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Cover Story

The Trinity War

The Trinity debate is a complex civics lesson in transportation, flood control, environmental remediation, and recreational amenities. But four people have made it personal.

THE MUCKRAKER: Observer columnist Jim Schutze started writing about the Trinity plan more than a decade ago for the Houston Chronicle.
photography by Allison V. Smith

May 1998: Jim Schutze, the longtime Dallas muckraker, looked over his ballot and considered his little-known secret: he was a dreamer.

He was about to cast his vote on the capital improvements bond election, 11 propositions asking voters to spend money to fix their city. Ten of those propositions were sure to pass easily. No one has trouble saying yes to new police headquarters or libraries or animal control facilities. Take all the money you want for those. It’s the ’90s. We’ll print more.

Schutze knew, as he looked over his ballot, that the one vote which mattered was the last he would cast, the one for Proposition 11, which read, in all caps and in full:

“The issuance of $246,000,000 general obligation Trinity River Corridor project bonds, the project to include floodways, levees, waterways, open space, recreational facilities, the Trinity Parkway and related street improvements, and other related, necessary, and incidental improvements to the Trinity River Corridor.”

Forty words and one very large number. Schutze read it one last time before voting. He, more than most, knew why this proposition was so controversial. It was he who had given voice to the environmentalists and others intent on shooting down the Trinity River project, an ambitious $1.2 billion undertaking that sought to transform the neglected ditch of a waterway and its surroundings into a road-lined, lake-filled parkland wonder world, a place that not only drew people to downtown’s core but that also spectacularly, magically it seemed, solved flooding and traffic woes. All for just $246 million, which, compared to the plan’s overall cost, seemed like a bargain.

That’s the way it had been proposed when Schutze first wrote about it in 1996. He was then the Dallas bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle, which impressed people until Schutze told them why it was such a great job. Because, he’d explain, people in Houston hate Dallas, so his editors only wanted stories that made the city and its people look imbecilic. Such stories were easy to find and write, so he could spend much of his day on the couch down the hall from his office at the Belo Building downtown, across from the Dallas Morning News, taking naps.

But after he wrote about Mayor Ron Kirk and his big, sprawling, grand idea to remake the Trinity and save the city’s core from urban decay, Schutze began to get phone calls from Trinity opponents. They told him that even though it was being pitched as a flood-control project, the thing would make flooding worse. They told him it was a scheme orchestrated by greedy developers who wanted to build roads that would make their land more valuable.

Now that was a good story, he thought, one that the folks in Houston would eat up. But he couldn’t get his editors to bite, which frustrated him. How can a muckraker rake muck if his paper won’t print it? It was also the time, fall 1997, when Schutze was looking wistfully at the local weekly newspaper, the Dallas Observer, which had taken the lead in reporting the Yvonne Gonzalez scandal. Schutze was writing those stories—a school superintendant using DISD funds to furnish her bedroom? Houston loved that story—but he wasn’t breaking them.

He remembered a conversation he’d had with the Observer’s star columnist, Laura Miller, a year earlier at the Michael Irvin drug trial. She’d told him, “Jim, you need to be at the Observer. It pays well. They leave you alone. And you can kick some ass. They demand that you kick some ass.” “Knee-capping,” the alt-weekly’s boss called it.

Knee-capping. That sounded like fun.

In December ’97, he finally convinced his Houston editors to let him write the story about why the Trinity River plan was a “scheme” that, because of the new levees being built, would make flooding worse. He wrote that no one wanted to acknowledge it because “the Dallas plan is a complex combination of many elements, each of which is necessary to make the rest of the plan work.”

The story ran in the State section, deep inside the Chronicle, where, as Schutze’s editor told him, “No one will read it.”

To hell with that. One month later, Schutze was the newest staff writer at the Dallas Observer. His first story was a mirror image of the Chronicle piece, with even more naysayers quoted decrying “the entire massive billion-dollar-plus thing—the levees, the lakes, the wetlands, the highways, the toll roads, even the hike ’n’ bike trail.” He compared it to the water scheme in Chinatown.

