In 2015, after months of heavy rain, the Trinity River filled the floodplain, reaching the highest water levels that Dallas had seen in a century. Thousands of people crowded every day on the Ronald Kirk Bridge to look out over the water and see the river lap at the edges of the levees. It was a reminder of the power and possible vitality of the city’s most underrated resource.
In October 2016, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced that Annette Simmons, in honor of her late husband, Harold, had pledged $50 million to build a park. The Harold Simmons Park will be built directly in front of downtown, the first of many to be constructed in the Trinity’s floodplain and is just one small piece of Dallas’ century-old struggle to embrace the Trinity River.
“There’s a huge resurgence of interest in parks,” says Brent Brown, who has been serving as the Interim President of the Trinity Trust Foundation since former president Gail Thomas’ 2016 resignation. “In many cities, great parks become central organizing elements and foster economic vitality.”
The Trinity Trust, soon to be called the Trinity Park Conservancy, is a nonprofit dedicated to implementing Dallas’ Trinity River Project, raising private funds and ensuring that the eye stays on the prize: a better understanding, appreciation and protection for the entire 10,000 acres of the Trinity River Corridor. Working with the City of Dallas, they are the brains behind a project which has been called by locals the Dallas Nature District, the Trinity River Project and the Trinity River Corridor Project, but the team seems to prefer to call it the Great Trinity Park. It is the largest public works project in the history of Dallas, encompassing the floodplain and the Great Trinity Forest, and spanning the length of Dallas. It will transform 20 miles and 10,000 acres of land into a collection of nature preserves and parks, like Harold Simmons Park, that support the natural ecology of the river.
“Since the flood of 1908, Dallas has been trying to reconcile its relationship with the river,” Brent explains. “By controlling it, by moving it and then attempting to build a future with it.” Originally, Dallas had aspirations of becoming an inland port for barges sailing upriver from Galveston Bay. When that didn’t happen, the Trinity River, forcibly diverted south and locked in its floodplain, became like a boarded-up building: left behind and every day falling more out of sync with the city that had built itself on its banks. Since then it’s been a divider, a wall cutting straight through the metroplex.
In the last 20 years, the City of Dallas has tackled it with a new outlook, dedicated to finding a plan that made the river accessible and enjoyable for all. “That’s where the Balanced Vision Plan came from,” Brent goes on. The Balanced Vision Plan has five goals: flood control, transportation, economic development, recreation and ecology. ecology. It has resulted in the Trinity River Audubon Center, the Texas Horse Park, the MoneyGram Soccer Park and the beginning of the Trinity Strand Trail, which follow the original path of the river.
However, it’s the floodway, built in the ‘20s and ‘30s, that has most captured the public attention, excitement and scorn. “A couple of years ago, Mayor Rawlings asked the question—can we really build a park in the floodway? It was flooded at the time,” Brent recalls. “We put together a team of people to look at it under that situation to decide how we’d deal with it.” The renderings of what will become Harold Simmons Park were originally released in May 2016, gaining national attention. The Trinity Trust brought in Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc. (MVVA), a premier design firm which has also worked on the Brooklyn Bridge Park and Harvard Commons Spaces. The renderings reveal MVVA’s design for the first park in the floodway. Elevated urban parks overlook the floodplain; within the levees, miles of trails wind through lakes which expand as the river floods while the most elevated pathways remain dry. Harold Simmons Park and its successors will work with the water instead of against it, reconciling the city and the river.
The Trust hopes to begin construction on this first park in 2019 but it’s only the beginning. “We hope to ultimately deliver several parks across the 2,000 acres [of the floodplain]. This is 200 of 2,000, in theory. We hope over the next five-seven years we’ll make considerable progress on delivering this first park and begin to envision additional parks throughout the floodway.”
It’s all for love of the Trinity River. “I don’t want to move away from the name Trinity because it’s so meaningful—and it’s historical,” Brent continues. “It’s forest, urban overlooks and the natural river landscape. The Great Trinity Park.”
For too long, the Trinity has divided the city, but the project has been polarizing. Even some enthusiasts have lost hope over the years. While the Trinity Forest, Ronald Kirk Bridge and the Audubon Center are huge leaps forward, the floodplain itself hasn’t moved fast enough for many Dallasites. But the floodplain is just one piece of a long, will-they-won’t-they love story between Dallas and the Trinity. “I don’t believe that we’re starting something. I think we’re trying to finish what we started in 1910…this is the promise that began in many ways when we first decided to move the Trinity River. It’s 2,000 acres in the largest city in the area with a hope to grow our population and attract talent and be livable. This is our opportunity.”
It’s incredibly important to the health of a city to foster a sense of closeness to nature. It makes a city breathable, livable, and attracts new businesses and residents. In North Texas, we have no mountains, no Grand Canyons, no oceans. If the natural resources we do have aren’t protected, they will wither. Therefore, if we want the environmental, economic and recreational benefits of natural beauty, we’ve got to invest time, money and space into helping it thrive.
Harold Simmons Park is 200 acres of 2,000 in the floodplain. The floodplain is 2,000 acres of 10,000 total. Look for the next step towards a better metroplex in 2019.
Originally published in Plano Profile‘s March 2017 issue.