By BILL ZEEBLE / KERA News
More than 35 years ago, wealthy landowner Ben Carpenter had a vision. It included the creation of a North Texas waterfront community with canals like the ones in Venice, Italy. So what happened to that vision? The answer is Las Colinas, which few people think currently looks like Carpenter's vision for the Trinity River waterfront - and after nearly four decades, Las Colinas leaders say it's still a work in progress. Here's part three of the KERA News series Banking on the River.
Irving, Texas, can be busy and noisy. It has big highways, the nearby Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and rail stations. Though far from the water, even Trinity Railway Express passengers know of the Las Colinas lakes and the canals created to mimic Venice.
"I used to go all over there," Joe Storniolo said. "There's offices, some apartments and uh, couple of bistros and so on in the same general area as that waterway."
Long-time Irving resident Storniolo, who rides on the Trinity Railway Express from Irving's Rock Island Road station, said he's somewhat familiar with Las Colinas.
"I guess they have canal rides like San Antonio and so on, (The) Riverwalk, but I've never been on it," he said.
Riverwalk? Hardly. There are gondola rides, but those are the only boats on the water. Going back two decades, the small canals constructed in Las Colinas boasted water taxis imported from Venice - but ten years ago, after costing three times what it brought in, that business closed. So did others, according to Irving Mayor Herbert Gears.
"It was hustling and bustling retail, we had water taxis," Gears said. "We had a McDonalds and Wendy's and little shops and restaurants that went away. Those businesses did well during the day because there were people here working in these commercial office buildings but then they had no customers in the evening hours because everyone went home. There were no residents in the area. And that caused the death of that operation in the Mandalay Canal."
The original 1972 Las Colinas brochure - printed before the airport's completion and when now-abandoned Texas Stadium was shiny and new - called lakeside development the heart of Las Colinas. It said a reasonable intermix of residential and commercial development should be encouraged for that 24-hour vitality essential to a truly urban environment. Plans called for sailing and excursion boats. Las Colinas has no boat ramps, and no lake is boat-accessible.
Still, it boasts 56 small lakes throughout the Urban Center, all part of Carpenter's vision of the country's first masterplanned community. It combines city assets, like businesses, transportation, and residences all within walking distance. And it built rural attributes: lakes, rivers and trees, which attract birds and other wildlife. Mayor Gears says those lakes, fed by the bordering Trinity River, were an attractive centerpiece for development that also controlled flooding.
"So this water and all lakes and ponds in Las Colinas are essentially open drainage ditches, and they're taking advantage of rain and drainage to create an amenity for development," he said. "Because Ben Carpenter knew in the future people wanted to be around water. They wanted to be on the water's edge or near the river in some version, (to) have water as part of their quality of life."
During hot Texas summers, people living nearby might like to swim in the lake, but it's encircled by fairly steep, stone walls. There have been some triathlete events at the site, but it can be dangerous. Gears said swimming is not encouraged.
"It's very hard get out of, in fact," he said. "We're getting ready to add some cabling and some various ladder systems because you really don't want to fall in"
Shawn Callaway, vice president of the Greater Irving/Las Colinas Chamber of Commerce, wishes the biggest lake, Lake Carolyn, could be improved.
"It's a little small," Callaway said. "I would like to see it a little bit larger. I'm a boating/lake person myself. I think that would draw tourism."
But no lake expansion is planned because nearly all remaining land is spoken for. And that speaks to the successful side of Las Colinas: Almost from the start, the artificial-lake community drew giant businesses like Exxon Mobil, Verizon, Kimberly Clark, and more recently Flowserve, along with the Canadian-based Blackberry company Research in Motion.
Gary Bourland wrote the 2001 book, Las Colinas: The Inside Story of America's Premier Urban Development.
"Nobody can look at Las Colinas with all those corporations and all those millions of dollars and all those people that have jobs over there over the years and say this isn't successful," Bourland said. "It is successful at that level. So the downside of it is Ben Carpenter planned for a future that hasn't arrived yet and may never arrive - I don't know."
Gears insists that future built around water is finally arriving. The Carpenter family and other Las Colinas developers took hard financial hits in the 1980s after the real estate busts. So now, instead of construction remaining exclusively in the hands of developers, Gears said there's a public-private partnership. Irving is working with Dallas Area Rapid Transit for a stop on the water's edge. DART's Orange Line light-rail station is set to open in two years.
Gears said Irving has now invested hundreds of millions of dollars to spur various waterfront projects, after several stalled.
"We created a tax-increment financing zone and provided $180 million of infrastructure to build the road you see, that one over there, to clear the property and build the roads for the La Villitta development that surrounds that lake over there," he said. "The city has formed partnerships with the development community to have a win-win."
Now, the Chamber's Callaway said it is up to marketers like him to increase Las Colinas's population - and lead others to water.
"It just feels different," he said. "I have the privilege of being here in the morning at 7:00 as the sun's just coming up. And to drive through Fort Worth and the Mid-Cities, and to drive through Irving and when I come into Las Colinas, and Lake Carolyn is there, and I drive over the lake ... it feels different."
In Las Colinas, waterfront attributes and activities have not drawn development. Rather, the water's basically there to look at. But developers and the city are hoping for more.
Perhaps Dallas and Fort Worth can learn from this as they develop their Trinity riverfronts: Even though you have development plans and a budget, the economy can change and money for development can disappear - and these big projects end up taking a lot longer than you think.
To learn more about water in our region visit our new website, trinityrivertexas.org.
Email Bill Zeeble
(This story originally aired on KERA-FM on November 19, 2009.)