But now, preparing to vote, Schutze knew that a lot had changed in just over three months. Laura Miller, with whom Schutze had been professionally linked as firebrand city columnists at the Dallas Times Herald, had left the Observer to run for a City Council seat, representing her Oak Cliff district. That left Schutze as the top candidate to replace her as city columnist. He just had to prove that he wasn’t a squishy neo-hippie liberal. He had to prove himself a knee-capper.

But even more important than proving himself to his bosses, Schutze had come to a personal realization:

He liked this Trinity River idea. He hated the details, but he liked what the plan was trying to do. It was bold. It was­—what was the word he used to describe Dallas? Vibrant. It was everything that attracted him to the city as a young reporter. He’d spent 10 years covering Detroit in the ’70s when it was withering. He tried to ignore his small role in that. But it was hard. When you had to report on something like a person being killed outside the downtown opera, and you’re told that if that story runs the opera will die the next day, and you do, and it does, it scars you. He was the disillusioned product of a Midwestern suburb, and he rebelled against the idea of escapist sprawl. He loved cities, their downtowns and the gathering spots that formed their centers. They hummed. He watched Detroit rot from the core out, and he didn’t want that here in Dallas.

He looked at his ballot one last time.

Then he voted no.

He was a muckraker.

THE DEFENDER: Former Mayor Laura Miller took the original, flawed Trinity plan and improved it. She made it her own.
photography by Dan Sellers

February 2000
Councilwoman Laura Miller sat in a City Hall conference room with Jim Schutze, the man who, after a yearlong tryout as a staff writer, had replaced her as city columnist for the Dallas Observer. Miller liked Schutze. She’d known he was a funny writer, a master of the stinging metaphor. But he was proving that he shook stories from the treetops like she used to when she was a journalist. He was avuncular and disheveled where she was cool and composed, but they shared a dislike for government double-speak and timid politicians.

She decided to tell him a story that horrified her, about how the Trinity River project was, to her mind, in complete disarray.

A month prior, Laura had been sitting through another Ron Kirk-led Council briefing on the Trinity River plan, annoyed, flipping through watercolor images. Laura hated these briefings. Kirk’s style was to blast anyone who asked too many questions or got snippy with city staff. Laura was aggressive and didn’t mind it if others were, too. She wanted to ask tough questions, and she thought people who were good at their jobs should be able to provide answers.

Like that day. Those coloring-book images were wonderful, complete with gorgeous lakes and parks and people enjoying them. But she’d realized that funding for these amenities seemed to be drying up as money was moved to other parts of the plan, particularly roadwork. The park was shrinking, the lakes were drying up, and even what was left was marked “unfunded.”

As recently as eight months ago, the park and lakes were supposedly funded. Now the money was gone? Moved where? Why?

She asked for numbers, for Excel spreadsheets. She was told, “Sorry, there are none. We have watercolors.” Her mood alternated between weariness and fury.

Miller told Schutze that the irony was, no one wanted the river project more than she did. She believed downtown and her Oak Cliff district would benefit most. But she was tired of getting stonewalled.

“Why don’t we find out what the truth is and then tell the people?” she asked Schutze. “Why don’t we say, ‘Here’s what we can really afford now. Here’s what it would cost to finish it.’ And if we need more money to finish it, let people vote on it again.”

THE INSTIGATOR: When Councilwoman Angela Hunt couldn’t get straight answers, she launched the referendum on the road.
photography by Cheryl Diaz Myer/Dallas Morning News

Early 2001
The young lawyer loved her Tudor-style home near Central Expressway in the M Streets. It was small, a little more than 1,400 square feet, with only one bath, but what it lacked in size it more than made up for in charm. She felt that way about her entire neighborhood. She’d moved there when she came to Dallas in 1998 by way of the University of Texas School of Law. The house was 75 years old, but that’s what made it attractive. Too many things in Dallas were rootless. Her neighborhood had a long history, a charm reflected in its price per square foot.

