Dream Weaving

Dream Weaving

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Contributed by:
Greg Brown
Hon. AIA Dallas

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Dream Weaving: How Will Dallas React to the Plans Proposed Through the Connected City Project?

Dallas has always been inextricably linked to the Trinity River. Since the days of trader John Neely Bryan’s appearance on the scene, the river has played a role in the city’s economy, culture, and history.

Bryan’s view of the role of the river was simple—there was a hard rock ford near the intersection of two Indian trails and the soon-to-come Preston Trail. The location served as a primitive version of today’s mixmaster, a transportation nexus that would drive customers to his trading post. Others with steamboats and dredgers had more ambitious plans: The Trinity could serve as a gateway to the port of Galveston and national and international trade. Despite best efforts, which continued into the 1970s, the Trinity proved to be non-navigable.

The relationship between river and city has been contentious. It was a barrier between parts of the city and so bridges were built to Oak Cliff and West Dallas. After several floods, including a devastating one in 1908, the Trinity was tamed in the 1920s by moving it a mile westward and containing it between the levees.

The Trinity River has been cited as one of Dallas’ most important assets in every city plan since George Kessler’s in 1911. With that prominence in mind, the City of Dallas developed its Trinity River Corridor Project. Funded by bond packages passed in 1998 and 2006, the plan includes wildlife habitat, trails, parks, lakes, the Great Trinity Forest, the Trinity Audubon Center, and an equestrian center, as well as signature bridges. The project’s own website promises that “these amenities will stimulate new urban development such as stunning waterfront condominiums, beautiful townhouses, modern office towers, and a variety of outdoor dining and retail options.”

Over the years, however, the city has lost its physical connection to the river. Between the densely-developed blocks of downtown and the levee lies a 594-acre area filled with a tangle of freeways, undeveloped land, bail bondsmen, and other less-than-aesthetic entities. The Connected City Project aims to change that.

Produced by the Dallas CityDesign Studio, an office of the City of Dallas, in partnership with The Trinity Trust Foundation, Downtown Dallas Inc., and The Real Estate Council Foundation (AIA Dallas and the Dallas Center for Architecture are also collaborators.), the competition is entertaining proposals from professional teams as well as a competition open to professionals, non-professionals, and students of the design industry.

Over four weeks in October and November, three teams selected from 32 submitting teams presented their ideas for knitting downtown back to the Trinity. The three teams are: Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura, OMA/AMO, and Stoss + SHoP. While each presentation was unique, they all had some common themes. In the first presentation to the public, jury chair and urban planner Larry Beasley pointed out that he was “taken by the similarities as much as the differences” of the three plans.

Conquering “Freeway Spaghetti”

Clearly, a proposal for connecting downtown back to the river must deal with what juror Alan Jacobs called “freeway spaghetti”—the tangle of roads and freeways that lie between the central business district and the levee. OMA/AMO would gradually enhance Loop 12 and create a more distant ring road to bypass downtown and allow drivers to “go around rather than coming in” to the central core. They also simplify Stemmons Freeway (I-35) by eliminating the completing cloverleaf entrances and exits that provide direct access to streets like Commerce, but also clog the area with roadways and infrastructure.

With alterations and enhancements to Riverfront Boulevard (including bus lanes, rapid transit and bike lanes), they believe the proposed riverside parkway “might not actually be necessary.” This eliminates what they see as a barrier to the proposed improvements to the Trinity River corridor.

The Stoss + SHoP team doesn’t alter the existing infrastructure; instead, a forest is introduced to shield, shade, and filter noise and pollution. Gardens, camping areas, and sports fields are placed above and below in an effort to incorporate what is now a barrier and make it more connective tissue instead. The tollway remains, but in places it is covered by decks to create a promenade, a “piece of pedestrian infrastructure for the people of Dallas,” according to the Stoss + SHoP presentation.

The Bofill plan boldly (and probably accurately) asserts that “turning Dallas into a pedestrian city would go against its DNA.” They, too, suggest a second ring road and, while not ghettoizing the automobile, work to increase other forms of mobility, including bikes, light rail, and park-and-ride services. The tollway? It is essentially put into a tunnel, with pedestrian amenities and other activities on top.

With regards to the freeways, urban planner Patrick Kennedy, author of the WalkableDFW blog, worries that the “photoshopped ‘Dubaian’ density” of the presentations glosses over the fact that we have an infrastructure that we can no longer afford: “If we're really trying to ‘think big!’ and envision what Dallas might look like in several generations, perhaps we should start by erasing the mistakes rather than applying paper-mache over them.”

Reclaiming the Trinity and its Ecology

All three plans incorporate significant natural and landscaping initiatives and also attempt to recapture what is the original Trinity River. OMA/AMO renews the river and uses it to create “two rivers and two cities,” according to their plan. Using the traces of the river which remain and existing flood control systems while enhancing and expanding them with a series of water features and cleansing mechanisms, a “Cultural Valley” would serves as the programmatic connection from downtown to their “new city.”

Ricardo Bofill wants to take advantage of the “infinite possibilities of Mother Nature.” With the original Trinity River bed as a base, their plan creates a continuous programmed park made up of smaller parks, pavilions and corridors. It hopes to reverse the “existing infrastructural predominance to a projected ecological predominance.”

