Is the Harold Simmons Park officially a “no-go?”
Like all things with the Trinity River, the answer depends on whom you ask. Earlier this week, we reported on the fallout of a March meeting between the Trinity River Limited Government Corporation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and staff of the Trinity Park Conservancy, the nonprofit tasked with building the new park in the Trinity floodway. We don’t know exactly what happened at that meeting, but we do know that it shocked LGC board members. At their next meeting, one board member reported that, to his ears, it sounded like the Corps said the new park design didn’t meet federally approved criteria for building a park in the floodway. They characterized the Corps’ feedback as declaring the new park a “no-go.”
The board has since backed off on that assessment and have aligned more closely with what Brent Brown, CEO of the Trinity Park Conservancy, assured them in the public meeting. The Corps didn’t say “no-go.” They said something closer to “not there yet.” Brown promised the LGC board that he and his team of well-trained, highly respected consultants, designers, hydrologists, engineers, and architects will head back to the drawing board and re-jigger the plans for the park so that they fit the Corps’ expectations. Those plans—the so-called 35 percent design—have been promised by August.
And that’s where we sit. Four months to get the thing right, or—well, or what?
As Jim Schutze points out in his piece on the “no-go” meeting, what is most troubling about this latest kerfuffle is that it is almost identical to so many of the bumps, detours, crashes, and all-out meltdowns that have defined the long, sorry history of the Trinity River Project. The idiotic toll road, the broken bridges, the killer white water feature: all of these projects began with dreams and promises, were pushed along with more promises and assurances, and eventually ran into the hard, unforgiving reality of the Trinity River—a fickle, powerful force of nature that has been saying “no-go” to human efforts to tame it for more than 150 years.
Based on that experience, there is every reason to believe we are sitting in the same spot where we always sit with regards to the Trinity. There is a big $150 million dream on the table. The people in charge of Trinity River flood control say the dream could muck up their ability protect Dallas against floods. The people in charge of the dream say, “Don’t worry,” “nothing to see here,” “we’ve got it,” “give us time,” “everything will be okay,” and “trust us.”
That’s a steep ask when so much public trust has already been squandered over the years. And the people pushing this latest effort are largely the same people who squandered that public trust.
That said, it would be unfair to completely equate this latest effort to design a park between the levees with previous ones. Over the past year, the Trinity Park Conservancy—formerly known as the Trinity Trust—has shown some good faith in taking a new approach to developing a 200-acre park at the center of the vast 2,300-acre floodway. In fact, after the back and forth in the meeting with the LGC about the Corps’ alleged “no-go” comment, a handful of conservancy staffers and consultants walked through these efforts.
Their work is not limited to studying landscape design or envisioning various amenities for the river. Rather, the conservancy is studying community engagement, transit and mobility, and economic inequality around the Trinity. They raised questions like, How do you capture the value generated by Trinity improvements and use it to invest in more equable development near the park? Or, How can connections between the Trinity and neighboring communities, and low-income communities in particularly, be strengthened? And, How can we mitigate the unintended consequences of investment in and around Harold Simmons Park?
This is a new way of thinking about the Trinity River Project. They are also questions that, regardless of what the city ultimately decides to do between the levees, must be asked. And while it has become fashionable in Dallas to rag on Michael van Valkenburgh, the star architect tapped with producing a new park design, it is foolish to ignore the fact that some of the most challenging aspects of designing a Trinity Park—restoring a river ecology in the floodway that both handles flood control and offers greater access and engagement to visitors—are challenges his firm has tackled elsewhere, and with success. In other words, yes, the current situation feels like a repeat of the mistakes of the past, but the planning process around the park also seems a lot more in tune with the problems of the past than it ever has been before.
There are still problems. Many problems. The Trinity is a unique beast, quite unlike anything van Valkenburgh and company have dealt with before. The design effort has to fit within the outlines of an already approved plan for the river—the Balanced Vision Plan—and people who were closely involved with the creation of that plan say that the specifications of the BVP do not easily allow a simple backfill of its flood requirements with a new design. And then there’s the money. That’s the part of this no one wants to talk about. The park is supposed to cost $150 million. Fifty million has been pledged by the Simmons family, but with strings attached. If the park design is a “no-go,” well, no money. If the Trinity Park Conservancy can’t raise $100 million, then no money. Has the conservancy raised any money? We don’t know. But the fact that the Corps said “no-go” to the 10 percent designs for the park won’t make raising that money any easier.
There is one more big difference between the current situation and similar Trinity snafus in the past—one that is implicit in the very fact that we are talking about all of this. We know about the meeting between the LGC, the conservancy, and the Corps because it was aired on the record in a public meeting that was recorded and archived on the city website. The requirement that the LGC’s meetings be recorded was added as an amendment to the LGC’s formation documents at the urging of Councilman Scott Griggs, a longtime watchdog of Trinity-related boondoggles. That effort has proved critical. It has taken what in the past would have been private meetings and made them public. That, in turn, is making the planning process around the Trinity more transparent. We know now—rather than way down the road when it is too late—that there are big problems with the plans for the Harold Simmons Park. This stuff can no longer be swept under the rug or hidden behind closed doors.
Can those problems be solved? I don’t know. I’m not a hydrologist. I’m not an engineer. But I do know this: thanks to the transparency added to the planning process, we have a timeline. The Trinity Park Conservancy has until August to get it right. They will need to present 35 percent designs that fit within the requirements of the federally approved Balance Vision Plan. If they do, good on them. Now raise the money. If they don’t, then that’s it. No more second chances. No more wait and see. No more trust us. If the 35 percent design comes back a “no-go,” then we will know it’s time to blow the whole thing up—again.