But her neighborhood was changing, and it worried her. When she and her husband rode their bikes through East Dallas, it was impossible to ignore the huge, garish homes filling the lots where quaint Tudors once stood. She didn’t want that to happen on her street.

So Angela Hunt gathered like-minded people from her neighborhood and formed a grassroots organization to preserve it. The group was called Save the M Streets, and serving as its chairwoman would be time-consuming, sure, but she was 29 and childless. She could find the time to make it work. She was stubborn, and it was worth it.

March 2002
Mayor Laura Miller sat in her conference room at City Hall and pulled out her reporter’s notebook. A month earlier, after Ron Kirk had stepped down to run for Phil Gramm’s senate seat, Miller had won the mayor’s office in a runoff. Now she was going to get to the bottom of things. She’d called a meeting with city staff and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to talk about the Trinity plan. To ensure the process was open, she’d asked a Dallas Morning News reporter and an environmentalist to attend the briefing. Oh, and she’d invited Jim Schutze. He’d been on target in his complaints about this thing for years, and she wanted him to see that she was trying to fix it.

But a month or so before her election, the lead Trinity plan engineering firm had given her an update at the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce. She’d listened patiently as they extolled the virtues of the plan as it stood. But these were highway guys, not urban planners. No surprise the update was all about the highway.

When they were done, Miller told them she had one question: “Where is the water, guys?”

She went home and complained to her husband, State Rep. Steve Wolens. She told him she couldn’t support this plan because it was all about the roads, nothing about the parks and river and lakes. Despite her three and half years on the Council, she’d had zero success changing it because Ron Kirk wouldn’t allow anything to slow down the road guys.

Her husband told her she was being stupid. Because she was thinking about it like a journalist: if it’s not perfect, tear it apart. He told her she needed to think like Ron Kirk. When you’re elected mayor, he said, you can control the process. You can make it as inclusive as you want. You can get in there, make it better, make it your own. Make it good. Be a leader.

And now, as mayor, she was trying to do that. She was going to grab this ungainly mutt by the scruff, put a leash on it, and make it a show dog.

Sitting in that conference room, Jim Schutze knew he should keep his mouth shut. But he couldn’t help himself. He was listening to the crap being spun, and he just had to give his opinions. Why couldn’t he be like the Morning News reporter, he wondered? She was so professional. Me, he thought, I’m an overcaffeinated crank.

Once he finally shut up, he was amazed at his old colleague Laura Miller. Good grief, he thought, where’s the screaming harpy he used to work with at the paper? She was patient and calm, getting staff and the Corps to admit things they didn’t want to about flooding and funding and the roads and all sorts of concerns he’d been writing about for years. About the stuff that environmental groups were suing the city over, trying to get the project killed. This performance was shocking. This wasn’t Rock Star Ron Kirk. It was Behind-The-Scenes Laura, and he was convinced that if anyone could save this project, she could.

When the briefing was over, Schutze went back to his home office and typed 1,500 words foretelling a sea change in Dallas politics.

“Miller could turn this whole thing into the Laura Miller Trinity River Project, save the other down-river levee, and even resolve the battle over the road that is to be built along the river,” he wrote. “It could work and work right. All people have to do is be reasonable and not try to force the city to waste money and make flooding worse. You have to wonder why that’s so hard.”

THE VISIONARY: Trinity Trust president Gail Thomas knows that people roll their eyes when she talks about the city’s soul.
photography by Dan Sellers

Summer 2002
Gail Thomas was finally onboard. As the founder of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, she had a long history in Dallas urban planning circles. She had spent her professional life trying to get city leaders to focus on revitalizing the urban core. And for a long time she had seen the Trinity River project as well-meaning but deeply flawed. In May, she’d surprisingly found someone who agreed with her: Mayor Laura Miller.

Both believed the current plan needed serious help. When Miller held an all-day summit at City Hall, she told everyone in attendance that they were there not only to review the Trinity River plan, but to criticize it. Miller saw it as a series of roadways surrounding a big bathtub in the center. Uninspiring and ineffective.

