The first phase of the Southern Gateway Park in Oak Cliff is due to open in 2024. The foundation tasked with fundraising says it has raised about 75 percent of the money needed for the park’s northern portion.
The deck park will span Interstate 35E between Ewing and Marsalis avenues near the Dallas Zoo. It is already under construction.
On Tuesday, the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation announced it has raised $62 million of the $82 million needed for the first phase, thanks in part to grants from The Rees-Jones Foundation, the Communities Foundation of Texas, and the Rainwater Charitable Foundation. The entire effort is a public-private partnership with the city of Dallas and the foundation, with support from the North Central Texas Council of Governments and the Texas Department of Transportation.
The second phase is estimated to cost about $90 million, according to April Allen, the foundation’s president and chief operating officer.
“The bridge on the second phase is more expensive because we go from being just a bridge over the freeway to being a tunnel when it’s the full park,” she said. “That has a lot of fire suppression systems and things like that that are super expensive. That’s why we’re focusing on the messaging around needing public support for that.”
The city of Dallas contributed $7 million in 2017 bond funds for the first phase, and the NCTCOG contributed $40 million. That money will help build the deck infrastructure, while the $35 million for amenities comes from private donations raised by the foundation.
TxDOT is constructing the deck infrastructure and cap as part of its Southern Gateway Project, which will reconstruct I-35E from downtown to I-20. Once it is finished with the highway, the foundation will build the park amenities.
The park, Allen said, is shaping up to be something she feels will reflect the neighboring communities that will benefit from it on a daily basis—communities that historically haven’t gotten a lot of say in what happens to them. Her goal is to deliver a different experience than the deck park everyone points to between downtown and Uptown.
“We were really intentional in not doing that in this case, which is why I think people have embraced the project,” she said, adding that when work began coalescing around the project, it took acknowledging that this new deck park wasn’t going to be a reiteration of Dallas’ first effort—Klyde Warren Park.
“There was an original design for this project years ago that was done by the same architect that did the design for Klyde Warren … at the time they were kind of selling the project initially to get public support to get approval for the park overall,” Allen said. “Our board decided that we really needed to have a design that was community-informed.”
That need was apparent from the start. Some community members were immediately skeptical, particularly with the price tag. Some felt the money could be better spent on services the community needed. City Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold—the deck park is in her district—was opposed, so much so that she once interrupted her predecessor, Dwaine Caraway, during a press conference he held to talk about the idea.(She called the project the “wreck park.”)
But that was 2016, and the foundation board members were taking notes.
““We were making sure that we gave people in the surrounding community a voice and a seat at the table as we were making plans for the design,” she said, adding that the board spent a year meeting with neighbors and nearby stakeholders. “We heard that they didn’t want another Klyde Warren, but they did have expectations of excellence, which I think is welcome. I think having high expectations for what we get in southern Dallas is welcome.”
What emerged was a design that is “very much a reflection of the input we got from community members.” The programming and partnership plan the foundation has crafted were both designed to deliver opportunities those community members said would improve their quality of life.
A community advisory council of 14 people, chaired by former Dallas City Councilwoman Delia Jasso and Golden Seeds Community Development Corporation member Libbie Lee, continue to provide input, Allen said.
On the surface, some of the amenities are similar to Klyde Warren: water features, green spaces, places for children to play, a stage, and pavilions. On paper, these make the Oak Cliff deck park a lot like its Uptown cousin.
The Southern Gateway Park will also have parking for food trucks, just like Klyde Warren. But Allen said the biggest difference is the intention. Those food truck spots, along with space within the flex building reserved for small businesses, are part of the foundation’s plan to use the park to improve economic opportunities, opening up the potential for community members to become entrepreneurs.
“One of the pillars of our equity plan is economic development. How do we use the park to lift up small businesses and local businesses?” she said. “We want the mix, we want the look, feel, and experience to be very reflective of Oak Cliff.”
The park will also be used to provide educational opportunities, Allen said, adding that the foundation is already offering financial literacy courses through a partnership with the Bank of America that it hopes to build on as the park is completed.
Art elements and opportunities to showcase Oak Cliff’s history will also be a part of it.
“One of the things we’re doing is there is a pedestrian promenade that goes across the park; we call it the ‘Twelfth Street Promenade’ because it runs right into Twelfth Street, which was divided when the freeway was built,” Allen said. “We’re planning to turn that into a history walk to honor some of the folks who contributed to Oak Cliff in an important way. We want to tell some of those untold stories.”
Allen said the current plan is to induct a class of a handful of those people each year. She envisions it being a celebration for the community.
“It’s just one way that we want this to really be about celebrating and honoring Oak Cliff,” she said.
“I live here,” Allen added. “This project is really personal for me. I was very invested in making sure that my neighbors have a voice in this process. That’s why we prioritized spending a year to make sure we got that input.”
Nowadays, Allen said, Councilwoman Arnold is one of the park’s biggest supporters, and much of the community is excited to see the plans as they come to fruition. (The councilwoman did not respond to a request for comment.)
“She is one of our biggest supporters and champions and understands the opportunity this investment represents and is working with us and with her constituents and neighborhood associations to ensure that the concerns that are outside of the park are being addressed,” Allen said.
“Our intention is to build something that matches the quality and experience of Klyde Warren, but also something that reflects the culture of Oak Cliff,” she said.
And while they are taking pains to build something for the communities closest to the park, the foundation estimates that it will attract about 2 million visitors annually.
“We are going to be—as Mayor Rawlings likes to say—the front yard of Dallas on I-35,” Allen said. “We think of it as a gateway to opportunity for the area, but it’s also physically the entrance to Dallas for everyone driving up and down from all points south of I-35. And we wanted our design to reflect that, so our design team created some iconic elements that will be very visible from the freeway, and we’re at a high point on the freeway, so we’ll be visible from all around.”
Allen anticipates the park will also be attractive to the southern suburbs of Dallas, especially since it will incorporate a pedestrian bridge to the Dallas Zoo.
“I think it will absolutely be a regional destination,” she said. “But I also think we can’t underestimate the southern suburbs—they’re used to having to drive across downtown for everything, and they’re going to welcome not having to cross the Mixmaster in the center of downtown to get to amenities.”