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The Greening of Dallas: New urban oases being built for downtown residents, visitors

by Helen Anders - American-Statesman Staff

DALLAS — In the early 2000s, this city's leaders looked around downtown and saw good hotels and restaurants amid business skyscrapers and a tangle of freeways. What they didn't see was people enjoying the great outdoors.

That's because there wasn't much outdoors downtown. There was Pioneer Park, where a herd of cow sculptures stands, and there was Dealey Plaza. Out-of-towners jumped on the Pioneer Park cows for photo ops and visited Dealey Plaza because it overlooks the site of the Kennedy assassination, but Dallas had no parks where people congregated to rest and play.

That's changing. Last fall, Main Street Garden opened, greening up a solid block smack in the middle of downtown near banks, hotels and Dallas Municipal Court. On a recent visit, I found downtown residents (there are more of those these days) watching their kids play on the playground and run through the fountains. They chatted as their unleashed dogs galloped around the enclosed dog park. They lunched at Lily Pad, the park's cafe, which is open every day. A homeless guy sat on the sidewalk at the park's perimeter, punctuating the fact that this is, indeed, a downtown public park.

"The park really has energized that neighborhood," says Linda Owen, president and CEO of the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation, which is in the midst of directing the city's next act — a park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, a little downtown spur that joins Interstate 35 East with U.S. 75.

Literally out of thin air, this park will be built over the highway, which is recessed below street level. The park's 5.2 acres between St. Paul and Pearl streets, scheduled to open in fall 2012, are to contain a children's garden and playground, shaded walking paths, botanical gardens, a restaurant, water features, free Wi-Fi, a dog park and a performance pavilion — all within a 1,200-foot-long rectangle of green.

And, because it's in Dallas and anything else would be unthinkable, the plan is for it to have valet parking.

Perhaps most important to visions of this park filling with people: It will be a bridge between the sections of the city known as downtown and uptown.

"That park does literally and metaphorically unify the city," Owen says. "It does create a common and open green space ... but it also unifies uptown, our burgeoning residential district, with our cultural district."

The plan is for the public park, which Owen says will be privately managed, to serve as a gathering area for locals and visitors alike — a little like San Francisco's Yerba Buena Park, a little like New York's Bryant Park and Boston's Post Office Square, "and even similar to Millennium Park in Chicago," Owen said.

Millennium Park is 25 acres and contains city arts buildings and hotels. Here, those structures will be at the edge of the park. In that way, Owen says, the park will mimic Washington's National Mall.

"I think this is symbolic of the new Dallas," Owen said, talking about creativity and diversity. "And you will not be able to perceive that you're over the freeway. You won't hear it, smell it, see it."

When the park's done, of course, you also won't have the downtown traffic backups you're seeing now during its construction.

Recently, organizers stopped talking about this as Woodall Rodgers Park and dubbed it simply The Park. We'll see if that sticks. Read more about it at theparkdallas.org.

Downtown Dallas is greening up in a few other ways: Belo Garden Park, another city block park between Main and Commerce streets (but farther west than Main Street Garden), is expected to be finished next year, and the Crow Collection of Asian Art will soon have an outdoor sculpture garden, expanding its 2010 Flora St. location with traditional Japanese landscaping.

Aside from downtown, the Trinity River Audubon Center, opened south of town in 2008, is drawing praise for turning what used to be an illegal dump site into a 120-acre place to observe and study its forest and wetlands and their inhabitants, with four miles of trails, a children's garden and a slate of educational programs.

Admission to the center is $6 for adults, $3 for children, $4 for seniors and free for children 2 and younger. Find out more about it at trinityriveraudubon.org.

I can't talk about Dallas parks without mentioning the city's longtime collaborations with nature: Robert E. Lee Park in the Oak Lawn area north of downtown, and Fair Park in South Dallas with its Art Deco buildings and annual State Fair. Both have been around since the 1930s.

Near White Rock Lake in East Dallas, the Dallas Arboretum, 8525 Garland Road, offers 66 acres of botanical beauty to wander through, along with some outdoor concerts. See dallasarboretum.org for a schedule. It's $12 to visit ($10 for seniors and $8 for children 3 to 12). Everett DeGoyler had the idea for the arboretum in the 1930s, but the gardens didn't open until the 1980s.

So it's not as though there's been no green at all in Dallas until now. It's the downtown core that has lacked parks — and that's partly because until recently, virtually nobody lived there or spent much time there after businesses closed.

But the conversion of old buildings into condos and apartments is bringing life to nights and weekends downtown, and these residents need parks. We visitors like them, too. When we stay in downtown hotels, we like lawns to rest upon, playgrounds for our kids to blow off some steam and spots to hear a little outdoor music.

Dallas might be a little late to the parks party, but it promises to bring awesome gifts.

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