Thomas agreed. Although it wasn’t in her upbeat nature to be critical or political—her mother had always told her, If you’re unhappy, just smile, and you’ll feel better—she wanted to express what she saw as problems in the current plan. If this project was supposed to revitalize the city’s core, someone needed to pay attention to its more soulful elements and not just worry about the road. People always rolled their eyes when she talked about the soul of a city. She couldn’t help it. She’d felt strongly her entire academic career that if urban work wasn’t done with the city’s core in mind, then a city can’t grow organically and proportionately. It’s why she held her seminars downtown and not at, say, SMU—even though her husband’s grandfather was that school’s first president.

Now, she’d found her urban planning soulmate in Laura Miller. The mayor had asked Thomas to help her raise private funds so that the entire project could be taken to true urban planners, not a bunch of road developers, and they could craft something beautiful. Politically, there was no way she could sell to voters the idea that they needed to spend an additional $600,000 to redesign this plan to make it resemble what they’d already voted for: an urban oasis. To raise that money and tap into the moneyed class, Miller needed Thomas. Her ability to wax passionately and poetically about this project’s potential benefits, real and psychic, was crucial. Thomas was, in fact, the reason many people in the city’s affluent social circles had become passionate about such projects in the first place.

Thomas was more than happy to help. She’d grown up on a farm in McKinney, and she still remembered the joy she felt when her mother would bring her downtown to Neiman’s to go shopping. She wanted downtown Dallas to recapture that vibrancy, and she saw the river plan as crucial to that goal.

She called Highland Park arts patron Deedie Rose. Within days, Rose wrote Miller a personal check for $200,000. It was time to save Dallas from itself. The re-imagining had begun.

March 2003
she was pragmatic, and she didn’t want to get ahead of herself. But for a moment, Laura Miller wanted to reflect on the accomplishment. Because from all appearances, she’d done the impossible. She’d saved the Trinity River plan.

She’d raised the money from private sources (the last check had come from T. Boone Pickens) to get an esteemed Harvard team to reconfigure the entire plan. It was a beautiful compromise. The transportation people were happy because they got six lanes of toll road. But the environmentalists and park lovers were happy because the road narrowed to four lanes and meandered near downtown. And it had a series of parks and pedestrian crossings that seemed not only useful but elegant. Even the name of the new plan suggested a long-awaited sanity: the Balanced Vision Plan.

Everyone loved it. David Dillon, the authoritative architecture critic for the Morning News, had written about how horrible the plan had been to that point. But this new plan he liked. While suggesting there was still much to guard against, he wrote that “ ‘compromise’ can be a code word for no nerve or vision, but not in this case.” He noted that even though a parkway “is certainly what the public thought it was voting for,” it was possible to tailor the road to demand and reduce its garishness in the downtown canyon.

Gail Thomas, the ultimate “water person,” as Miller called her, said the plan represented a “healing.”

Even Jim Schutze, the old bomb-thrower himself, actually wrote about how wonderful the new plan seemed, given the disparate interests examining it, looking for fissures. He wrote, “If it turns out to be as good as it seems at first blush, then this river deal will be a very big victory for the city’s better nature. … Even I can see that this plan, if it holds together, represents something much bigger and better than the zestiest fight we’ve ever had.”

Miller understood what he meant. Schutze was a journalist, and fights are fun. Fights are sexy. Fights are easy to write about. She used to do that. Even as a council member, she had approached her job as a columnist. But now, truly, she was no longer a journalist, a word she almost spit out. She was a leader, someone who brought all sides to the table and found the best possible solution. Her critics always said she was about two things: tearing things apart, and whatever was best for Laura Miller. This plan was proof that they were wrong. She could follow through on a vision, and she cared about the city she called home.

Now she just had to be a saleswoman and get the Council to approve it.

