Back in the late 1980s, when White Rock Lake and Park seemed to be gasping its last watery breath, few people could have guessed that its salvation would be such a stunning success.

Today, it is being compared to the Central Parks and Golden Gate Parks of the country. It is, say some, destined to be the “crown jewel” of the Dallas parks system.

With that destiny in mind, a Dallas parks and recreation department study recently identified $42 million worth of improvements and renovations to be made at White Rock. The idea, say the plan’s proponents, is to bring back the glory of the lake’s heyday: 1936-1942.

“That is really the era that White Rock came into its own,” says Phillip Neeley, a senior landscape architect with Carter and Burgess, a research firm hired three times in the last 15 years in conjunction with projects at White Rock. “It was one of the most significant parks of that era in the southern United States.”

During that time, White Rock was more than the outdoors Mecca it is today. In addition to having Civilian Conservation Corps (another of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs) and WPA programs housed there, the lake was an entertainment destination. There was a floating dance hall in the middle of the lake, and families often camped through the weekend at White Rock while their children swam in its waters. Perhaps its biggest draw of all during this time was the Texas and Pacific Club, built in the early ’20s. According to a letter written in 1941 by T&P Club secretary Carl Morin:

“The Club House … has a spacious porch overlooking the lake. It has a lobby or lounge, ballroom, card room, pool room (with three pool tables), and kitchen. It is surrounded by well-kept grounds, equipped with tennis, croquet and badminton courts lighted for night playing, swings and see-saws for the children, and a boat pier and boats, which make outdoor parties or fishing highly enjoyable.”

With this history in mind, the parks department decided last year that future improvements at White Rock should framed “within its period of significance,” because, Neeley says, “White Rock is about more than just green space and a place to recreate. It’s about history.”

Because White Rock is under the stewardship of many different groups (For the Love of the Lake, White Rock Foundation, etc.), many past projects in the area had been done without a common vision in mind.

“Our long range plan for the whole parks system is a 10- to 20-year plan,” Neeley says. “And White Rock will be a major component in that plan for the whole 10-20 years. Almost every year, there will be a project going on at White Rock.”

While the money doesn’t yet exist to fund the proposed plans, Neeley and Parks Department spokesman Willis Winters say that multiple bond packages and a conservancy set up by those groups already involved with the lake could set the ball rolling. Some of the planned projects include.

Constructing pedestrian gateways that will not only allow neighborhood users to enter White Rock without having to cross dangerous veloways or intersections, but will reflect the architectural character of surrounding homes and properties.

The ultimate goal, say both Winters and Neeley, is to nominate White Rock Lake and Park for a place on the National Register of Historic Places. And, when all the pieces fall into place, Neeley says, “There’s no doubt that there will be an increase in user activity.”

“With the exception of Fair Park,” says Winters, a Lakewood resident, White Rock is already “probably the top most-utilized park in the Dallas parks system.” And, though no projections have been made for how much user activity will increase, hopes are high that it will be the “crown jewel” of the Dallas urban parks system, a phrase often repeated among those involved in its planning.

The reception of the master plan, and what we’ve done to date and want to do in future, has been extremely positive,” Winters says, referring to those in the area who have seen the parks department’s presentation on proposed improvements to the area. “Everyone wants to see White Rock Lake be improved and be a better place.”

That might be the case. But, say some residents who both live near the lake and take an interest in preserving its natural resources, undertaking $42 million worth of projects might not be the way to go about it.

“When I hear the city of Dallas and I hear the word development, I always get a little bit nervous,” says Tom Cook, an attorney who lives near the Bath House Cultural Center. “They tend to take a germ of something that’s really great, and all the sudden they say, ‘We’re going to do this the Dallas way,’ and they overdo it.

Though Cook says he hasn’t seen the Parks Department presentation, he is familiar with many of the proposed improvements, and believes they do “sound like actual improvements.”

“I think if it’s done well and properly maintained, it can be the kind of resource they envision,” he says. But he disagrees with anything that would draw a lot more visitors to the lake and park. “I’m in favor of not trying to make the part a destination. That would take a lot of maintenance, a major commitment of resources.”

Gary Olp, an architect who works and lives near the lake, agrees.

“As neighbors surrounding the lake, we care for its facilities, we clean it up, we pick up the trash,” he says. “All these people already coming in … do they volunteer for Saturday morning pickups? No. I think if we open up this park, the more we improve it and the easier we make access for people to drive in, the park is going to suffer more abuse.”

Olp and Cook say that parts of White Rock already suffer from neglect and poorly managed resources, and those should be addressed before other projects are started.

“There are environmentally sensitive areas around the lake that really need to be guarded,” Cook says, naming a bird sanctuary at the southwest end of the lake, near the spillway. “It’s an intermittent wetland, and it’s just an amazing place, and an incredible draw for birds of all types. And it’s a little bit under siege already from the development all around it.”

Olp says that people need only look at White Rock’s dog park to see how public enthusiasm for an area can translate into problems.

“The dog park has been an incredible success” he says, “but what’s happened is it’s completely ruined that piece of land. That whole area is just mud. The impact of that, and the amount of use that park has endured, has really outpaced the carrying capacity of that piece of land.”

Olp adds that while park improvements might benefit the city by attracting more people to the park, “it’s not a benefit for the plants and animals that live there.”

