Fishtrap Lake: From Eyesore to Artwork

In the heart of the Wsst Dallas Housing Projects is a water-filled gravel pit connected by low places to a shallow lagoon, and surrounded by cattails, weeds, and scrubby trees. It’s not exactly promising real estate. But this neglected place, called Fishtrap Lake, may soon become a model for planners and designers all over the country-and a new source of pride for the whole city of Dallas.

Two things have propelled Fishtrap Lake into prominence: the surrounding low-income housing area is under scrutiny from both local and federal officials, and the lake tends to flood. Because of the flooding during periods of intense rain, the Dallas Public Works Department earmarked $2. 5 million from a 1985 capital improvement bond program to solve the problem. The Public Works Department wants to use Fishtrap to prove that with sensitive treatment, low-income housing areas can be quality communities in their own right.

Last year, about the time that Public Works was beginning to consider the Fishtrap Lake project, former city staff art consultant Mickey Gustin was in the midst of developing the Public Art Master Plan for Dallas. Gustin had the idea that erosion and flood control public works projects could be used as seeds for public art programs. Last spring she gave a presentation to the Public Works Department, which liked her ideas.

The Public Works Department hired Boyle Engineering Corporation to do the engineering work, and convinced them to subcontract two artists recommended by Gustin: Brad Goldberg (the sculptor who helped create the West End Oasis) and Frances Bagley. The engineers decided that Fishtrap Lake needed to be deepened and enlarged; a low spillway would be built for water to get out, and a channel to direct the water into the lower lagoon and thence into the Trinity River-a typical flood control project. Lewis Garber, an engineer at Boyle, says, “It could all get pretty barren. “

Though everyone wanted to avoid that standardized barrenness, both the engineers and the artists were skeptical. “But it was easier than I thought it would be, ” says Goldberg, “once they saw that we were not unreasonable people and had concern for their methods of working. ” Public Works engineer Rusty Spiars agrees: “I was surprised that the artists were not as fixed in their training as architects and engineers tend to be. There’s actually more difficulty on our collaborations with architects. “

Together, the artists and engineers decided to build a concrete spillway, with the water trickling down baffles to make a babbling-brook sound and appearance, and a meandering channel down to the lagoon. The lake will have a fishing pier and a jetty, and an island will rise from the center of the lake, offering a spectacular view of downtown Dallas across the Trinity River bottomlands. Trees will be planted all around, and water will flow continuously, pumped from the lower lagoon back up to Fishtrap Lake. Just as important, the area won’t flood anymore.

The cost of the full plan is around $3 million, $500, 000 more than has been allocated to the project. “What we will do, ” says Gerald Gromko, assistant director of Public Works, “is build as much as we can and leave the rest to be built with future funding. ” The Public Works Department is currently meeting with all of the interested parties (which are many the Dallas Housing Authority, the Park and Recreation Department, West Dallas community groups, and the Planning Department) to make sure the design is palatable to everyone. The city hopes to have construction under way by early 1989, with the project completed about a year later.

The results from this crossbreeding of artists and engineers remain to be seen: will the lake give the West Dallas Housing Projects a much-needed psychological center? Will the city council and taxpayers see this as a proper expenditure of city money-or as an artsy frivolity? Whatever the verdict is on these questions, one thing is clear: Dallas is on the cutting edge, for a change, on a public art project. “To my knowledge, ” says Gus-tin, “this is the first time in the nation that artists and engineers have worked together on an erosion control project. “

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