Since Dallas was first settled in 1841, it’s had a problem with its river. The Trinity, which runs through the center of the city, is a vital natural resource, but it also floods constantly. So for years, the city has separated itself from the river with a massive, inaccessible floodplain on either side of the water. Consequently, the half-mile stretch around the Trinity River has existed as a no-man’s land in the middle of Dallas. But a new park that’s designed to flood when the river rises is aiming to change all that, and open up new public land in the heart of the city.
“People here don’t understand this river and they don’t understand the space,” says Brent Brown, the director of the Dallas-based organization buildingcommunityWORKSHOP. There are bridges that traverse the river, and “people drive over it every day, but they kind of look at it as this thing that’s miles long and takes up a lot of room.”
Over the years, the city of Dallas has attempted to do something with the river, constructing levees in the 1930s, redirecting the river to flow between the levees in the 1940s, building bridges in the early 2000s. But the floodplain remained unusable for anything except dividing the city form the water.
That will soon change. In October, plans for a Trinity River Park received a $50 million donation from Annette Simmons (widow of the man who invented the leveraged buyout, billionaire Harold Simmons); the money will go toward developing a 285-acre stretch of floodplain into a fully accessible public space that will also accommodate the Trinity River’s frequent overflows.
The proposal to convert the Trinity River floodplain into a functional nature district extends far beyond the funded 285-acre stretch of what will now be called Simmons Park, and its history is long and not without roadblocks. In 1998, Dallas voters approved plans for a 10,000-acre park in a bond referendum, but in the subsequent years, “there was a lot of planning and not enough doing,” Brown says. In 2003, the Dallas City Council approved what it calls the “Balanced Vision Plan“: a way for the city to integrate flood control with transportation, recreation, and environmental preservation. But that plan was slow to get off the ground. “The public just got sort of tired,” Brown says. “It was hard to tell what had been proposed and what was going to happen.”
When Mike Rawlings was elected mayor in 2011, he tapped Brown’s organization, bcWORKSHOP, to assist the Trinity River Project team in reexamining how the first phase of the Balanced Vision Plan could be rolled out in the section of the floodplain closest to downtown. Working with the design firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), the Trinity River Project developed a unique plan for the area now slated to become Simmons Park. The project completely reframes Dallas’ relationship to its flooding problem. Once development gets underway in 2019, the park will welcome excess water: Certain areas will, in the case of a flood, transform into a marsh-like waterscape, while elevated sections of the park along the levees will remain accessible to people and feature concert pavilions, play structures, and sports facilities. A network of new roads will open the floodplain to cyclists, cars, and pedestrians.
“When we said we had to build a park that would flood, at first people thought we were crazy,” Brown says. “But then they realize that it makes sense: We’re not spending more money trying to control the flood, and that coupled with a robust urban park has really got people back on board with this project.”
Though skepticism lingers among Dallas residents, jaded after so many years of unfulfilled promises (see: this very snarky D Magazine piece about the Simmons donation), Brown says the city can no longer ignore its need for a civic space of this scale. “Dallas is a divided city–physically, economically, racially,” Brown says, and the floodplain has for years represented those separations. The Trinity River Park, when completed, will be massive and reframe Dallas as one of America’s greenest cities, but it will also unify residents around a truly public park, the likes of which the city has previously lacked. Liz Silver, an associate principal at MVVA, says that the goal of park-making for her firm is bringing people together. She wants the park to re-frame Dallas’ relationship to its river, but also become “a place that is owned by everyone, where everyone feels welcome.”
[Images: courtesy The Trinity Trust Foundation]