“Natural systems are already overburdened for other purposes,” Olp says, citing erosion control, over-mowing and traffic emissions. He’d like to see the city take an opposite approach at the lake.

“The more inaccessible you make it, the more those who really enjoy the resource and walk softly on it will continue to enjoy it and preserve it.”

As for the prospect of increased user activity, he says he fears the worst.

“They’re going to bring in tons of people who see it from behind their car windows, throw Styrofoam cups out those windows, and pull off onto the grass for a picnic. And it’s going to have an adverse effect.”

Not surprisingly, it’s those people in their cars, and the increased traffic and parking they represent – that are at the top of just about everyone’s list of issues that need to be well-managed at White Rock.

“It comes down to cars,” Neeley says matter-of-factly of the most crucial issue surrounding increased usership.

Unfortunately, just how many more cars we’re talking about seems to be anybody’s guess. Neeley says most of the increased usage will revolve around specific, planned activities on the weekends. However, Winters ads that White Rock could also just become “more desirable for a Sunday afternoon drive.”

Whatever the draw, more traffic is a prospect that many residents, particularly those who live near the lake, would like to avoid. “We already suffer from too much traffic in this neighborhood anyway,” Olp says.

The more inaccessible you make it, then those who really enjoy the resource and walk softly will continue to enjoy it and preserve it.

Resident Margie Haley has lived at the lake for nearly 50 years, and remembers a time when traffic was so bad that residents were concerned emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to reach them in the event of an accident.

“In 1982 or ’83, [White Rock] was so used that the people who live out here, particularly on Lawther Drive, were not able to get out of their driveways because the traffic was so thick,” she says. “Sometimes it would be bumper to bumper to bumper.”

Making Lawther a one-way street at one end of the lake helped alleviate those problems, but, for Cook and his neighbors who live on Northcliff, races and other large events at White Rock continue to pose a problem.

“Parking and traffic control for those could probably be managed a little better,” he says. “People are stacked up all over the place. Cars that are stacked up back up onto Northcliff. A lot of people have to post signs or put up tape to keep people from parking in their lawns.”

Some areas that already see higher usage – near Tee Pee Hill, the pump house and the nautical clubs – have been or will be candidates for added parking, Winters says. But, he adds, “I don’t see that we’ll be increasing parking dramatically. Increased parking generates larger activities and those activities often come into conflict with the neighborhood.”

However, while many are happy to hear White Rock won’t be paved over, others are concerned that users who drive in will have no choice but to park in the neighborhoods surrounding the lake.

One solution that virtually everyone agrees upon is public transit. To that end, many people interviewed for this article agree that improvements need to be made at the White Rock Lake DART station.

“Once you’re off the train, it’s not necessarily visible what you should do if you want to go to White Rock,” says Maria Richards, president of FTLOTL. “I think the park needs to be working with DART to advertise and make sure signage is working appropriately.”

Richards and others also point out that White Rock’s DART stop is about half a mile from the lake and park itself, a distance many visitors would be unwilling to walk, particularly those with small children. A shuttle system might be the solution.

“If they could have something that was fun, like a trolley that was painted to look like the lake,” Richards says. “You have to make it fun, and something kids would want to get on.”

Susan Falvo of the White Rock Foundation says that those days are still a long way off, however.

“It would be wonderful if we got to the point where we had to bus people in or have them take shuttles, but that’s something way in the future. And it’s something we’ll address as it comes up,” she says.

As for parking and traffic becoming a point of contention …

“Could it ever be a problem? Anything could be a problem. But, as long as we have groups like the [White Rock] task force, we can continue to address these things as they come up. We’re out there more than somebody who’s just using the lake and we’re doing a really, really good job of seeing issues before they become problems.”

That right there is the key to changes at White Rock being welcomed by those in the neighborhood, say many residents.

“It needs to be thought about before it happens, “Cook says. “I definitely would want to make sure there was planning for increases in traffic and some additional parking. And also plans to manage sanitation and that kind of thing.”

Neeley agrees there will have to be careful “physical planning, event planning and program planning” done in conjunction with future events at White Rock. But, he adds, residents of the surrounding neighborhoods should see themselves as stewards of the projects, not adversaries or onlookers, and should include themselves in the plans for White Rock.

“People from the neighborhood could help think through the problematic areas,” Neeley says. “Of course there will be struggles or battles, and people will get frustrated. But, in the end, it’s the citizens at large who will be the beneficiary.”

Richards agrees: “I see the neighborhood as being the host or hostess of the lake. They can set the tone for all these visitors.”

Whatever the prevailing opinion of improvements at White Rock, Winters asks that all neighborhood residents keep one thing in mind.

“These improvements are going to evolve fairly slowly,” he says. “The funding isn’t there right now, so it’s not like we’re going to come in and drop $40 million overnight and make this the most popular tourist destination in Southwest. Things will occur naturally and build slowly … there will be no sudden impact. We’ll manage it as it happens and hope it doesn’t get out of hand. I don’t think it will.”

Words that should put many residents’ minds at ease. But, Cook says, all the same, he’d like the Parks Department to keep something in mind about White Rock.

“It’s one of the few natural resources that Dallas has to offer, which is why I live here,” he says. “It’s not my private park. I wish it were, but it belongs to the city and all the people of Dallas. And, as such, it’s a great melting pot, a great meeting place, and a great place for family activity.

“But,” he continues, “it OK to leave this area a little bit wild and a little bit free.”

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