From the ashes of several iterations of Trinity river design, a nonprofit organization called the Trinity Park Conservancy is leading the charge in fundraising, designing and seeking public input about what a park between the Trinity River levees should be. The park will be developed in a public-private partnership between the city and the conservancy, called a Local Government Corporation.
Trinity Park Conservancy President, CEO and East Dallas neighbor Brent Brown has been involved with the Trinity project for years, and now he is leading the charge for a park between the levees.
Brown says he wants to turn the green space into something that stitches the city together and entices Dallasites from both sides of the Trinity. “The park is a vehicle,” he says. “Yes, we are building a park, but we are also building a city.”
Brown founded bcWorkshop, a nonprofit design firm that sought to improve life in Dallas. He also worked for CityDesign Studio, where he helped guide design for the City of Dallas from 2011-2017.
Designing a park in a flood plain will require a unique sensitivity to nature. “There is a tension between the natural forces surrounding our river and the physical construction and management of the space,” he says. “Nature is fighting to have it be less manmade. We are going to build a park, and it is going to flood.”
But there are opponents to the very idea of the Trinity Park Conservancy who have other visions for the space, including rewilding.
On May 24, 1908, Biblical rain soaked Dallas with devastating consequences. A 1957 Dallas Morning News article described it. “The leaden heavens continued to send down torrents of rain as the day wore on,” causing the Trinity River to crest at 52.6 feet. It knocked out the city’s power and water supplies and displaced 4,000 people from their homes. A police horse drowned on McKinney Avenue, and three people died when the rushing water took out the railroad viaduct where they were watching the raging flow. The waters paralyzed the city for days.
Since the 1800s, the river has both frustrated and captured the imagination of Dallasites. In 1910, urban planner George Kessler designed a plan to unbend the river and build levees to prevent such a flood from happening again.
In the 1920s, engineers straightened the river, allowing it to flood between the levees and flow quickly downstream, protecting a Downtown that regularly flooded. Today, the Trinity runs in a straight southwest path just west of Downtown, dividing it from Oak Cliff. Most of the year, it remains a small band inside its banks, with expansive floodplains on either side and levees rising beyond. Every so often, heavy rains will cause the river to flood its banks, at times making its way up the levees.
“Harold Simmons Park will deliver the opportunity where the community can really engage and experience true urbanism as a park.”
Dallas leaders once envisioned a highway in the flood plain. Over a couple decades, Dallas and the infamous Trinity Toll Road were the Ross and Rachel of North Texas development. Voters approved it twice, but after East Dallas Councilwoman Angela Hunt led a charge against putting a highly trafficked road in a flood plain, public opinion and leadership turned against the toll road. The toll road plan had one last fling and finally was put to bed last year.
Other than simple trails along the levees and down near the river, the area remains relatively undeveloped. At one point there was an ill-fated $4 million “standing wave” installed into the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that feature made the river unnavigable, and the city removed it earlier this year at a cost of $2 million.
The latest vision is Harold Simmons Park, a 200-acre flood-friendly park between the levees, running from the Ron Kirk Pedestrian Bridge in the north to the Margaret McDermott Bridge in the south. The Simmons family donated $10 million toward the development of the park, with $40 million more to come if the organization meets governance and fundraising goals.
IF HOUSTON COULD DO IT...
The East Dallas neighbors who play key roles in the park’s development and direction don’t always agree what $200 million should pay for along the banks of the river.
What should a park that floods look like? There are precedents. Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston is made to flood and managed by a government and nonprofit partnership, though it is smaller. Buffalo Bayou includes nature trails, a dog park, a skate park and more, running along the flood-prone bayou near downtown.
World-renowned landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh’s firm will be the landscape architects for the park, but the exact elements and design are still unclear and open to input from Dallas residents.
“For rewilding, the money is already there. That would be so low-cost.”
East Dallas neighbor Cris Jordan sits on the conservancy’s Community-Engagement Committee, which has representatives from all over Dallas. Jordan says her role is about inclusivity for all of Dallas and getting the community to participate in the design and enjoyment of the park. “Harold Simmons Park will deliver the opportunity where the community can really engage and experience true urbanism as a park,” she says. “We get the message out and invite people into the process.”
Jordan knows that even though the park is not in East Dallas, the neighborhood appreciates the preservation and enjoyment of natural spaces. “We treasure our treasures,” she says.
The conservancy is seeking input with a series of events throughout the fall to ask the city how they use the space now and what they would like to see in the future. Hikes, bike rides and community meetings throughout the fall provide opportunities for attendees to share design ideas, better understand the timeline and learn how to get involved.
IS REWILDING THE WAY TO GO?
Not everyone is sold on the idea. District 14 City Councilman Philip Kingston has been a vocal opponent of the toll road from the beginning of his time on Council, and he doesn’t trust that the Trinity Park Conservancy is the right organization for the job.
Kingston says Brown’s CityDesign Studio showed support for a toll road. As proof, he notes that CityDesign Studio selected a plan for a contest, The Connected City Design Challenge, by a Spanish firm that included a toll road in its renderings.
“Brent Brown has no more cred in that job than Harold Simmons would have,” he says, referring to the businessman and philanthropist who died in 2013 and made millions storing and destroying radioactive waste. “It is in the hands of the same people.”
But Brown is proud of his connection to the Trinity plans. He says he never personally advocated for a toll road and is against one now. He is building out a team of local firms to advise on the construction of the park, including hydrologists and experts in blackland prairies.
Kingston says the group’s working vision is coming from the wrong place, and he leans in favor of “rewilding” the Trinity. “They have a negative history of not being in favor of a vibrant natural space.”
City Councilman Scott Griggs of Oak Cliff says a simple park with a natural landscape doesn’t have to cost $200 million. “For rewilding, the money is already there. That would be so low-cost.”
Kevin Sloan, a local landscape architect on the park’s design committee, advocates for rewilding in other places, which he says is “any project that begins first by identifying the program of natural life” and would “accommodate permanent and migratory wildlife, wetlands and blackland prairie.”
Rewilding begins with the natural order of things rather than prioritizing humans. Sloan already is working to rewild an adjacent section of the river, which he sees as a good partner for Simmons Park. “Cross pollination between the two projects is happening.”
Brown wants to create access to the river bottom while connecting it to the community, balancing natural existence with recreational enjoyment. “It has to work in the context of flooding. Our approach is the most pragmatic to date.”
Brown says there will be urban access points, as well as natural parts of the park, including rewilding the wetlands and prairie. “To assume those approaches would be absent from Harold Simmons Park is false,” Brown says.
Over the next few years, neighbors will see whether the river that once paralyzed Dallas can transform into a green space for everyone. Brown says his organization wants to finish the design and break ground by 2020, completing the park in 2022.
“Trust is a huge factor,” he says. “We don’t expect people just to trust us. We don’t earn it by telling people, but by doing things, listening and evolving.”
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