Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"Do we want a world-class park in the heart of Dallas or do we want a high-speed tollway to ruin that?"

Down by the Riverside, Development Spurs Debate

October 31, 2007

Wall Street Journal
Copyright 2007

DALLAS -- This city for decades has haggled over how to develop the banks of its Trinity River, a 20-mile long swath of water and grassland slicing right by downtown.

Now, an ambitious, $1.7 billion plan to develop the flood channel as a park, lakes and a six-lane tollway could be derailed amid a battle between a lone Dallas councilwoman and much of the rest of the city's political and business establishment.

Voters in this city of 1.2 million will decide Tuesday whether to scrap the tollway. At stake, supporters say, are billions of dollars in related highway improvements to ease traffic congestion and a boon to downtown property values and recreation. Those against the tollway say it has wrongly taken precedence over the project's public park. They also say the road will mainly benefit wealthy property owners angling to develop condos and office towers near the river.

"Do we want a world-class park in the heart of Dallas or do we want a high-speed tollway to ruin that?" said Angela Hunt, a 35-year-old commercial lawyer elected to Dallas' council in 2005 who is leading the opposition.

Cities across the country are trying to turn rivers and lakefronts into assets, but those efforts often spark big debates over whether transportation should supersede recreation. Buffalo, N.Y., residents are asking Gov. Eliot Spitzer to block an impending revamp of an elevated three-mile section of Route 5, which blocks recreational access to Lake Erie, and instead scale it back to a smaller boulevard. In 2002, Milwaukee tore down the one-mile Park East Freeway spur along the Milwaukee River to give residents and developers better access to the riverfront.

Cities such as Grand Forks, N.D., and some suburbs of Chicago have installed parks within flood plains as Dallas intends to do. But Dallas' plan to build a nine-mile road along a river's flood-prone banks is unusual. Establishing a major thoroughfare on the water side of a levee is rare, if not unprecedented, and could complicate flood-control. That said, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hasn't blocked the idea outright, and instead has set high standards for the project's engineering specifications, such as the strength of its base and its drainage system for keeping runoff from the road, including oil and antifreeze, from seeping into the river.

Dallas' stretch of the Trinity River is bracketed by 29-foot-high levees. Most of the time, the river is little more than a large stream, leaving a massive, half-mile-wide ribbon of undeveloped green space bisecting the city's core. Occasionally, heavy rains swell the Trinity into a leviathan that laps against both levees. It usually recedes within days, and it hasn't topped its levees in the more than 50 years the Army Corps of Engineers has managed the flood plain. As planned, the road will be built 19 feet above the flood corridor's floor atop an earthen base. That would put it two feet higher than the anticipated water line in a 100-year flood.

In typical Texas style, Dallas' plans to develop the swath are ambitious. They call for digging lakes, building parks and erecting bridges for cars and pedestrians. Planners envision creating bends in some stretches of the river to foster different water habitats, as well as a kayak run with man-made rapids in one section. A 120-acre tract in the corridor's forested, southern end will host the $10 million Trinity River Audubon Center, which will have exhibits promoting river-habitat conservation and discussing the river's place in Dallas history.

At the center of the campaign to block the tollway is Ms. Hunt. As a freshman councilmember, she studied the Trinity River project and saw that the tollway, which is projected to have a speed limit of 55-mph, had morphed into a much larger entity than the four-lane, 35-mph road initially envisioned a decade ago. The road's expansion had come at the expense of the project's park, the very amenity that carried the vote in 1998 when Dallas approved $246 million in bonds for the project, she says.

Ms. Hunt found allies in a band of environmentalists and conservationists who long opposed the tollway. Among them is Jim Schutze, a prominent city-hall columnist for the Dallas Observer newspaper who frequently needles city officials for alleged favoritism and short-sightedness.

Mr. Schutze and others point to a 2005 city-funded, economic-impact report that predicts the Trinity River project will produce "a positive effect on the value of real estate throughout the corridor" and estimates a 3% to 5% rise in property values for the area. Thus, Mr. Schutze and other opponents conclude, landowners with significant holdings downtown stand to reap the most benefit from the access the road brings to their properties. "They see this road as crucial to redevelop their land," says Mr. Schutze, who has relentlessly attacked the tollway in his column.

Earlier this year, Ms. Hunt and her supporters gathered more than 90,000 signatures from Dallas voters to put the issue on the city's November ballot. "Do we want to create beautiful places and attract the creative class to Dallas?" Ms. Hunt says. "Or will the city sacrifice its only natural asset in order to shave a few minutes off of a suburban commuter's trip?"

The coalition opposing Ms. Hunt is vast. Joining Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and Ms. Hunt's 13 council colleagues to fight the referendum are most of the area's local, state and federal politicians, chambers of commerce and business leaders. Even maverick former mayor Laura Miller, who rarely missed an opportunity to challenge developers seeking city subsidies, considers the six-lane tollway acceptable in light of the recreational and scenic uses that will come with it, including an estimated 30 miles of trails, and 22 soccer fields.

Among those who have donated to a political action committee opposing the referendum are apartment developer JPI Multifamily Investments LP; Harlan Crow, son of Dallas real-estate magnate Trammell Crow; and Margot Perot, wife of Electronic Data Systems Corp. founder H. Ross Perot. The Dallas Citizens Council, a group of roughly 100 of the city's business elite, provided $297,000 of the protollway committee's $1.2 million in funds raised.

Mr. Crow waves off the allegation that he and other downtown property owners are maneuvering to benefit their own properties. He characterized his downtown holdings, which include the 1,600-room Hilton Anatole hotel and the Dallas Market Center wholesale complex, as a fraction of his family's real-estate portfolio. "In terms of my personal financial benefit, it doesn't make any difference at all," he says. "If you make Dallas a better place, it will be a better place for everybody."

Some environmentalists argue that installing a tollway downtown will attract more cars and thus release more emissions in the area. But proponents, including Mayor Leppert, counter that the tollway will relieve traffic jams downtown by providing a "reliever route," and actually reduce emissions because there will be fewer cars idling in traffic.

Mayor Leppert, the chairman and chief executive of construction firm Turner Corp. prior to his election in June, describes the tollway as the linchpin of the entire Trinity River project. The mayor says that restricting or eliminating the tollway will make it challenging to gain federal money for planned expansions of highways feeding into downtown, because federal authorities won't widen roads with the result of funneling traffic into a bottleneck. Routing traffic elsewhere in lieu of building the tollway will cost an estimated $500 million more for buying properties along the alternate route, he says.

If voters reject the tollway, Mayor Leppert says, "then we are going to lose the opportunity to do the Trinity project for your generation and mine."

Write to Kris Hudson at

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