Since its 2012 opening, Klyde Warren Park, the open space built on a deck atop a highway canyon, has changed opinions near and far about a city not typically known for its public planning prowess. Peter Park stood in the southeast corner of Klyde Warren Park this spring with people attending a Congress for the New Urbanism conference, looking at what has quickly become known as Dallas’ landmark urban design breakthrough. “It’s a fine public example of why urban spaces are important and how they can succeed,” the Denver-based city planner said in an interview last week. On any given day, the park that connects Uptown and downtown is filled with office workers grabbing lunch at food trucks, downtown residents perfecting yoga poses and children splashing through water features.
It’s simultaneously a gathering place for locals and at the top of recommendation lists for visitors. And now the park over Woodall Rodgers Freeway on downtown’s north end is helping spur a reassessment of the rest of the downtown highways. Several government officials, civic leaders, urban planners and local developers have been meeting behind closed doors for months on a project called CityMAP. The study is focused on the future of the aging highways that surround downtown. Most of them were built in the post-World War II era of massive freeway construction, dividing long-established neighborhoods and fueling suburban sprawl, white flight and urban decline.
The goal isn’t just to create more deck parks, though more could be in store. There are deeper hopes that updating major infrastructure in the urban core will restitch neighborhoods, spur developments with a dense mix of residences and job centers and give thousands of people the option to ditch their cars altogether.
The study is being spearheaded by what is perhaps the unlikeliest of suspects: the Texas Department of Transportation. And the public will finally get its first glimpse of — and input into — the brainstorming process during a series of public meetings that begin this week. “If it all happens behind closed doors, there’s not the appropriate level of feedback,” said Patrick Kennedy, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s North Texas chapter and one of the people involved in shaping CityMAP.
The last three letters in CityMAP stand for “master assessment process.” It will look at options for rebuilding, tweaking or even replacing downtown highways.
TxDOT officials describe the finished City-MAP product as a menu of options for downtown highways. It is expected to list the potential costs, impact on traffic and design options for Interstate 30, Interstate 345, Wood-all Rodgers and Interstate 35E. The study was spearheaded by Victor Vandergriff, who was appointed to the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, in 2013. Shortly after his six-year term began, the Arlington lawyer decided that untangling the consistently congested web of downtown Dallas highways would be his chief priority. But in a departure from the typical focuses of transportation departments and regional planning organizations, City-MAP isn’t just considering road capacity, population growth and traffic estimates.
Park said those focuses damaged urban cores across America because they allowed infrastructure to become physical barriers to the kind of one-on-one social and economic interchanges that built sustainable cities in the first place.
The Rev. Gerald Britt said that pattern played out in several Dallas neighborhoods, particularly in the city’s poorer southern half. Such physical isolation simply begat more of the kind of poverty that people have a hard time overcoming in a car-centric city. “We need to consider whether neighborhoods need to be for cars or for human beings,” said Britt, the external affairs vice president for CitySquare, a nonprofit that helps Dallas’ poor.
TOLL ROAD CONTROVERSY
The last master plan for the downtown corridors was completed in 1998. Its chief solution for relieving congestion on Interstates 30 and 35E was Trinity Parkway, a still-unbuilt toll road that remains controversial. Vandergriff has made it clear that TxDOT is not likely to get involved in that project, which is being spearheaded by Dallas and the North Texas Tollway Authority.
CityMAP will, however, detail the traffic and mobility effects on all other downtown highways if Trinity Parkway is built and if it’s not. Vandergriff said he involved developers, experts and civic leaders so that TxDOT rebuilds or renovates in a way that leaves options for the city and developers to add infrastructure for other modes of transportation and recreational projects that tie dense urban districts together.
And while TxDOT will take the lead on updating those other downtown highways, it will be up to the Dallas City Council to choose which options they prefer and decide the order in which they are built. “We not only need a game plan, but the city’s leaders need to give TxDOT direction to execute that game plan,” said Matt Tranchin, executive director of the political action group Coalition for a New Dallas. The organization has advocated tearing down I-345 to free up undeveloped and underdeveloped land between downtown and Deep Ellum. It is a political offshoot of a grassroots group co-founded by Kennedy, president of the local Congress for the New Urbanism.
Before the springtime tour of Klyde Warren, CNU attendees stood in the Chase Tower Sky Lobby and looked 40 stories below to I-345, which connects Central Expressway and Interstate 45 along downtown’s eastern edge. Park, the visiting city planner, portrayed the long-debated elevated highway as the epitome of 20th century urban planning that made cars more important than people, businesses or neighborhoods. As he spoke, his audience stood near the skyscraper’s windows and watched vehicles travel the bridge over parking lots and undeveloped parcels of land in the urban core. Decades earlier, the land below and around I-345 was part of a sea of city streets and rail lines brimming with buildings. “We are using our taxpayer money in ways that devalue private property value,” Park said. “That seems kind of un-American in a way.”