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Banking on the River:

Public Access Vital For Trinity Success

By SHELLEY KOFLER / KERA News

North Texas communities are spending billions to transform the Trinity River into a destination. But if you build it will people come? This is part one of a special series of reports, Banking on the River, which looks at what it takes to create successful riverfront developments.

STORY AUDIO:

Let's face it: A lot of North Texans think the Trinity is dirty and unattractive. They can't imagine fine dining on the Trinity, boating on the Trinity or romantically walking hand-in-hand along its shores.

However, that's exactly what development plans in Dallas, Fort Worth and Irving envision. The good news is that other cities have overcome challenges similar to ours - and KERA visited their riverfronts to find out how they did it.

At an off-leash dog park in the heart of Austin, Daisey, a frisky Catahoula, splashes into the Colorado River.

"Oh, yeah, she hops right in there," said Daisey's owner Christine Manz.

Kayakers paddle nearby, while runners power along 10 miles of shoreline trails. This dammed-up stretch of the Colorado is named Lady Bird Lake in honor of Lady Bird Johnson; she is credited with transforming it into a popular attraction. Manz doesn't think twice about driving 45 minutes to bring Daisey, who gets to play with other dogs at the park.

"I have other parks I could take her to but it's completely worth it," she said. "It's a beautiful place you get to hang out and meet other people."

Eighty miles to the south, mariachis stroll among diners ordering Tex-Mex at Casa Rio's on the San Antonio River's Riverwalk. The two-and-a-half mile Riverwalk, with its outdoor restaurants, shops and flat-bottom tour boats lure even more visitors than the city's famous Alamo.

On a Monday night when a lot of restaurants sit empty, the riverside tables below street level are full. Ann Miller has brought out-of-town guests.

"While it's crowded down here, it's just so far removed from the traffic and it's just a nice place to come and get away," Miller said.

Austin's Lady Bird Lake, with its natural attractions, and the San Antonio's Riverwalk, with its dining and shopping, are among the nation's great riverfront success stories.

Landscape architect Roy Mann said that's because both cities mastered the basic requirement.

"Access is the center ingredient along with the river," Mann said. "Those riversides in Paris and Boston, certainly in Austin, are successful because people can have access to and along the riverfront."

That may sound easy - just get people down to the water. But many waterfront developments fail to do that.

Some riverfronts are dark and seem unsafe. The water stagnates and smells. Levees and noisy freeways may block access to the water.

Mann began chronicling the reasons for success and failure more than three decades ago in his book, Rivers of the City. He's since designed urban riverfront projects in Austin and around the world.

"In an urban environment, you can appreciate the natural environment and also the built environment together," he said. "And the most successful urban riverfronts are those that carefully and successfully blend those two elements. Walking under a magnificent live oak branch, working your way along a marina edge, seeing sculls and crew shells on the river or the lake. But often people are really interested in stopping off for a coke or a beer or to have a bit of a sandwich, and so the pleasures of cafe and restaurant life also work into a successful mix."

Austin didn't find its successful mix until the 1970s. A decade before, planners dammed the Colorado River to control downtown flooding and to create a cooling pond for a power plant. But trash and weeds cluttered the new waterfront and Austinites avoided it. The city then appointed Lady Bird Johnson to chair a beautification committee that planted thousands of trees near the river. Austin built the hike-and-bike trail, which linked the river to a big park and a spring-fed swimming hole, Barton Springs. Now, residents gather there year-round; outdoor concerts and events on the riverbanks bring millions of dollars into the city.

San Antonio's Riverwalk also grew out of a need to prevent flooding. Some 50 people died when waters swamped the city center in 1921. After several tries, developers successfully engineered a complex flood control system. But in the 1940s, plans for development along the river fizzled. The early Riverwalk lacked that basic requirement.

"When it was first done, there were really no businesses, and there was no access from the existing buildings," said architect Irby Hightower.

Hightower chairs a committee overseeing river development. He says the buildings lining the river sat at street level, a story above the water.

Hightower says it took planners 20 years to come up with a solution. They dug out the basements of the buildings so businesses would have entrances at the river level. Hightower says planners also built stairways down to the Riverwalk at almost every street to provide that all important access.

"One of the nice things is that it's isolated from the street," he said. "It's about 12 to 16 feet below street level."

So why do people come?

"I think partly that it is original, and it has this kind of handmade quirky San Antonio quality that you don't see anyplace else," he said. "It's also (of) the scale that it is very intimate public space. It's the kind of space where you can sit on one side and have a margarita or be eating and look across the river and see the people on the other side. It's great people-watching."

But maintaining the Riverwalk isn't cheap or easy. Once a year, the city drains water from the walled portion of the river, and scrapes mud from the liner. A flood-control tunnel 150 feet underground is used to recirculate water and prevent stagnation. Then there's the effort to control bacteria in the water, and the little boat that skims trash from the river's surface every day.

"Styrofoam cups and grass clippings and leaves floating on the top of the water sort of make you think that it's not clean," Hightower said.

Success has created new problems. Today in San Antonio, citizens worry a growing number of chain stores and restaurants are threatening the Riverwalk's appeal.

On Austin's Lady Bird Lake, some are fighting changes at city hall that have allowed taller buildings close to the water.

Hightower says even thriving riverfronts need constant care, as well as citizens who will protect them from too much success.

To learn more about water in our region visit our new website, trinityrivertexas.org.

Video History Of Lady Bird Lake:



Email Shelley Kofler

(This story originally aired on KERA-FM on November 17, 2009.)

© 2017 KERA/Public Media for North Texas