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Dallas’ Medical District Aims to Prioritize People Over Cars

The Texas Trees Foundation will tonight announce progress on the neighborhood's redesign.
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Can you picture a tree-lined pedestrian path along Harry Hines Boulevard? The Texas Trees Foundation can. Texas Trees Foundation

The Southwestern Medical District has succeeded—if your metric is world-renowned healthcare and research—despite how inhospitable the neighborhood can feel to actual people. The home of UT Southwestern Medical Center, Parkland, and Children’s Health is also Dallas’ largest heat island, where miles of concrete soak up the sun. Its wide streets encourage speeding and can make it perilous for pedestrians, a troubling reality considering physicians, nurses, and students split their time between the district’s sprawling campuses. This pocket off of Interstate 35 was formerly an industrial area, and it still feels like it, despite its hospitals treating 3.3 million patients and employing more than 42,000 workers.  

For the last seven years, the Texas Trees Foundation has been imagining a new reality for the city’s critical economic and healthcare hub. The Medical District overhaul has turned the humble nonprofit into a project manager of an ambitious bit of urban design, daring to reengineer a neighborhood of more than 1,000 acres where patients can find solace in nature while doctors don’t have to dodge Chargers.

Tonight Texas Trees will announce that the project has reached 30 percent design status, a critical milestone that allows the city to begin planning engineering and for the federally mandated environmental clearance to begin. Too, the feds can now consider the project “shovel ready,” which increases the likelihood of the project getting more federal funding.

It is a practical extension of the organization’s research around curbing urban heat islands while adding to the city’s tree canopy. But the work in the Medical District has a more holistic goal, too. Modern healthcare architecture has responded to a bevy of studies that show patient outcomes improve when design considers their experience. This has led to more spacious rooms, windows, improved lighting, and other ways to make patients more comfortable that had rarely been considered in hospitals. All three of the largest entities in the district have employed tenets of “social design” in their new buildings. But the conditions outside reflect this neighborhood’s history as an industrial center, when trucks rumbled along Motor Avenue (now Medical District Drive).

“Trails and bike networks help to get people more active, gathering spaces create opportunity for social cohesion, and the ability to retreat into nature has certain developmental benefits,” said David Whitley, the owner of DRW Planning Studio, which is the project manager. “All of that combined improves our urban environment and our urban environmental health.”

The Philadelphia office of New York-based Field Operations is the landscape architect leading the design effort. The project treats Harry Hines Boulevard as its spine, extending about 2 miles north from Market Center up to Mockingbird. The first phase involves pedestrianizing Harry Hines from Butler Street to Medical District Drive, adding sidewalks away from traffic on either side of the road as well as a two-way cycle track on the south side of the thoroughfare that will tie into the existing Trinity Strand Trail, along the levees. That means the Medical District will get access to the 50-mile Loop Trail, which is linking the city’s existing trails and adding access into the Trinity Forest.

For much of its life, Harry Hines was a state highway that took Dallas residents to Denton. Drivers still treat it like that. Texas Trees studied speeds along the corridor and found that an average of 70 percent drivers travel faster than the speed limit.

“In a normal world, [Harry Hines] would have developed as a boulevard in a healthcare campus,” says David Biegler, chair of the planning organization that helps coordinate efforts among the partners in the Southwestern Medical District. “That’s what you have to turn it back into.”

The plan envisions a tree-lined Harry Hines with wide sidewalks and cycling trails, a park in place of a cloverleaf intersection that presently shoots cars in all directions, improved connectivity between the campuses, and strategic tree planting that the organization believes will drop temperatures by as much as 20 degrees in some areas. The agency wasn’t able to get permission to take in a lane—EMS representatives were nervous ambulance ingress and egress—but its design would allow for the two exterior lanes to one day become protected facilities for buses and emergency vehicles. The primary focus is making the street safer for pedestrians by separating them from traffic.

