Even with rains swelling the Trinity River to its banks, the river and the park planned between the levees is probably the last thing on everyone’s mind this week. But today some big news came out of Trinity River Project camp: Brent Brown is stepping down as President and CEO of the Trinity Park Conservancy.
Brown’s departure comes as the conservancy, the non-profit tasked with raising the funds to build the proposed Harold Simmons Park on a 210-acre section of the Trinity Floodway, also announces that donors have committed $100 million for the estimated $200 million park. That includes the original $50 million Annette Simmons pledge, which kick-started this latest park-building effort in the Trinity in 2016.
Reached in quarantine in Rhode Island, Brown said that after 5 years at the head of the conservancy, he felt like the staff was in place to continue to push the design of the park in a way that respects the ecology of the Trinity, while also remaining sensitive to how an improved Trinity park will impact the surrounding community.
“The short story is I always knew there was going to be a time, and I’ve learned from differing things I’ve worked on in the past, to not stay too long,” Brown said. “I’ve been thinking about it for 6 months or so.”
Brown will move into an advisory role with the Trinity Park Conservancy, and Walter Elcock, the secretary of the organization’s board of directors, will step in as interim president and CEO. Jeamy Molina, a spokesperson for the conservancy, said Brown told the organization he was going to step down this week. Although they won’t be able to release the names of the donors who have pledge the second $50 million towards the Trinity Park until April, the conservancy decided to make the announcement about the fundraising milestone to coincide with the news of Brown’s departure.
“It kind of puts the whole project in a better picture,” Molina said.
Moving forward, Brown says he will dedicate around 50 percent of his time to his advisory role to the conservancy, including advising the search for a new CEO, though he will not sit on the search committee. He wants to keep the rest of his time free, for now, and says he is thinking about how to best continue to engage in ongoing efforts to steer community development around the park project. Community development, however, does not mean developing the vacant land around the community. Even though Brown once led the non-profit developer bcWorkshop and currently sits on its board, he is neither returning to bcWorkshop nor planning to launch any similar venture.
“I’m not going into real estate,” he said.
Brown was instrumental in steering the current design around the proposed Trinity Park. Not only did he help bring in Michael van Valkenburgh’s renowned architecture firm to lead the design process, but he pushed the Trinity Park Conservancy to think more holistically about how to prepare the city and the neighborhoods around the river for the economic impact of the park. That included pressing the conservancy’s staff and board to work to ensure that the park not only fulfills its stated mission of healing a historical political and symbolic divide in the city, but also advocates for policies that can help equitably distribute the social and economic benefits of the park.
The Trinity Conservancy looks very different from the organization Brown joined in 2015. The non-profit once-called the Trinity Trust was renamed after the Dallas City Council created a Limited Government Corporation to take over management of the Trinity River Project in 2017. Only eight of the current 25 board members served on the board of the Trinity Trust.
Despite the new name and board, the latest efforts to realize a park in the Trinity ran into a number of old challenges. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has raised questions about the feasibility of initial van Valkenburgh designs. The Corps also received federal funding for extensive flood control improvements in 2019, and the design of those flood control measures have indefinitely delayed the final design and eventually construction of any park within the Trinity River levees. As the Corps moves ahead with its plans for the Trinity, Molina said the conservancy will instead focus on designing proposed overlook park on the levees, and they hope to begin construction in 2021.
Raising $200 million for a Trinity Park is also no easy task, and while $100 million in pledged donations for the Harold Simmons Park is certainly a milestone, the announcement comes as the world is thrown into economic uncertainty in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. It is difficult to not see the current moment through the lens of the 2008 financial crisis, when donations for the construction of the AT&T Performing Arts Center dried up, thrusting the center into a decade of financial uncertainty.
Molina said that the conservancy has been in touch with all the major donors as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and they all “remain firmly committed” to the Trinity Park project. Brown pointed out that some members of the conservancy’s board were involved in the ATTPAC development, and he hopes that experience will help as the Trinity effort moves forward. His hope is that, now that he is stepping away, the conservancy’s board and staff will be able to stay the course and weather the storm.
“We have a belief as a city that as we come through this pandemic, we are going to need a symbol and way to come together stronger than ever,” Brown said. “It can realize a promise that our city has been trying for over a 100 years to make happen.”
Here’s the full release:
Brent Brown Stepping Down as President & CEO of Trinity Park Conservancy, Moving into Advisory Role
Conservancy Reaches $100 Million Fundraising Milestone for Capital Campaign for Harold Simmons Park, Entering Next Phase of Development for the 210-Acre Park at the Heart of Dallas
DALLAS – Today, the Trinity Park Conservancy announced that president and CEO Brent Brown will step down from his current position, transitioning into an advisory role with the organization. The move comes as the Conservancy has commitments of more than $100 million for the capital campaign to build Harold Simmons Park, halfway to the $200 million goal. Walter Elcock, currently secretary of the Board of Directors of the Conservancy, will serve as interim president and CEO while the Board conducts a search for the next leader of the organization.
