook came from the cars zooming down nearby Commerce Street.

The river itself was at 13 feet, about half of what it should be. Later that night, organizers had hoped to launch the first of more than two dozen Summer in the Simmons branded events: weekly organized bike rides and hikes and canoe trips meant to help get the public down to the Trinity. A late afternoon rain doused those plans. It was another reminder that weather will always dictate what happens between the levees, those enormous mounds that protect hundreds of thousands of residents and billions of dollars of real estate from flooding.

“Most people don’t know they have permission to go into this space,” said Brown, who’s heading the Trinity Park Conservancy, which was previously named the Trinity Trust. “The levees create a natural barrier, like, how do I get in? And when I’m here and I’m standing on top of the levee and I look out, where do I go? Where do I end up? How do I have an orientation to things, right? It takes a pretty adventuresome type of person to want to do it.”

We now know the parameters and the expected cost of the park. It’s been dictated by the public-private partnership that the City Council charged with overseeing the development and its future maintenance. Harold Simmons Park will span about 200 acres between the Margaret McDermott Bridge and the Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge, a sliver of the total 2,300-acre floodplain. And it will cost around $200 million to deliver; that’s how much will need to be raised in order for the Conservancy to unlock a $40 million gift. It isn’t clear what will happen if that money can’t be raised.

Brown envisions the acreage being the city’s ultimate gathering place, for the rich and the poor and everyone in between. He sees it as a place for both education and recreation. He got the top job in March after having served as an advisor to the Conservancy for the past year or so, leaving behind bcWorkshop, the architecture and design firm that he founded. His first four months have included mapping out a plan forward: eight months of public meetings, a call for donations large and small, programmed events to get residents down to the banks of the Trinity to experience what’s there. Much has to be done before formal plans emerge, he said.

“Despite what you may have read, it’s not designed,” Brown said. “It seems we talk about everything but a park, and now the Conservancy is spending every day to build that park.”  

“That park” is a privately funded capital project. At least that’s how Brown and the Conservancy are approaching it. Harold Simmons Park, named for the billionaire nuclear waste disposal magnate, was born from a $50 million gift from his widow, Annette Simmons. The Conservancy got $10 million up front, but the other $40 million is locked up pending naming rights, establishment of a governance structure to build and maintain the park, and raising enough money to the tune of the Simmons’ family’s “reasonable satisfaction” by next September. All but the last one has been accomplished. 

We now know the parameters and the expected cost of the park.

All of that factors into why Brown says there is no design yet for this park, which is a confusing statement. If you’ve lived in Dallas for any significant amount of time, you’ve probably seen some sort of plan for the Trinity. There have been at least nine variations at different points in time. They once included a major tollway. Another introduced jugglers under an overpass and glued a rock wall to the freeway’s concrete pillar for kids to climb. Another was drawn up by a famous landscape architect and taken to the city’s philanthropic class to raise money. The road is dead—the City Council finally made sure of that last year—but the design remains in flux.

Whatever design gets the go-ahead from the Conservancy will have to follow the dictum of the Army Corps of Engineers, because it’s being built in a floodway.

In 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers approved an Environmental Impact Statement (an EIS) for what’s known as the Balanced Vision Plan, which includes engineering and hydrological studies that allow for a phased-in “re-wilding” of the entire 2,300-acre floodplain, returning the space to the blackland prairie and wetlands that preceded us. The Corps has to sign off on what gets built in the floodway, and the EIS gives the city the OK to move forward. Brown says whatever new design features the Conservancy comes up with will need to be permitted by the Corps. Kevin Sloan, the landscape architect and UT Arlington professor who has written extensively on re-wilding the river, explained the concept thusly:

In May 2015, a monsoonlike series of thunderstorms filled the Trinity floodway from levee to levee for more than a month. The river, for once, was an actual river, or at least it looked like one. People flocked to the Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge to savor the blessed event. Sundowns became ad hoc street fairs.

The idea of a permanent Dream Lake—a notation Kessler made in his 1911 plan for such a body of water in the floodway—is exciting. But when 2015’s Dream Lake receded after 40 days and nights, it left a dead landscape of mud that buried trails, roads, and parking areas with 12 to 20 inches of silt. In addition to the drowned vegetation and silt bars, trash snags as large as 2 acres accumulated with driftwood, thousands of plastic bottles, baby strollers, and an arsenal of sharp objects.

