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The Connected City Design Challenge Symposium featuring three renowned architectural firms who are rethinking connected downtown Dallas to the Trinity River. But no one directly addressed the elephant in the room: that pesky tollway.

City-Sponsored Architecture Competition on Collision Course With Trinity Tollway

This article is part of series on the Connected City Design Challenge, which seeks proposals for rethinking the connection between downtown Dallas and the  TrinityRiver. For more articles about the project, click here.

On Wednesday night, the Nasher Sculpture Center hosted The Connected City Design Challenge Symposium. Launched in April by the City of Dallas’ CityDesign Studio, The Trinity Trust Foundation, Downtown Dallas Inc., and the Real Estate Council Federation, The Connected City Design Challenge is an open call to anyone, designers, architects, and citizens, to propose an idea or concept on how to reconnect Downtown Dallas to the Trinity River. It is intended to spur awareness of urbanism while also revitalizing interest in an oft forgotten and neglected element of the city, the Trinity, and how the city and people interact with it. Wednesday’s panel featured the three finalists, all architecture firms, from the open call: OMA-AMO, Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura, and Stoss and SHoP.

Perhaps the most familiar of the finalists is OMA-AMO. They designed the Wiley Theater and other aspects of the Arts District as well as the iconic CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. Bofill is most notably associated with his work in Barcelona, Madrid, the Great Moscow project, and the park on top of what was once referred to as the Big Dig in Boston. SHoP recently completed the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. However, instead of presenting their design concepts for the Trinity on this night, the final designs will be presented in October, Larry Beasley, the chair of the selection jury, stated that the evening would be about conceptualizing urbanism. Specifically, how these firms address linking the elements of nature, urbanism, art, and beauty.

As can be expected, each presenter had similar concepts on how to link nature with urbanized society. They simply used various and divergent expressions to communicate their concepts. The vast majority of these concepts centered on the idea of incorporating nature and green space around economic and urban development. With Dallas and the Trinity in mind, many of the examples cited during each presentation displayed various developments coming up to, or over, the water’s edge, thereby linking that particular city to its water feature. In each of these, nature seemed to be relegated to a tertiary role. The structures were the main elements and nature was a tool in which the structures could coalesce.

Mia Lehrer, a landscape architect working with OMA for the project, took an alternate view. She is working on a masterplan of the L.A. River to create a continuous greenway through Los Angeles. It is an attempt to connect the neglected river to the city rather than connecting the city to it. In many ways, the L.A. River is a prime example of the Trinity’s past and potential future, minus the Hollywood car chases. The parks and stalled trail network that are supposed to sit within the Trinity’s levees are an effort to reconnect the river to the citizens by extending open space rather than enclosing it. These projects have been underway for some time but were not directly addressed by the finalists.

Another key element in each presentation was connectivity. It was mentioned several times that the highways surrounding downtown suffocated the urban core and walled it in like a fortress. Bofill even went so far as to say that downtown needed to be broken out of the highways. Surely, this message will resonate with Patrick Kennedy and A New Dallas who have proposed the tear out of IH-345.

Within all the discussion of urbanism, green space, and the occasional nod to sustainability, there was no mention of the elephant in the room. That is until former District 14 Councilwoman Angela Hunt stood up during the question and answer portion of the evening. She asked the designers and architects whether their plans and concepts had taken into account the proposed, voter approved, and still controversial, Trinity River Tollroad that is slated to run between the levees. It is the tollroad itself that caused many to snicker at the concept of the Connected City Design Challenge as the road will create yet another barrier between the river and downtown.

The presenters, after acknowledging that they were very aware of the tollroad, mostly dodged the question as how they planned to either incorporate it into their concepts or how they would work around it. Yet, none went as far as to say connecting downtown to the river could not be done with the road there. There was even a suggestion, though perhaps not entirely serious, by Bofill to deck it. Larry Beasley stepped in to say that each finalist knew the parameters and processes that shaped the city of Dallas but that none of them were confined to a straightjacket when it came to how they approached their designs and ideas.

The Trinity River has been a contentious topic for the citizens of Dallas since a proposal to make it a navigable shipping channel in the nineteenth century. Development to reconnect it with the city center that includes the tollway will also be controversial. However, the Connected City Design Challenge does signal a new way of thinking for the city in a broad scope. Its focus is on density rather than sprawl. It is progressive urbanism at its core. Unfortunately, it is on a collision course with the very thing it stands opposed to.

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