On Saturday morning, a group of about a dozen-and-a-half naturalists, biologists, paleontologists, archaeologists, hydrologists, university professors, administrators from various environmental organizations and nature preserves—even a PR specialist from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—hiked over the concrete path that leads over the Trinity River levees near the Ron Kirk Pedestrian Bridge and into the wide, flat floodway of the Trinity River.
The place they entered is an altered environment, a contested landscape. The Trinity River Floodway is a half-wild, half-manmade, carefully managed though ever-shifting place, shaped by the legacy of an economic development dream that stretches back 100 years.
During that time, the linear ditch and its wide and flat plains have been imagined as many things: a major shipping canal, the centerpiece of a new industrial identity for Dallas, a grand city park, a focal point of the city’s civic culture, a recreational hub, the right-of-way for a massive new freeway, a water sports venue, the locus of a new urban identity for Dallas, a barrier between the city’s northern and southern sectors, and the hope for a way to stitch the city back together.
And yet, last Saturday, the platoon of scientists and environmentalists who headed down the slope of the levee were charged not with the task of looking back at the past and the burden of all these heavy histories and lofty dreams, but rather of simply spending time in the place itself. They tugged at its plants, waded in its pools, ran their fingers through its soil, and snapped photos of the creatures that make this place their home. They weren’t given any direction or instruction. Rather, once they reached the floor of the plain, Ben Sandifer, an environmental advocate who helped organize the outing, simply said, “Go ahead—look around.”
The simplicity of the charge had everything to do with the fact that the organizers of the outing included some of the people who have spent more time along the Trinity’s banks than anyone else in Dallas—people who know that to understand the Trinity, you first have to get out into it and look closely, steadily, and quietly.
They included Sandifer, who has made a name for himself as photographer of Trinity wildlife and a dogged advocate for preserving its delicate, if elusive ecology; Charles Allen, who has spent decades paddling up and down the river in a canoe; Bill Holston, who has trekked nearly every square meter of the Trinity Forest; Becky Rader, a naturalist and park board member; and Kevin Sloan, an architect who coined the concept of “Wild Dallas,” which argues that the Trinity’s best future lies in understanding how to best re-orient Dallas toward the natural wonder that already sits at the city’s doorstep. They were joined by Brian Trusty, the National Audubon Society’s central flyway vice president.
The ringleader was Angela Hunt, the former Dallas city council member who led the long fight against the Trinity toll road. Perhaps it is Hunt’s presence among this motley crew of Trinity advocates and scientists that not only lent the outing its somewhat controversial political heft, but also suggested that this was more than just a nature workshop but rather the early steps in a new phase of the Trinity River’s history.
A New Idea for the Trinity
Hunt has been meeting with several people engaged with the Trinity over the last few months and presenting a new idea for its future. In 2016, in the wake of the final funeral march for the Trinity toll road, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced a brand-new vision for the long-dreamed-of Trinity River park. To be designed by acclaimed landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh, the concept blended plans for incorporating urban-style plazas on the banks of a river whose floodway would be re-transformed into an undulating rivertine landscape. The estimated $200 million plan also came with a hefty first donation of $50 million by Annette Simmons, the wife of the late-billionaire Harold Simmons.
Those plans and gifts kick-started a process that led to the creation of a new quasi-governmental agency—a Local Governmental Corporation—to oversee the construction of the new park. To build-out the park, the LGC then contracted with the Trinity River Conservancy—a rebrand of the Trinity Trust, which had raised money for previous iterations of the Trinity River Project (including the Calatrava-designed bridges that now span the floodway).
As that project moves forward, Hunt–as well as Kevin Sloan, Steve Smith, a financial advisor who has spent much of his private time advocating for various Trinity-related projects, and Mike Bastian, who, as area manager for CH2M Hill in North Texas, served as the principal-in-charge for the Balanced Vision Plan–hatched another idea. The planned Harold Simmons Park is only slated to be constructed between a 200-acre section of the floodway between the Ron Kirk Pedestrian Bridge and Interstate 30, a relatively small portion of the overall floodplain. What if there was a way to extend the restoration of the floodplain to a greater portion of the floodway? And what if it could be achieved for less money and through a less design-intensive strategy.
