The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an edict in April 2015 that should have resulted in a Champagne-fueled bacchanalia among a certain echelon of Dallas society. The federal government had finally—finally!—given Dallas the green light to implement the city’s plan for a park within the Trinity floodway.
It had been 12 long years since Mayor Laura Miller had brought together a dream team of urban planners and landscape architects to develop a comprehensive design. The resulting Balanced Vision Plan was intended to balance recreation, flood control, and (cough) transportation in the form of the Trinity Toll Road. The federal approval process had been exhaustive; because the project sat in a floodway, the feds required a rigorous and lengthy review to ensure the design would not weaken our levees or otherwise reduce the flood protection capacity of the corridor. The city spent upward of $14 million on detailed engineering schematics of the Balanced Vision Plan, hydromorphological assessments of the floodway, topographical renderings, soil analyses of the basin, and a comprehensive landscaping plan.
So when the Corps of Engineers finally approved the Balanced Vision Plan two years ago, it was cause for mass celebration. Yet no church bells pealed, no city holiday was declared, no lavish fêtes held. This monumental announcement, singular in the history of the Trinity project, was met with silence.
The Balanced Vision Plan represented the city’s eighth attempt to design a Trinity park. Over the past 40 years, planning a park between our floodway levees had attained the status of municipal pastime. Each plan had been unveiled to much political fanfare and public acclaim, but just as the ink began to dry on the latest version of the park, a new design was proposed and the old plan was shelved. This interminable cycle was the result of a tragic intersection between Dallas’ desperate quest to be perceived as a “world-class” city with the biggest and bestest urban park ever, and a politically calculated refusal to allow any park to be built between the levees before the Trinity Toll Road was underway.
Now that the Balanced Vision Plan was approved, the city and its cavalry of Trinity cheerleaders, having spent decades perfecting the art of planning a Trinity park, were utterly flummoxed by the realization that it was actually time to start building it. Paralyzed by uncertainty, and knowing that building a park in the floodway would sound the death knell for the Trinity Toll Road, they did the only thing they knew how to do, the only thing they could.
They started planning another iteration of the Trinity park.
May 20, 2016, and I’m about to crash a press conference. Mayor Mike Rawlings has summoned the media to the 69th floor of the Bank of America building to make what is billed as a “major announcement regarding the future of the Trinity River.” Flanked by a well-heeled crowd of political movers and shakers, philanthropists, and design consultants, the mayor proudly announces that a new plan has been commissioned for the Trinity park, this one led by New York-based landscape starchitect Michael Van Valkenburgh.
His design is arguably the most ostentatious yet, replete with gargantuan lakes, circuitous trails and roads, and grand English gardens stacked atop bulging levees. (The massive Trinity Toll Road is cleverly concealed under a forest of paper trees.) An elaborate 10-foot-long scale model of Van Valkenburgh’s design feels every bit the circus prop that it is, designed to distract from the controversial toll road and showcase a grotesque and unrealistic park fantasy. Mantras of “natural” and “native” are chanted throughout the press conference, but hypnotic repetition cannot overcome the obvious artificiality of the design.
What the mayor neglects to mention in his speech is that Van Valkenburgh’s design is the city’s ninth plan for a Trinity park. He does not tell the crowd that the new plan is not approved by the federal government or that it has a price tag of half a billion dollars. He does not apologize for the fact that, despite decades of park planning, we have nothing to show for our efforts.
I leave the mayor’s press conference convinced of two things: the Balanced Vision Plan is far from perfect, and we need to start building it immediately.
Yes, if we want a Trinity park today, then we must use the Balanced Vision Plan as our blueprint. If we were to insist on moving forward with an entirely new design, like Van Valkenburgh’s plan, we would have to start the federal approval process all over. We would be throwing away millions of dollars and more than a decade of design work.
The concept of this park, its foundation, would rest on the premise that nature is paramount here, that we are explorers and guests in this realm, not conquerors invading with a heavy hand.
The Balanced Vision Plan is not without its flaws. Like Van Valkenburgh’s design, it contains elements that are overly engineered and markedly unnatural, not the least of which are two massive but shallow man-made lakes that would get their water from a wastewater treatment facility a mile downstream. Since the Balanced Vision Plan was first proposed, more than 15 years ago, there has been a shift to more organic, natural, and sustainable landscapes. We can ameliorate the more manufactured elements of the Balanced Vision Plan by taking advantage of the Corps of Engineers’ permission to construct the park in phases, allowing us to pick and choose which pieces of the Balanced Vision Plan we build. (Importantly, the Corps approved two separate designs of the Balanced Vision Plan: one with, and one without, the Trinity Toll Road, so we can implement a park design that is not diminished by the road and the many design constraints it imposes.) There was a time when the more artificial aspects of the park plan would not have troubled me as they do now. But I have undergone a conversion of sorts over the past year and have come to see the Trinity park in an entirely new light.
Like many Dallasites, for years I have been guilty of viewing the Trinity floodway as little more than a large vacant lot, a conveniently untouched area on the edge of downtown into which we can shoehorn any manner of recreational amenities that strike our fancy, from solar-powered water taxis to manic jugglers to disastrous whitewater rafting courses. But last year, I read an article by Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer that changed my perspective. Schutze proposed that instead of trying to twist and contort our Trinity floodway into an extravagant lakeside amusement park, we should take a gentler approach. We should put nature first, then design man back in. I was taken by this idea of starting with an appreciation for the Trinity’s existing and thriving ecosystem, one that we can best experience and appreciate by disturbing it the least.
A friend suggested I talk with Kevin Sloan, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He proposes that we “re-wild” the Trinity floodway (see p.88): remove invasive flora and fauna, allow the land to revert to its original blackland prairie habitat, and encourage the entire natural ecology to return. Wildlife and waterfowl would thrive. Migrating birds and monarch butterflies would seek respite within the Trinity basin. This hardy landscape would not only withstand the Trinity’s annual floods, but flourish. We would have a magnificent nature preserve in the heart of the nation’s ninth-largest city.
Sloan’s re-wilded Trinity park would not be a protected nature preserve set off in a bell jar. There would still be cycling and running trails, areas for play, and public gathering spaces. But the concept of this park, its foundation, would rest on the premise that nature is paramount here, that we are explorers and guests in this realm, not conquerors invading with a heavy hand.
To achieve this vision without starting a new round of “Plan! That! Park!” we can use the federally approved Balanced Vision Plan as our framework, as the park’s physical structure, and treat the re-wilded scheme as an ecological overlay. These superficial alterations would not trigger a new federal review process, and we could begin construction within months. With $47 million in 1998 Trinity River bond funding, we have more than sufficient funds to get started. We can build hike and bike trails throughout the corridor, pedestrian bridges over the river, a handful of vehicular access points, and modest parking areas inside the floodway. As part of the ecological restoration, we can reintroduce prairie grasses and other native vegetation and work with wildlife biologists and botanists to re-create wild habitats.
The time to build the Trinity park is now. We’ve got an approved plan. We’ve got the money. We’ve got a renewed vision.
Let’s get started.
Angela Hunt sat on the Dallas City Council from 2005 to 2013, when she was term limited out.