By BJ AUSTIN / KERA News
Dallas is betting a $2.5 billion makeover of the Trinity River will turn a 20-mile stretch of floodplain into a destination. City leaders want to bring residents and tourists to the river's edge. However, there are some obvious challenges to building three lakes, whitewater kayaking, trails, and a toll road - all of it inside the levees. BJ Austin looks at those challenges in this second part of the KERA News series Banking on the River.
The big bay doors at the back of Mark Spence's business open onto the Trinity River levee near Sylvan Avenue. That's what attracted Spence to the property 25 years ago.
"That's how I picked our location," Spence said. "My children were young, still at home. I'm the type where I spend a lot of time at my work. They'd come up here; we've had hiking, biking and boating trips out there."
Spence and his family have been playing along the banks of the Trinity for years and appreciating nature under the shadow of skyscrapers. But he says he hasn't had a lot of company. The land between the levees is wild, rough, and littered. Plastic bags washed downstream hang in trees like Christmas ornaments. The Trinity has built a reputation as a place for dumping old tires and sometimes bodies.
What will draw people back, and how will they get to the water? SMU Marketing and Public Affairs professor Dr. Rita Kirk said the Trinity Park needs to be a seamless addition to the urban landscape - easy to get to. And she says it must make a big entertainment splash - with a lot of different things to do.
"You do need a pretty big impact in order to convince people to go down to the river," Kirk said. "It is about ambience. If the Trinity River Project is in any way similar to the feeling we get on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, or other major cities that have built around major corridors: St. Louis, for example. If they can figure a way of incorporating it into the city and it feels like a place where people want to gather, it'll work."
Those are big "ifs". Take the issue of the toll road. To get to one of the lakes, or the river's edge, from the downtown side, people will have to cross over a 30-foot levee and get past an elevated, high-speed toll road. The Trinity Parkway would run parallel to the river as it passes downtown.
Riverfront expert Roy Mann said a highway running parallel to a river park could be a big barrier to access.
"Well, they rarely work unless there is a border of land sufficiently wide that runs between the highway structure and the river itself," Mann said. "Unless you have enough space to accommodate both the green element and space for a terrace restaurant or riverside caf , or tour boat landing, and so forth, you have lost the great benefit that you might have."
Mann said Philadelphia made a big mistake by building the Delaware River Expressway along the river without considering the need for public access. He says the city suffered for it until it spent millions to rebuild the freeway underground and allow access to the river. Boston's Big Dig, to put Interstate 93 underground, was for the same reason. The city spent billions of dollars to tunnel the interstate because the existing freeway cut off access to the harbor front.
Some Trinity Parkway critics fear Dallas is about to make the same mistake, cutting off access. But Trinity Project director Rebecca Rasor said not a chance; there will be access points about every half mile along the roadway.
"There are areas where you can come up and over the Trinity Parkway being designed in the parkway," Rasor said. "There are areas where you can go up and 'under' the Trinity Parkway. At Houston we'll have a pedestrian ramp. And down around Commerce, we're also planning a trail system that comes in and a park road that comes in down around that area. And then the Reunion Deck Park that we're planning - they're extending Reunion Boulevard up and over the levee (to) get you down by the lake."
There is another concern in addition to access and the toll road. Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller at a recent public appearance says the final design is critical to the success of the Trinity project. She doesn't want it to be an eyesore.
"The key to the parkway is that it's got to be four lanes," Miller said. "Originally it was going to be eight lanes, four on each side of the river. If they keep it to two lanes, it truly is a parkway, not a tollway, if it has some movement to it. You can complement the water as they do with the Charles River in Boston. But it's got to be designed right. We can't let the road engineers make it bigger than what we all agreed was the appropriate size."
On the other side of the river, it will be easier to get to the lakes, the promenade and picnic areas because there is no toll road. Access to the levees is much more open; you still walk up and down the 30-foot levee. There are plans for about a dozen neighborhood gateway parks where people can leave their cars and walk to the banks of the Trinity. There will also be eight miles of park road inside the levees.
Former Dallas City Councilman Bob Stimson wants to know where everybody will park.
"The real challenge that I see for the Trinity River is, you're creating a park that is hundreds of times larger than Central Park in New York City, and they haven't done a very good job in my estimation of finding places for people to park where they can go and enjoy it," Stimson said. "They've even put into the plans in the middle of the Trinity plan an amphitheatre where they expect thousands of people to show up and listen to concerts and see shows."
Stimson, president of the Oak Cliff Chamber, said a solution would be a streetcar to drop people at the river.
Shelly White, director of the Trinity Strand Trail, says a lot of people won't need parking spaces. They'll be walking or biking along a large system to trails leading to and from the Trinity.
But Stimson can't shake the feeling the Trinity could become a victim of its own success like the DART Green Line on Texas-OU weekend: huge demand, limited access.
"Access is the key to making the Trinity Park a viable park we all want to go to," he said. "Without that access, and that includes parking, you've got to have a way to get there if it's going to be meaningful to the city. And that's where I think we've got to do a better job."
Dallas is banking the Trinity will pass its first test about a year from now, when Standing Wave is completed. It's a whitewater kayak course with two sets of rapids just south of the DART bridge in Oak Cliff. You'll be able to get there on Santa Fe Avenue off Eighth Street. It'll take you down to the water's edge - and a parking lot.
(This story originally aired on KERA-FM on November 18, 2009.)