December 2004
Gail Thomas picked up the phone on Christmas Eve with no idea she was about to name a bridge. It had been almost four years since the Dallas City Council had approved a design contract with world-renowned bridge designer Santiago Calatrava to create three “signature bridges” as a way for the Trinity River project to further re-brand the city. The designs were sweeping, beautiful, controversially expensive—and arguably unnecessary.

Thomas didn’t feel that way. She saw their grand arches as one more way to improve the project. The idea that this plan was trying to marry the practical (flood control, traffic relief) with the ambitious (urban lakes and parks, wondrous public art that served as a gateway to downtown) made it the sort of daring, artful design that she’d been pushing her entire life. She could almost see it taking shape, and that excited her. She talked about Plato’s suggestion that in order to achieve anything, you must first “wear” the image of what you want in your mind’s eye. You must visualize. She could see the bridges, the parks and lakes teeming with people. She could see her life’s work, all the academic theory, made real.

More private money was needed. Ever since the Council had approved the Balanced Vision Plan one year ago, she’d been working behind the scenes to garner big-money support. She’d had lunch in January with City Manager Mary Suhm and had pledged her support. Suhm knew that everyone who listened to Thomas speak about the poetry inherent in the project came away invigorated. For people to write big checks, they have to be on some sort of high.

Among other things, Thomas had spent much of the year trying to secure name donors for the Calatrava bridges.

“Hello, Gail.” The call was from Lyda Hill, daughter of Margaret Hunt Hill, matriarch of the powerful Hunt family, of Hunt Petroleum. The family was in Colorado for the holidays. “We want a bridge named after Mother.”

What a glorious gift, Thomas thought. Hunt Petroleum would donate $12 million for the first bridge to be built, the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. Thomas smiled. The picture in her mind’s eye sharpened.

December 2005
Laura Miller was beaming as fireworks exploded behind her. The groundbreaking for the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge was filled with pageantry. The newly formed Trinity Trust, with Gail Thomas leading it, had put it together. The Cuicani in Xochitl dancers performed. Santiago Calatrava spoke of how the city was creating a heritage it would deliver to the next generation.

It had been a good year, a year that had seen real movement on the project. Shortly after her re-election, Miller had appointed the four freshmen council members to the Trinity River committee so that they would all get up to speed on the details of the project. She wasn’t going to make the same mistake Ron Kirk had made by trying to keep everyone in the dark just so the Trinity train could speed along unchecked.

Still, the train had left the station, as it were, and this was the symbolic announcement of that progress. It was impossible to be hyperbolic, because the importance of this project, she felt, could not be overstated.

“This is,” Miller told the crowd of 1,500, “the greatest project Dallas will ever, ever do.”

She looked out at the cheering crowd and saw the local dignitaries celebrating this accomplishment. One of them was a freshman council member, East Dallas neighborhood activist Angela Hunt, who would leave long before the festivities had ended.

Fall 2006
This time, Jim Schutze would keep his mouth shut. After all, he was a guest. Angela Hunt had invited him to a planning meeting at the North Dallas home of Mary Vogelson, a frequent critic of the Trinity River plan. Although Schutze had been railing against the plan for the past few years now—his initial praise was forgotten within months, and he’d become the project’s (and, in turn, Laura Miller’s) most vicious critic—most of Dallas, at least the decision-makers, thought he was a disgruntled party of one.

They didn’t know what Schutze did. That behind the scenes Angela Hunt had been amassing a coalition intent on challenging this plan, if not stopping it dead in its tracks. Since being placed on the Trinity River committee, she’d become increasingly frustrated as she asked for details of the plan. The briefings were, to her mind, still a joke. They were staff-driven, formalized, not give-and-take affairs. She would look at watercolors, which (as the girl who grew up in Pasadena, Texas, would say) could make a pig farm look good. She told staff, No, I want to see Excel spreadsheets with numbers showing where the money is going.

She didn’t get much of what she wanted, but the answers she did get troubled her greatly. She saw that the toll road was by far the biggest part of this project, which was odd to her, since she knew it had been sold to voters as a parks project. Other council members didn’t even know, or seem to care, that the plans had changed to the point where they were building the toll roads inside, not on top of, the levees.