D Magazine explored this idea in depth in its March 2017 Wild Dallas edition. Since that time, Hunt and her collaborators have been kicking the tires and gathering supporters that include the National Audubon Society, which also helped coordinate last Saturday’s initial meeting. The group has identified a portion of the Trinity just north of the planned Simmons Park—between the Kirk Bridge and the Sylvan Avenue overpass (but excluding the existing Trammel Crow Park in the floodway). They believe this area can be restored into the kind of river-driven landscape that once characterized the Trinity floodplain before humans settled it. It wouldn’t be a park, per se, but a natural preserve—not a reflection of a concrete design, but a gently managed landscape that would evolve and change in accord with the fickle dictations of flooding, erosion, natural dissolution, and rebirth.
This is the broad vision, but the purpose of last Saturday’s meeting was simply to start a conversation about a new way of thinking about how to plan this kind of Trinity Park/Preserve. The scientists spent their day learning about the history of the river, learning about the Wild Dallas concept, exploring the Trinity floodplain firsthand, and then breaking off into groups to discuss their ideas around how a landscape like this could or should be restored and managed.
At its conclusion, Hunt asked a simple question: should they even be thinking about something along the lines of re-wilding the Trinity? Is it possible? Is it worthwhile, or would it be better to simply let the river be and do nothing? Could re-wilding the Trinity work?
The answer was a resounding “yes.”
Competing Ideas for How to Build a Park
Last Saturday’s meeting of the new Wild Dallas brigade of Trinity Park builders was made awkward by the coincidence that just a few blocks away from the group’s makeshift headquarters—the darkened upstairs lounge at Saint Rocco’s in Trinity Groves, which is done up like the set of a cheap Donnie Brasco-knockoff—the Trinity River Conservancy was conducting its own workshop. The Conservancy’s workshop was the first in a series of 10 planned public sessions designed to receive community feedback to help plan and design the future Simmons Park.
In the West Dallas Multipurpose Center off Fish Trap Road, tables were set up where conservancy volunteers led breakout groups to learn what people would want from a Trinity park, how they access the river today, and how they engage with the Trinity River and its surroundings. In adjoining rooms, visitors could record on video their stories about any park or nature experience they may have had and meet the staff of the Conservancy. At the center of the room, a massive map showed the entire expanse of the Trinity River watershed, from the confluence of the Elm and West Forks through the Great Trinity Forest.
Throughout the day, dozens of people from the nearby neighborhoods, as well as farther flung areas of Dallas (including, I was told, Deedie Rose, a long-time patron of the Trinity and a primary funding source of the Conservancy) stopped in. They placed Post-Its and stickers on the map to indicate where they access the Trinity, where they may have biked through the floodway, or where they see the potential for future access or improvement.
The meeting at the West Dallas Multipurpose Center demonstrated an innovative and community-sensitive approach to tackling a complicated design challenge. Architect Brent Brown, who heads the Trinity Conservancy, explained that even though Michael van Valkenburgh drew up plans for a future Trinity Park, it is possible that the final version of the Simmons Park that will be built between the levees will not resemble what was depicted in those pictures.
There are some foundational principles guiding the design process: the need to respect the water and the natural ecology of the river and the need to consider how the proximity of the river affords opportunity to blend these natural qualities into an urban environment. But understanding what the community needs and desires, as well as how the community may engage with and embrace any future park, will propel the design process forward.
The two workshops demonstrated how the two groups are approaching the challenge of a Trinity River park with divergent—though not necessarily conflicting—ideas for moving forward. On the other end of Singleton Boulevard, Angela Hunt’s group started their design process with a set of environmental principles. Even though there was some head-scratching about the group’s event—the fact that it was closed-door and unannounced prompted whispers—the intent was not to begin the process in secret, she said, but to rather begin by engaging the people who know the most about the river itself and its ecology. These are people who, throughout the long history of the Trinity River, have been among those listened to the least.