This is the first phase of the redesign, which is expected to cost about $38 million. This portion is fully designed and the organization has raised enough money to begin construction by the end of next year, although future infrastructure-related costs could raise the price tag. The organization is also only $4 million away from funding the design of the second phase, which will zoom into Harry Hines at Inwood. Texas Trees will seek permission from the city to tear out the cloverleaf and replace it with a 10-acre park that will serve dual purposes: safer, easier access between the campuses and much-needed greenspace. Renderings show grade changes and overlooks, a hilltop lawn and a limestone escarpment framing an area where trees tower over tables and chairs. A footbridge is planned to take walkers over Harry Hines, which is an important feature considering there is presently no safe way for pedestrians to cross the traffic.

Cars using Inwood will continue through a tunnel below the park, while Harry Hines traffic will be subject to new stoplights when entering and leaving the area. The park will sit between O’Donnell Grove and the bird sanctuary, presently the only two parklike features in the district.

“Go back to COVID, and those nurses, doctors didn’t have any place to go outside, to immerse themselves and bring down their level of stress,” says Janette Monear, the president and CEO of Texas Trees. “We’re also working with the hospitals. How do we stitch their campuses together with this?”

Much of the design was informed by the team’s research. Texas Trees placed 58 temperature and humidity sensors along Harry Hines, attempting to gauge conditions at various spots: sunny, “deep shade” from trees, and partial shade. Five anemometers—machines that gauge wind conditions—were placed in areas with high, medium, and low winds. Its findings informed the decision to place a two-way cycle track on the south side of Harry Hines.

They polled the district’s users about where they feel safest walking and where they avoid because of extreme heat. Some of the temperature gauges, particularly near bus stops, showed wide disparity in temperatures mere feet away from each other. An unshaded bit of concrete near a bus stop came back at 127 degrees, while a shaded portion of the sidewalk less than 10 feet away was just 77 degrees. Texas Trees and its partner Hyphae Design Labs attempted to collect examples of these “microclimates” that additional tree cover could help regulate.

They’ve found that the standard methods of tree planting won’t work here. Generally, trees are planted by measuring 30 feet between the center of one and the center of another. “That’s not how trees grow,” Monear says. Instead, the organization plans to plant trees in groves along Harry Hines, where the canopy can more closely mimic forest conditions instead of typical public landscape architecture that doesn’t consider their biology.

“Root grafts of the same species will grow together, so if there’s a drought, they share the nutrients and water,” she says. “And the fact that they shade each other lowers the transpiration rates.” (That’s when trees lose their water because of a variety of conditions.)

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A rendering of what a park might look like at Inwood and Harry Hines. Texas Trees Foundation

The renderings envision a dense collection of trees that effectively shade the walking and cycling paths below, which Monear believes is a new way of planting trees in public right of way. She says this method should double the lifespan of these trees, going from 15 to 20 years, on average, to 30 to 40.

“You start to mimic the forest by bringing in an understory,” Whitley said. “You have that cooling effect of being kind of on the forest floor, along with all the other mental and physical benefits of experiencing that kind of environment.”

There is a significant economic interest in improving this land that City Hall forgot. Outside of Baylor Scott and White’s compound just east of Deep Ellum, the Southwestern Medical District is effectively the nerve center for healthcare in the city of Dallas and the region as a whole. As such, the project has found financial interest from a number of entities. Texas Trees has raised about $34 million for the project: $13 million in private dollars, $7.5 million in city bond funding from 2017, $7.5 million from the county, and another $6 million from the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Monear says she still needs to raise another $4 million to fully fund the park at Inwood, and she anticipates pursuing federal dollars to do so.

The entire project is expected to cost about $190 million with private fundraising accounting for about a third.

There are billions of dollars worth of construction underway in the Southwestern Medical District. Children’s and UT Southwestern are building a $5 billion pediatric campus at Harry Hines and Mockingbird. The state of Texas partnered with UT Southwestern to build the new Texas Behavioral Health Center, the first such facility in Dallas. UTD will soon have a $120 million biomedical building, and the county is constructing a new lab and research facility here.

“The city’s view of the Medical District, correctly, is it’s one of our primary economic areas, meaning it’s at the center of economic activity that has a bearing on the city and the region,” said Biegler. “You can’t have people going 60 mph down Harry Hines and create the environment you need.”

Texas Trees will tonight signal a new path forward, one that recognizes the importance of the district and cares for the people who go there—just like the institutions have invested in the neighborhood’s buildings.

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Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…
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