She was already disgusted by how much the Balanced Vision Plan had changed. The roads had gotten bigger, and they weren’t “context sensitive” to the park. They were just big, honking highways that blew right through. This didn’t even address how underfunded she thought the entire project was.

This was our chance to have our own Millennium Park, she told herself. And the road will kill that.

Schutze was there to watch and listen. When Hunt had first started researching the project, she’d called him, using him as a source. “I’ve read your stories,” she told him, “and I want to know more.” Now, he was invited to watch these meetings, where opponents would discuss what to do about their concerns, how to get rid of this toll road. The only catch was, he couldn’t write about it until the effort was complete, months and months away.

That sounded great. But Schutze couldn’t help himself. He started talking, just like he did when Laura invited him behind the scenes after she became mayor. He offered advice, argued with people, gave them more ammo when he thought they needed it. He all but took over. He was like Rosie on The View.

On the way home, he called Angela Hunt. He told her, “Thank you for this opportunity, but I don’t think I can do it. I get too worked up. I don’t think I can go to any more of your meetings.” To him, Hunt seemed relieved and agreed readily.

March 2007
Laura Miller called Angela Hunt from her car. She was worked up, so she needed to be careful. Once, when she was driving and doing an interview by cell phone with Jim Schutze, she’d hit another car in a Starbucks parking lot. And she was a lot more agitated now than she was then.

Her overriding thought was, What the hell was she doing? Miller had just been told that Hunt was going to announce she was initiating an effort to gather enough signatures to bring a referendum on the toll road portion of the Trinity River plan. It was insane. It made no sense.

That’s not true. It did make sense to her. Miller knew why Hunt was doing it. She is me, Laura thought, me 10 years ago, five years ago. The me who always thought someone was hiding something, trying to pull one over on the plebes, doing back-room deals with fat cats smoking cigars and drinking the blood of the poor. Conspiracy me. Smart, hard-driving, wrongheaded, stubborn me.

She thought, I’ll just have to make her understand what my husband helped me understand. I will have to make her see that the real value is in protecting the part of the plan we all love, the parks and the water. And if you take the road out, you destroy all of that.

She reached Hunt.

“Angela, don’t do this,” she said.

Miller told her that she should instead embrace the title of Trinity River protector, but work to make it better.

“I’m going to be gone soon,” she said, “and someone is going to have to protect the park and the lakes from the toll road boys. But to do that, you’ve got to sit at the table with us. Come to the table. We’ll get everyone there, the Harvard designers and the smart road guys and city staff and anyone you want. You can make it better. You can make a difference. You can be a leader.”

Hunt was ready for this. She knew that once she made the announcement that she was calling for a referendum, that she would be attacked. She wouldn’t be loved by the toll road lapdogs like the Dallas Morning News or D Magazine. But she told herself that if she were to base her decision on being liked, then she needed to get out of the game altogether.

“No, it’s you, Laura, who needs to come to my side,” Hunt told her. “You need to take a stand against this. We can have a park without a road in it. I’ve made up my mind.”

Miller wanted her to meet with all the lead players who helped create the Balanced Vision Plan and ask any questions she wanted. She thought that was ridiculous. She was a lawyer. People can be persuasive, but numbers and documents don’t lie. She’d been requesting the details of the revised plan—updated funding numbers, contracts that told exactly what the urban designers had been charged with, all memoranda between them and the city—for months. She was tired of being stonewalled.

Hunt was professional and distant, trying to make it clear that this wasn’t personal. It was, she felt, simply the right thing to do. Nothing Laura Miller could say would change that. Hunt told herself she wished she could have worked with the Laura Miller she’d only read about, the firebrand who ignored calls to accept bad policy just because it was hard to do the right thing.

