In Typical Texas Fashion, Urban Nature Park in Dallas Would Be Country's Biggest

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Rendering of Trinity River Park, Dallas. (Photo: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates)

Considering Texas' reputation for bigness, you’d be inclined to think that the city of Dallas would have a whole slew of plus-sized superlatives to claim its own.

It doesn’t, really.

For one, Dallas isn’t even Texas’ largest city — both Houston and San Antonio are more populous, with the former city being home to the Lone Star State’s two tallest buildings. While there’s certainly not a dearth of sizable Western wear emporiums in the Big D, aspiring urban cowboys might be disappointed to learn that the world’s largest honky-tonk is located next door in Fort Worth. What’s more, Dallas was once home to the world’s largest Hooters but the hot wings dispensary was stripped of this title when a more prodigious outpost opened in Las Vegas last year.

But hey, at least Dallas, a prime-time soap opera-worthy North Texas city where things are big-ish but not necessarily the biggest, still has bragging rights to the world’s tallest patio chair. And that’s certainly something.

However, if the headline of a recent op-ed piece published by the Dallas Morning News proves to be true, Dallas may someday be able to claim a bona fide “largest” — one that’s vastly more beneficial to the city's residents than skyscrapers and chain restaurants and countrified dive bars: America’s largest urban nature park.

Centered along the flood-prone Trinity River Corridor, the ambitious, green space-generating urban redevelopment scheme — in reality, three “large but disconnected” projects initiated along different parts of the Trinity River — is described by Stephen S. Smith, board chair of the Trinity Recreation Conservancy, in the Dallas Morning News as “happening with little public awareness because the projects are being conducted independently, managed by different parts of the government whose communications with each other are usually sparse.”

If and when linked together, this trio of disparate projects flanking the Trinity River — straightened during the 1920s, the once-meandering waterway flows 15 miles through Dallas en route to Galveston Bay — will form a single so-called Nature District spanning 10,000 acres — that’s more than 10 times the size of Central Park.

As Smith elaborates, these three elements are, for the most part, coming together at varying speeds.

For well over a decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been at work creating a series of flood-mitigating artificial wetlands known as the Trinity Lakes. The Corps is currently constructing a bike path through the area that links downtown Dallas with a 1,000-acre developed section of the Great Trinity Forest (aka the second piece of the puzzle), that’s home to a newly opened golf club and equestrian center. This section of the nascent Nature District is also home to the Trinity River Audubon Center, a 120-acre preserve that opened its doors to much fanfare in 2008. The Great Trinity Forest, an ancient bottomland hardwood forest acting as the green lungs of D-Town, spans an impressive total of 6,000 acres just south of the city’s downtown urban core.

Rendering of Trinity River Park, Dallas
Dallas's envisioned urban nature district would be anchored by Trinity River Park, a between-the-levees riverside recreation area that's still in the conceptual stages. (Photo: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates)

A 'catalyst for urban growth'

The third project that comprises the Nature District — and the one’s that’s been garnering the most attention as of late — is the latest itineration of Trinity River Park, a project that Mark Lamster, architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, described as “an urban landscape of unrivaled scale, a lush green sash that would reorient the essential polarity of the city, pointing it decisively inward toward the core.”

While still very much in the conceptual stages, this 200-acre swath of urban parkland located directly adjacent to downtown Dallas and between the Army Corps’ flood-protecting levees is geared to revitalize the city’s long-neglected riverfront. After all, how many casual tourists to Dallas even realize that there's a major river flowing through the heart of the city?

Dubbed by Smith as a “launch point for the Nature District," Trinity River Park — estimated price tag: $250 to $270 million — is eligible for some bond money and has received $50 million in initial funding from local philanthropist Annette Simmons in October. Simmons made the contribution in honor of her late husband, the billionaire businessman Harold Simmons. (In his piece for the Dallas Morning News, Smith refers to the park as Harold Simmons Park.)

Lauded Brooklyn-based landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) is responsible for the latest design scheme for Trinity River Park as well as the snazzy design renderings that have been making the rounds in recent weeks. As MVVA explains, the design for Trinity River Park “builds upon ongoing municipal efforts to connect the river with the city, envisioning the space as an intensely beautiful and naturalistic network of trails, meadows and lakes living in harmony with the Trinity River.”

