In its (probably too late) attempt to convert its downtown from a windblown concrete wasteland into a vibrant city center Dallas has designed a series of three signature parks to add a little green space into the vast steel and glass canyons.
This is a good thing. A very good thing.
The first was the Main Street Garden Park, a block of lawn with some amenities surrounding it built upon the ruins of a demolished parking garage. It’s a great space – even if it is mostly used as a dog-walk by the folks that live in the newly converted condominium and apartment space in that formerly neglected stretch of downtown. I’ve gone to the park a few times, both on foot and on my bike
and the space, and the people in it, have brought a smile to my face every time.
The second garden, which only opened a little while ago, is the Belo Garden. It’s a small spot, right in the heart of downtown, but is a beautiful, peaceful retreat. They did a great job of making the place inviting. I especially like the little green hill they built – it’s a rare three dimensional hunk of nature; not very large or imposing, but better than nothing.
The third, and most impressive park is the Klyde Warren Park on the northern border of downtown, next to the Arts District.
When I first moved to Dallas in 1981 I worked downtown for a few years and watched most of the present skyline go up. It was exciting to me and I feel a connection to a lot of the skyscrapers, having seen their skeletons and guts rising among the cloud of ant-like workers and bird-like cranes putting them together like a giant child’s construction toyset.
One of the largest and most impressive projects was Woodall Rogers, a freeway connector on the north side of downtown, mostly built as an alternate to the always jammed highway complex to the south – called “The Mixmaster” by Dallasites, which is a perfect description of the hell involved in navigating its confused twisting lanes. Woodall Rogers was built in an excavated canyon. I remember there was a lot of controversy in this method, which was much more expensive than an elevated highway.
The answer was that a road below level would present a less formidable obstacle to the expansion of the city center northward. This has happened, the area of Dallas known as Uptown, across the Woodall Rogers, is now ground zero of the hip and well-connected.
So the powers that be hatched a hundred-million dollar plan to further integrate Uptown and Downtown – the Woodall Rogers park. A massive roof would be built over the below grade highway. This concrete structure would then be covered with dirt and trees and a park would be born. This was an expensive and audacious plan – the sort of thing that Dallas does.
As the plans and the construction for the park (renamed the Klyde Warren Park) progressed I became excited. This was such a great idea and such a grand plan. I love exploring Dallas’ downtown, especially the Arts District, and this was one more really cool thing.
It was with great excitement that I circled my calendar for this weekend, for the grand opening of the park. I wanted to go on Saturday, on the first day, but I had to take my son to the airport and I was not able to snag one of the “Free” wristbands for the concert so I wouldn’t be able to get in to the big opening day concert.
That was alright, I went for a long bike ride in Las Colinas instead and decided to go to the park on Sunday. I took the DART train downtown and walked up Saint Paul street to get to the park.
Right off the start, I didn’t like things. I approached the corner of the park, along with a throng of other folks, only to be stopped by a line of orange cones and a surly security guard. “You can’t get in here,” she shouted, “You got to go ’round to the entrance.” The green grass of the park was right there, right on the other side of the cone, but we weren’t allowed to pass.
So we walked around the block and went through the security check. I had a large camera case around around my neck, which the guard never looked at, my pockets were filled with a phone and other metal objects, but the paddle he waved half-heartedly through the air never made a squeak.
So this “public park” has security fences and ineffective searches on its grand opening weekend. That left a bad taste in my mouth before I ever walked in.
So I strolled in and walked the length and breath of the place. It is a wonder to behold – suspended in midair over the roaring traffic of Woodall Rogers freeway is a giant green slab of carefully manicured grass and exquisitely placed trees. The paths are curved just so, the designated areas – dog park, child’s park, reading area, games area… all are carefully marked off and fenced. You can’t go in the child’s park without a kid – you can’t go in the dog park without a pooch. There are games – a long series of bocce ball courts, table tennis, badminton nets, chess tables, a vendor checking out all the supplies – trading silver bocce balls for driver’s licenses.
A big stage was set up facing a lawn and a series of local arts groups were performing. The streets around the park were blocked off and full of food trucks.
It was obviously a carefully planned and meticulously executed space. An army of architects and corporate planners had spent years and a thousand focus groups mapping out the pathways and benches and little metal green chairs so that not a dollar of the hundred million would go to waste. It bills itself as a park for the future, a place for the city to get together, a centerpiece of the Arts District, a front yard for the million dollar condominiums rising all around.
I hated it.
I didn’t want to hate the place, I was excited, I really wanted to love it. But it is so sterile, so pre-planned. It didn’t feel like a park at all – it felt like the lobby of a corporate headquarters… which, it really is. It’s like a planned entryway – without a roof.
I stayed longer than I wanted to, giving the place a chance, hoping to change my mind. I sat down in the “reading area,” where there were racks of books, chairs, and some nice shade. It is sponsored by the Dallas Morning News, and within seconds of sitting down a representative walked up to me and tried to sell me a subscription. “I haven’t held a real newspaper in my hands for five years and don’t see any reason to start now,” was the only possible response I could give. He glared at me and I left. I didn’t speak to anyone else the time I was there. As a matter of fact, I didn’t see anyone speak to anyone that wasn’t in their own group. So much for bringing the city together.
I guess they should have built a “Speak to a Stranger” pavilion. Then folks would have known what to do.
And above it all loomed the ever present, oppressive Eye of Sauron. I’ve written about this before. A huge upper-crust condominium tower, ironically name The Museum Tower, owned by the City of Dallas’ Fire and Police Union Retirement Fund, has reared its mirrored vastness into the air where it is throwing solar-powered death rays into the Nasher Sculpture Center next door. It also shines its burning beams down onto the Klyde Warren Park.
The park is divided into two halves. Today, you could walk between them, but once the streets are opened they will be separated by heavy, smelly traffic. The East Half was behind the death ray, while the West was struck straight on. It was ten degrees warmer on the West Side, I would take my jacket off there, and put it back on once I was out of the tower’s reach. This was a cool autumn day, but in the summer, the park will be uninhabitable when that thing is shining on it. Take my word for it, the last thing you need in Texas is an extra sun.
There was an effort to find a solution, but talks have broken down. Apparently the museum tower and their lawyers didn’t play by the rules (no surprise). The museum tower is touting the park “Just outside Museum Tower’s front door,”to sell their multi-million dollar units. I have a solution. The thing should be torn down.
So I walked around for a few hours, trying to find something I liked, and coming up empty. I kept thinking of my car parked in the DART station – a dozen miles to the north. My bicycle was there and I could get it out and ride it where ever I wanted to. The sense of freedom and choice was palpable. So I walked back to the train station, rode north, dragged my bike out, and went for a nice long ride, until the sun set.
I think what bothers me the most is the lack of trust in the park goers. The people that designed this thing don’t think that the people that use the park can amuse themselves. Dallas doesn’t need more bocce ball courts or badminton nets – it needs green space and a place for people to hang out and interact. I would have liked to see grass, a few trees, and maybe a bench or two. Other than that, let people decide what they want to do in their park. But I guess that isn’t worth a hundred million dollars. Of course the park wasn’t really built for people like me (or you). It was built as a front yard, as a nice view from the balconies of the multi-million dollar condominiums.
I haven’t given up on the park. In a few months, when all the bocce ball sets have been stolen, the little green metal chairs are broken, the badminton nets torn, when the grass is brown from the burning rays of Sauron’s Tower, the signage has all been covered in gangsign, and the only park occupants are the homeless denizens sleeping off their benders on the lawn… then maybe I’ll go back.
I know I’ll like it better.