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If the DMA Is Going to Offer a Platform for Rethinking The Trinity River, Please, Let’s Talk Toll Road.

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.

Over the summer, the Nasher Sculpture Center hosted The Connected City Design Symposium, a conversation about the CityDesign Studio-, The Trinity Trust Foundation-, Downtown Dallas Inc.-, and the Real Estate Council Federation-backed architectural competition that seeks new and creative ways to connect downtown Dallas to the Trinity River. It’s a competition open to both architects and amateurs alike, aimed at finding “bold” new solutions to the age-old problem of the river (no, really, this is Dallas’ oldest planning conundrum). In July, we met some of the architectural firms that will be submitting proposals. And in November, we’ll get to see some of those proposals when they are unveiled at the end of a month of programming at Dallas Museum of Art dedicated to the competition, which kicks-off with lectures next week.

I’ll admit, when this initiative was first announced back in April, I was skeptical. For one, there are a lot of mega development projects in the works in Dallas right now, and I wonder 1) if the economy can support building new cities in West Dallas, on the site of the Valley View Mall, and in between downtown and the Trinity River, and 2) if the city will ever have the kind of teeth in its planning and zoning ordinances that will make efforts to realize these large scale developments anything like the the plans that are initially put forth — or will the finished product be the sum of plans and real world economics, resulting in the usual half-ass urbanism.

Like many people who are from or have lived in Dallas for any length of time, I suffer from planning fatigue, particularly as it relates to the Trinity River. When I was living in Chicago in the early 2000s, D Magazine published its special issue dedicated to the Trinity River Project, and I’d be lying if I said that the bold and exciting vision presented in those pages didn’t influence my decision to return to a city that looked like it really was on the verge of fundamentally change. After that issue was published, however, came the petty, political debacle that dismantled the Trinity Project and damned it to some bureaucratic circle of hell, populated with double-talking city staff, manipulating special interests, Katrina-spooked civil engineers, and plenty of exasperated backers. For the last few years, the grand promise of the The Trinity River Project has become that drunk uncle you don’t talk about, the promise of lakes, paths, and parks replaced with photo contests and infuriating, deadly debacles. The willpower behind the thing has seemingly evaporated.

So, when I attended the event last April launching Connected City, I wondered how any of the plans to address as massive a challenge as connecting downtown to the languishing Trinity River would actually have any effect on the logjam that has now become the accepted status quo. What teeth will plans have? Are the real estate interests who own the land in question engaged? And what about the blasted Trinity Toll Road, which has completely frustrated the project for more than a half a decade (and counting)?  When asked, the organizers all said something along the lines of, “Relax, we’ve got this. Just wait and see.”

Then in July, there was the symposium at the Nasher, which Doyle Rader reported on for FrontRow:

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 Toll Road that is slated to run between the levees. It is the toll road 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 toll road, mostly dodged the question as how they planned to either incorporate it into their concepts or how they would work around it.

So here we go again. Big plans, big minds, but no big ideas for dealing with the very thing that has derailed Dallas’ biggest civic project. Big D, still boasting so many big wussies. Could it be that, once again, we are merely using urban planning just as we have so many other times in this city’s past, as a hallucinatory tool for boosting civic morale and galvanizing hope, while the underlying problems that inhibit realizing any of our dreams go un-addressed?

Maybe. But I’m starting to tire of playing the role of the neighborhood cynic, and so I’ve been trying to rethink the entire Connected City initiative from the perspective of the organizers, who include some smart and savvy characters like bcWorkshop’s Brent Brown and The Trinity Trust’s Gail Thomas. Looking over it all again, the materials about the month of lectures at the DMA are all about the river, downtown, and connecting the two, with little emphasis on the Trinity River Project. Perhaps, then, that’s what is really going on in this architectural competition. The organizers are trying to restart the conversations around the Trinity River Project without talking about the Trinity River Project. In that way, the conversation can bypass the issue of the toll road, the history and the politics of the project, and recenter the discussion around something both businessmen and civic enthusiasts love to talk about: urban revitalization.

This might be the strategy, and it may be a good one. Another good idea is placing this debate within cultural institutions like the Nasher and DMA, while bringing  a mix of architectural and real estate entities to the table. Restarting a Trinity River conversation requires wiggling the dialogue free of the history that confines the Trinity River Project to limbo. One way to do that is to return to the intellectual roots that were the impetus for the project in the first place.

But the questions Angela Hunt raised during the July symposium are still valid and warranted, and the responses of the architects are also troubling. If this project is about raising the volume on an old conversation in a new way, then we need to leverage the inclusion of outside and authoritative voices — as well as the new setting of the art institutions — to have an open and honest discussion that addresses the issue of the toll road head on. Otherwise there will be a rhetorical disconnect that will erode the credibility of the architecture competition. Connecting downtown to the Trinity River is nothing if not a roads-and-real-estate project, and to not address all of the roads and real estate in question would be a mistake. That means, in order for this new initiative to work, conversations at the DMA must take up the toll road, even if the very point of the conversation is to quietly make it go away.