The Trinity Park Conservancy is the nonprofit organization working in partnership with the City of Dallas and the Trinity River Corridor Local Government Corporation (LGC) to transform the Trinity River into great public spaces for all. The first of these projects, Harold Simmons Park, was launched by a $50 million gift from Annette Simmons in 2016. Since then, the Conservancy has raised an additional $50 million in new gifts from Dallas area families and foundations. Once complete, the Park will encompass 210 acres and almost one mile of the Trinity River between the Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge and Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge to the north and Margaret McDermott Bridge to the south, connecting Downtown, West Dallas, and Oak Cliff.
“When I began working with the Conservancy (then The Trinity Trust Foundation), my goals were to create a vision for the Trinity River that would transform Dallas’ greatest natural asset into a gathering place for the entire community and to build the team that will realize the Park,” said Brown. “With a conceptual design for Harold Simmons Park now in place and with the capital campaign surpassing the halfway mark, I felt like it was time to hand over the reins of the day-to-day management and operation of the Conservancy so that I can continue to focus on community development for the Park.”
Brown began as an advisor to the organization in 2015, when the organization was still known as The Trinity Trust Foundation. At that time, he helped with the selection of acclaimed landscape architects
Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates (MVVA), guiding the early designs of the Park. Following the announcement of the Simmons gift, the Board appointed Brown as president and CEO in late 2016. Brown led the organization through its evolution to the Trinity Park Conservancy in 2017, as the mission of the organization expanded to encompass designing public spaces that unite the community, enriching people’s lives through access to nature, creating economic development opportunities, and inspiring protection for the river ecosystems in this shared natural treasure. In 2018, the Conservancy entered into a 70-year development agreement with the LGC, a special-purpose entity created by the City to deliver recreational improvements in the 2,000-acre Trinity River Floodway, giving the Conservancy responsibility for the design, construction, operation, and fundraising for the Park.
Brown also created a robust community engagement program designed to seek feedback from people across Dallas, including from neighborhoods adjacent to Harold Simmons Park, to gather input on the design. Last spring, the Conservancy organized a “behind-the-scenes” look at MVVA’s designs for the Park. The concept consists of two Overlook parks built outside the levees on the east and west sides of the river, as well as a re-naturalized floodway. Working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who manages the floodway, and the City of Dallas, the Conservancy is advancing the design of the Park with a goal of breaking ground on the Overlooks in late 2021.
Under Brown’s guidance, last year the Conservancy purchased the former jail at 106 W. Commerce as part of the vision for the Park to generate significant economic, social and environmental value for the neighboring communities and all residents of Dallas. With a growing staff, Brown also established programs designed to highlight the ways people can enjoy the Trinity River today, including Seasons at Simmons, featuring hikes, kayak tours, and neighborhood history walks, and a variety of volunteer conservation programs.
“We are grateful to Brent for his leadership and for helping us shape a vision for Harold Simmons Park that is, in many ways, bigger than we ever thought possible. This Park will not only help us reconnect to one another and to nature, but also to build a better city,” said Deedie Rose, chair of the Board of Directors of the Conservancy. “With these plans now in place, and with the capital campaign halfway to our goal, the Conservancy is well-positioned to move into the next phase of work, bringing this vision to reality.”
Brown’s last day as president and CEO of the Conservancy will be April 24, 2020, after which he will continue to serve as a consultant to the organization. Elcock will resign from the Board as he takes the position of interim president and CEO. The Board will begin a search for a permanent replacement immediately, led by a committee chaired by Deedie Rose.
About Trinity Park Conservancy
Trinity Park Conservancy is a nonprofit dedicated to the stewardship of Dallas’ largest public green space, the 10,000 acres of the Trinity River. Believing that the River is the natural gathering place for all Dallas residents, the Conservancy is committed to bringing people together to share their ideas, learn more about the possibilities and habitat of the area, and to assist in making it a more accessible space. In 2018, the Conservancy was selected to design, construct and maintain the future Harold Simmons Park in a private/public partnership with the City of Dallas and the Trinity River Corridor Local Government Corporation. Trinity Park Conservancy is dedicated to continuing conversations in the
community throughout the Park development process. To keep up-to-date with the latest news from Trinity Park Conservancy become a Friend of the Conservancy at www.trinityparkconservancy.org.