But when she thought about ignoring this problem, she wondered what she would tell her children 20 years from now as the family drove along a huge, impersonal highway over a tiny park and lake that no one used. How would she tell them, Yes, your mother could have made a difference, but she was too scared to stand up for what she thought was right?

The transformation was complete. Angela Hunt was the new Laura Miller.

Summer 2007

Gail Thomas knew it was getting tense. Angela Hunt was at the Trinity Trust offices in the Design District just northwest of downtown. She’d come there to discuss her referendum plan with Thomas and other important Trinity backers, including Deedie Rose.

Hunt had said, along with everyone else, that Gail Thomas’ vision inspired her. The idea of a wonderful park and lake in downtown Dallas made her care deeply about this issue. She’d spent almost a year traveling Europe on a fellowship in the mid-’90s, and she was influenced by the cities she visited. The public gathering places, how they fostered a sense of history and community—it moved her. For a small-town Texas girl, the daughter of a lawn mower repairman, someone whose family vacations were to Austin and San Antonio, this was eye-opening. It gave a sense of magic to the big city. She wanted the people who cared about Dallas’ soul, people like Gail Thomas, to know that she was doing this because she believed the project, done without the road along the river, could have that same mystical effect.

That’s why she had called Thomas shortly after announcing her opposition to the plan as it stood. She’d told her, “Gail, I don’t want to do anything to harm the important parts of this project.” Thomas replied coldly, “Angela, you’ve already cost this project $60 million.”

But that was months ago. Today would be a day of healing, or explaining.

It wasn’t to be. Thomas felt as though Hunt wasn’t listening to their concerns, that she was being obstinate, unwilling to see that some of her complaints were just flat wrong.

Finally, Deedie Rose couldn’t take it. She told Hunt she was being ridiculous, and she wouldn’t listen to reason.

Hunt closed her notebook. “I don’t have to sit here and be insulted,” she said. Ten minutes after she’d arrived, she stood and walked out.

September 2007
Angela Hunt doesn’t remember her meeting with Gail Thomas ending acrimoniously. She recalls it closing with a cordial, professional goodbye.

It would seem that two people could agree on the details of an important 10-minute meeting. But that sort of disparity colors every aspect of the Trinity River tale. People see the same thing—the same diagrams, the same figures, the same sweeping arches—and they can’t agree about what it all means. 

Each of the four main players in this story—Laura Miller, Jim Schutze, Gail Thomas, Angela Hunt—talked to D Magazine about how much he or she has invested in this project and about his or her role in bringing the Trinity River plan to this acrimonious point. Hearing them explain it, and after reviewing hundreds of stories about the decade-plus debate, two similarities in their positions stood out:

1) They all speak passionately about how they want a wonderful urban park to help Dallas revitalize its core, and 2) they all say this story is not about them. Each one said, more or less, that examining his or her personal history doesn’t help explain the debate, because this is bigger than a personal crusade. This is about the political will of an entire city.

But pretending this story isn’t about them ignores how each of the four helped shape the debate that has consumed Dallas, and how each has forced Dallas to confront the issue with the November 6 vote.

Without Gail Thomas the visionary, would an entire generation of Dallas leaders have been so inspired to make this project breathe that they would fight against all objections, legitimate and otherwise, to see it through?

Would Laura Miller the city leader have worked so hard to prove herself different from Laura Miller the muckraker if she hadn’t seen the Trinity River as her lasting legacy?

Would Jim Schutze the knee-capper have forced a complacent citizenry to consider the plan’s real flaws in 10 years of columns if he hadn’t tied his journalistic sense of self-worth to this project?

And does Angela Hunt the upstart really think this referendum would have occurred without her stewardship?

In fact, we’re at this point because they’ve all invested a great deal of their professional lives in this outcome. Along the way, they’ve lost the ability to see shades of gray in the arguments. They had to choose sides in a debate in which they largely agree: they all dislike congestion, they all want to avoid flood damage, they all look forward to walking along the water in a pretty park.

How can reasonable people not then come to an agreement? Because this is politics, and all politics is personal.

Write to [email protected].