The only possible landscape that is beautiful and tough enough to contend with the drought and deluge cycle, and the formidable engineering forces of the floodway, is the original landscape. Re-wilding the Trinity with a blackland prairie and wetland nature project is the safest, most cost-effective, and most creative solution for the Trinity Park.

Let’s fast-forward to last August, when the City Council approved moving the responsibility of the park to the public-private partnership. This isn’t unheard of—Houston’s Buffalo Bayou used a similar mechanism to get that project built. So the council OK’d the creation of a local government corporation (an LGC) to oversee the building and managing of the park. The council left with some edicts: kill the road and start with the Balanced Vision Plan.

A shot from the monsoon-like rains of 2015, which left the Trinity River basin bulbous. (Photo by ©Scot Miller/ScotMiller.com)

In April, the LGC signed a 40-year contract with the Conservancy that puts it in charge of fundraising, design, and future maintenance. That means that the LGC has delivered marching orders that include delivering a park that costs about $200 million within the 200 acres spanning the bridges. And that’s the park the Conservancy is pledging to build.

“We begin with Balanced Vision Plan,” Brown says. “We work with the LGC and the Corps to progress a creative design that can be built between the bridges that involves and invests the public interest and works within a budget that’s achievable. That’s what we’re trying to get to … there is not a design for a $200 million parks project between those two bridges.”

The foundation will also need to raise the money for maintaining the park, something Dallas’ big-time philanthropic ventures have struggled with. Most recently, the city had to sell naming rights of the Dallas  City Performance Hall to an out-of-town donor in order to pay down the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s bank note after its private donations ran out. Brown says that’s a major consideration for what goes into planning the park.

“We don’t want to put things in the flood that don’t want to flood, so where do we put them?,” he asked. “I think working consciously around the need for stormwater and flood control protection simultaneously with restoration and ecological enhancement, we can make that work.”

The Conservancy has nine public workshops that it is working to schedule, which begin in September. (They will be posted here. A spokeswoman says the Conservancy “would be happy to accommodate” smaller neighborhood groups that wish to meet separately.) It will also include input from at least two committees filled with nonmembers and members of the Conservancy’s board. The Design Committee will be chaired by local architect Robert Meckfessel and include the aforementioned landscape architect Kevin Sloan, the man who essentially brought the concept of re-wilding to town. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the firm behind the starchitect plan that was taken around to the donor class, is the project’s lead landscape architect.

Brown insisted that the Conservancy would be a “steward for the river,” figuring out ways to “enhance the river channel so it works better for the river’s flow and aquatic life,” helping the space to achieve “ecological benefit.”

“This isn’t a child’s game of going in and willy nilly playing with stuff,” he said. “What does it mean to have a preserve of sorts in the middle of one of the country’s largest cities?”

There are still raised eyebrows surrounding the project. That the LGC has set the parameters for the park—both cost and size—raises questions about the types of amenities that will be included as well as whether the design will take re-wilding seriously. (Those in favor of re-wilding have said it could be done for the $47 million in leftover bond funds from the 1998 election.) Councilmember Scott Griggs, who represents North Oak Cliff, opposed the formation of the LGC and has long been eagle-eyed and outspoken about the various plans for the space between the levees. He insists upon a simple re-wilding, to move away from amenities that will have maintenance needs in the future, particularly after a flood.

“There needs to be an appreciation that the space between the levees is an amenity in and of itself,” he said. “We have to re-wild it and return it as best as possible to its natural state. … The concern with the Conservancy [is] that they’re not there yet.”

Brown said he welcomes the concern and urges the public to attend the hearings and voice their opinions around the project.

“There should be questions,” he said. “We can disagree and we can have discussions about this; this isn’t personal. And I think we have to be civil and debate, and we all have to learn as we go and recognize that one person doesn’t have the answer, that one group doesn’t have the answer. Collectively, through a process of dialogue and learning and becoming more informed and participating, I believe we can arrive at a really great design and a really great park for our city.”

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