Stoss + SHoP was perhaps most poetic in their presentation, stating that the river “still longs to be here.” However, it is not the spine of their plan. They do not want “an extension of the successful pocket parks downtown, nor an imitation of the Great Trinity River Forest.” Instead, they create three “fingers” of landscape reaching toward downtown (“which alternate with ‘fingers’ of the city that extend development toward the river”). These natural and landscaped areas would be “quirky and programmatically rich,” with uses from camping to performance. They pointedly say that they were not creating a second city, but instead creating “connections that augment what’s already there.”

Nodes of Development

While each of the plans have nature and the Trinity River itself  (both old and new) as centerpieces, Beasley points out that the plans are, of necessity, “driven by development, not just landscape.” Each plan creates distinct zones of development, with differing purposes, and in most cases, different degrees of density.

Ricardo Bofill creates four districts: Trinity Market, Riverfront, Science and Nature, and D-World. Each varies in terms of zoning use by district and “has its own DNA, its own mix.” Trinity Market is high density with an urban market at its heart. Riverfront is primarily residential and overlooks the Trinity. The Science and Culture area has museums and education as its primary use, while D-World is the plan’s primary business center.

Stoss + SHoP suggest three distinct neighborhoods knitted together by Riverfront Boulevard; pointedly, their scheme emphasize that they were not suggesting the development of the totality of the study area, but 176 acres of concentrated development. Their DECCO (Design Crosses Commerce) concept includes an urban beach; and while calling for “strong, bold, innovative architecture,” it takes advantage of the 10-12 story building height in the adjacent neighborhood. The viaduct is an extension of existing downtown density, while Riverfront south is medium density and emphasizes cultural uses.

OMA/AMO’s restoration of the “old” Trinity River is punctuated by “programmatic islands” of development: a tech campus linked to the design district that caters to technology companies, the Trinity Loop with residential development that takes advantage of waterfront views, the Civic Center Loop (primarily office-oriented) and the Southwest Basin, focused on residential and entertainment venues, including a new Maritime Museum at its core.

The Dealey Connection

Interestingly, two of the three plans see Dealey Plaza, in many ways the western boundary of downtown, as a launching point. Stoss + SHoP do not place much of an emphasis on the site, suggesting only an “art walk” that would connect from Dealey Plaza to the river. The other two teams, however, use the site more explicitly. The Bofill plan creates a “DNA Bridge” (with winding spans as the title suggests), which would mean that “the city won’t stop at the point of tragedy,” but instead extend to the lakes of the Trinity River. OMA/AMO uses a water feature and other amenities in the plaza to make it more “of a place for Dallas;” a distinctive gateway building just to the west emphasizes a “water and pedestrian passage all the way to the Trinity.” A bridge goes up and over the railroad viaduct, providing a view back toward downtown. Additionally, a critical question for both of these plans would be whether or not such alterations could be made to what is on of three National Historic Landmarks in the city.

Points of Differentiation

Each team also takes advantage of the opportunity to differentiate itself and add a bit of personality to their plans. OMA/AMO has its “Double D” pathways and dramatic architecture, including a “horizontal skyscraper—almost like the Empire State Building lying down”—connecting downtown to the river and bridging the Houston and Jefferson viaducts. Ricardo Bofill creates the aforementioned “DNA Bridge” and a world-class “Biomimesis Museum” as an attraction. Stoss + SHoP has their graphic showing longtime Dallas symbol Pegasus’ hoof as it “strikes the earth [and] a well springs forth.”

Despite these presentational trappings, each team clearly thought through their charge and presented a complex plate of food for thought for Dallas’ planners, designers, and city leaders.

"There have already been lengthy conversations about the intersection between some of the ideas in the proposals and the work on the immediate horizon by the city,” says David Whitley, associate director of Dallas’ CityDesign Studio. “The purpose of the design challenge is to spark dialogue about new opportunities in the void between the river and downtown, and the opportunity to also use the challenge to elevate the work we are already doing at the city is really exciting."

So …What Can We Accomplish?

Where do we go from here? What can we accomplish from these ambitious dreams and plans? Beasley managed expectations from the beginning, saying in the initial meeting that “none [of the plans] are implementable.” They would take, according to him, three to four lifetimes and hundreds of billions of dollars. But he saw the possibilities to pick and choose and achieve small incremental victories that could result in “something much bigger.” He sees one landowner and one developer partnering with the city to establish a single linkage. In his words, “that could lead to 50.”

While not charged necessarily with creating full-blown implementation schemes, each team has suggestions about next steps. OMA/AMO identifies several large tracts owned by single landowners that would be potential catalyst sites and suggests that improvements to Riverfront Boulevard is a good place for the city to start. Stoss + SHoP also points out that improvements to Riverfront Boulevard were “low-hanging fruit,” suggesting that with some public infrastructure improvements, private development would logically follow. Their plan goes beyond development ideas, suggesting the use of light and art to highlight the old river and then the creation of festivals to reactivate what is, to many Dallasites, new territory.

Clearly, the presenting teams were charged to dream big … and they did. And they also were conscious of our local heritage—with citations to Caddo Indians in canoes, longhorn cattle, and our Blackland prairie. The question is how Dallas will react and proceed. Are these thoughtful dreams destined for library shelves like so many “plans” of the past? Or do they provide a new—and implementable—way of thinking for our city?