The Trinity River Conservancy, on the other hand, began their workshop process by listening to the other group of people in the city who have, historically, been most ignored by the boosters behind the Trinity River Project: the people living in the communities adjacent to and most affected by the river. In other words, while the Conservancy is approaching the idea of a Trinity Park with the tools and perspective characteristic of a community-focused, urban and architectural design process, the Wild Dallas group is approaching the challenge of the Trinity’s future by prioritizing environmental design and the principles and values of ecological conservation.
Cooperation Needed to Move Beyond Historical Tension
The night before the pair of Trinity Park workshops, Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster tweeted about the coincidence that both events were happening simultaneously in the same part of town.
“Critics could have participated,” Lamster wrote of the Conservancy workshop. “Instead opponents have scheduled an alternative meeting at the same time. Come on Dallas. Stop acting like children.”
That a polemical tone could be extrapolated by the coincidence of workshops is understandable, but I don’t believe it is founded. In fact, there is an argument to be made that the fact that there are two groups working to realize two Trinity Park projects shows that the city has the potential to move—or is already moving—beyond the us-versus-them political derision that has surrounded Dallas’ plans for the Trinity River for decades.
Hunt says that her group is not in any way opposed to the development of the Harold Simmons Park and sees their work as complementary. The hope, she says, is that a re-wilding of a section of the Trinity can happen more quickly and more cheaply than the Simmons Park. Hunt says this could serve as a proof of concept and potentially aid in generating both community buy-in and help drive fundraising around the costlier Simmons project.
It was also clear during Saturday’s workshops that both groups are doing work that can help both projects. Toward the end of the Wild Dallas workshop, multiple participants voiced the need to engage with residents in order to understand what kind of park or preserve would best impact the community—or in what ways such a project might perpetuate trends of gentrification. At the Trinity Conservancy workshop, Brown said that his group also plans to engage many of the environmental experts that had been collected together by Hunt, and that work on ecology, hydration, and biology already is—and will continue to be—a vitally important part of the final design.
There is an opportunity, then, for both groups to swap notes and to collaborate. But that will first require building a deeper sense of mutual trust. Lamster was right to recognize that both groups do represent some of the same protagonists that fell onto either side of a combative debate about the Trinity toll road. Now that that aspect of the Trinity River Project is thankfully put to bed, those battle lines no longer need to be drawn. The new dividing line between the two camps roughly breaks down to whether the Trinity River Park is an architectural project or an environmental project.
I’m not going to try to answer that question. Rather, I believe the work that these two groups are doing will answer the question. The Trinity Conservancy is pursuing a community-focused approach to design that will engage with some of the best minds in the field of landscape design to create a Trinity River park that they hope will serve as a central civic gathering space for Dallas. The Wild Dallas group is pursuing an environmentally focused approach that hopes to create a natural preserve that has no set design, but that responds and evolves according to the Trinity’s fickle natural ecosystem. Both projects see the incredible potential for education, recreation, environmental stewardship, and community enhancement that could result from their efforts. If both projects move forward, we will learn the pros and cons of both approaches and come away with a deeper understanding of how to manage and envision the Trinity’s future.
The Trinity River floodway is massive. There is plenty of room in the sandbox for multiple ideas about how to best realize its potential. Certain areas of the Trinity sandbox will likely benefit from different approaches—or no approach at all. And there is precedent for engaging different groups to tackle different corners of the watershed. The Audubon Center, the trails network, the golf course, and the horse park have all sought to improve the Trinity with decidedly mixed and somewhat schizophrenic results. The creation of the LGC last year now allows for an entity that can oversee multiple projects throughout the great expanse of the Trinity watershed and, to a certain extent, play referee.
If anything, the emergence of two visions for how to restore the Trinity River’s much-contested floodway should offer an opportunity for those involved to come to some mutual understanding that values are aligning and historical animosities can be set aside. There can, and should, be collaboration, compromise, competition, and debate. But no matter whose approach emerges as the better way to build a future Trinity, Dallas will ultimately win.