Trinity River Floodway, Dallas
Dallas' Trinity River Floodway: The future (flood-prone) site of a show-stopping urban park?. (Photo: David Hale Smith/flickr)

The firm goes on to elaborate:

To transform the Trinity Floodway into a world-class park and a catalyst for urban growth, MVVA placed two core concepts at the center of its design: civic spaces and naturalistic landscapes. Civic spaces, such as playgrounds, fountains, plazas and lawns, are located to provide a connection between the city and the floodplain, protect programmatic areas from extreme flooding, and bring a sense of identity to the dry side of the city’s levees. Riparian landscapes, on the other hand, will restore the ecological function and natural beauty of the channel and its banks while also reducing the vulnerability of pathways and other important design elements.

“We are trying to make a place that when you have left you feel you were just connected to the lost nature of the Trinity River, all interwoven with a wide range of more normal park activities and all choreographed with level changes and meandering paths and with overlook paths above,” Van Valkenburgh told the Dallas Morning News back in May. “Dallas deserves that.”

Similar to Bjarke Ingel Group’s original BIG U proposal for Superstorm Sandy-ravaged Lower Manhattan, MVVA envisions Trinity River Park as being a place that draws people to the river and protects them from it — a work of natural disaster-preventing infrastructure masquerading as an awesome place to frolic on a Saturday afternoon.

As the firm notes, the park would even be accessible during 10-year storms: "By working closely with government engineers and other specialists to ensure the infrastructural soundness of the floodplain, MVVA has transformed the flooding of the river from a natural disaster into a breathtaking spectacle.”

Rendering of Trinity River Park, Dallas
If realized, Dallas' Trinity River Park would 'reorient the essential polarity of the city' says Mark Lamster of the Dallas Morning News. (Photo: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates)

A Texas-sized pipe dream?

Breathtaking spectacle aside, there are serious doubts as to if Dallas’ Nature District — the floodway-boundTrinity River Park aspect of it, in particular — will ever happen.

Following a wave of “misguided news stories” sparked by Smith’s op-ed in the Dallas Morning News (headline: “Dallas is about to have America’s largest urban nature park — surprised?”), D Magazine arts editor Peter Simek published a detailed article attempting to set the record straight-ish by providing more background on the fraught, decades-long movement to revitalize the Trinity River watershed along with further commentary on the players — and politics — involved.

That said, there is a vision for Trinity River Park, and a very lovely and smart one at that, but as Simek writes, there’s “also the need for hundreds of millions of dollars and still unsettled questions about flood control, hydrology, and the utility of a north-south road built-out within the levees of the floodplain.”

The latest vision, the van Valkenburgh plan, is perhaps the closest plan we have to date that reimagines the floodway in a manner that respects the river’s natural ecology. But then there are still many questions about its feasibility and appropriateness, both from the value return on the mammoth cost of the vision to the potential hydrological issues, the lingering presence of the toll road, the potential environmental impact of turning up hundreds of cubic acres of riverbed silted with decades-worth of hazardous waste deposits, and more. To say this is a done deal, which then prompts the uninformed national outlets to take a cursory glance and amplify that message, is to ignore the underlying realities that have always shaped the progress on the Trinity. The Trinity’s problems have never been about the visions; they have always been about the politics.

In other words, don’t hold your breath. This is far from a done deal.

Still, others are optimistic that the current plans for Trinity River Park will indeed move forward.

"If our city and our citizens can collectively get behind this, and we can have one voice, the people of Dallas will do what they’ve wanted to for years — almost all of my adult life — and that’s have a central park in downtown Dallas," Gail Thomas, president of the Trinity Trust, proclaimed this past May when Mayor Mike Rawlings unveiled the scheme, which he called a "concept, a vision, an aspiration, an idea." And if Stephen Smith and the Trinity Recreation Conservancy have their way, the motley assortment of nonprofits and governmental organizations already working independently along the Trinity River Corridor will join together to seamlessly link the show-stopping urban park with the forest and wetlands beyond it.

While the Trinity Recreation Conservancy’s attention-grabbing promise of “the nation’s largest urban nature park” might not be realized any time in the near future, this isn’t to say Dallas is without exceptional 21st century urban park projects currently being enjoyed by the city's boot-wearin', BBQ-devouring masses.

The Ronald Kirk Bridge, a 1930s-era vehicular bridge-turned-linear park spanning the Trinity River between downtown and the Trinity Groves entertainment district in West Dallas, opened with much fanfare just north of the (massively photogenic) Santiago Calatrava-designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in 2014.

Just a Texas-sized hop, skip and jump away is Klyde Warren Park, one of the most lauded urban parks in the nation. Directly blanketing the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, the 5.2-acre green space may not be colossal in size but is positively huge when it comes to city-changing impact. When completed in 2012, the innovative deck park — winner of the Urban Land Institute's prestigious Urban Open Space Award in 2014 — linked two long-severed neighborhoods and, in turn, ushered in a new era of revitalization for Dallas' once down-and-out urban core.