The Trinity River. Historically, it caused the division between Oak Cliff and the rest of Dallas. Today, it is the catalyst for as much city discord as city unity. Government officials grandly herald the long-awaited Trinity River Project, intended to develop the river, citing its potential to bridge both the literal gap between north and south and the economic one.
But will the Trinity River Project ever really happen? And if it does, how will it actually impact Oak Cliff?
To begin with, the Trinity is the reason Dallas is here. Offering settlers a place to stop and rest, the water helped develop a community, and thus the relationship between the river and the people on its banks began.
Plans to develop the area surrounding the river appeared soon thereafter. Nearly 100 years ago the City of Dallas passed bonds to build levees around the Trinity. And they’ve been passing bonds for river-related issues ever since.
Or so it seems. An ongoing discussion around City Hall since the 1980s, the development of the Trinity River came closer to reality while Ron Kirk was the Mayor of Dallas. And the current Trinity River Project gained clarity and momentum during Laura Miller’s first term as Mayor. Her analysis and overhaul of the project helped rescue it from the dangers of superficial design and the hands of special interests.
The basic plan aims to provide a focal point for the entire city of Dallas, combining preservation, recreation and transportation. While alleviating threats of flooding, the completed project will also be a nature preserve as well as an outdoor entertainment destination.
The initial groundbreaking on the project began in 2004, while upcoming plans include three bridges, new lakes, boat launches, trails and an equestrian center. Further, bolstered wetlands to protect against flood damage and a six-lane tollroad are first priorities.
But what has actually happened with the most recent rounds of grand planning? And what has happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars in local bond money and federal funding that were earmarked for the project?
The Dallas Morning News reported on June 8, 2006, that construction bids for the first of the three Calatrava bridges, planned to join the two sides of the Trinity, came in at twice the budgeted price.
“Talk about sticker shock!” says Ed Oakley, City Councilmember for District 3 and Chair of the Trinity River Committee at City Hall. “Our contract with Santiago Calatrava requires him to develop a project that falls within our price guidelines… We don’t have the ability to go back out [to the taxpayers] and say we need another $30 million.”
But that doesn’t mean the project is stalled, or that Oak Cliff isn’t already reaping the benefits of this ambitious plan. The construction of the bridges has been trumpeted as a key piece of the economic development engine for both Oak Cliff and West Dallas. As proof of the Project’s impact on the area, investors have already begun snatching up properties near each bridge. Estimations are that property values in these areas have quadrupled over the past several years, including the neglected West Dallas area surrounding the Singleton Corridor.
But the bridges are not the only piece of the Trinity River plan that has a direct impact on Oak Cliff. The construction of an eight-lane tollroad would greatly affect life south of the river, and thus discussions of the road plans have been heated. The original plan called for four lanes on the Oak Cliff side of the river and four lanes on the Downtown side. However, as plans were being finalized, the road on the Oak Cliff side was removed, replacing it with six lanes of an exclusively Downtown-hugging tollway.
Supporters of the move claim that eliminating the roads from the Oak Cliff side will permit development right along the levee, allowing for easier access by pedestrians. Opponents argue that roads themselves are catalysts for development and that elimination of the Oak Cliff road will make direct connections more difficult.
Oakley disagrees: “Direct connections can be made very easily by vehicles or pedestrians without having to jump over a major road. The win-win is that Oak Cliff has no road obstacle and still has all of the road connections to the Trinity Parkway or to I-35 or into downtown that we need to make the development happen.”
And there is evidence to support Oakley’s claims. Bob Stimson, former Oak Cliff councilman and local real estate developer, confirms that prices have skyrocketed for the land around the levee on the Oak Cliff side. “A few years ago, property in the area was $1.50 or $2 per square foot. Now it’s hard to find anything under $20 per square foot,” he says.
Additionally, after a long wait, proposed revitalization projects may finally begin. The much-anticipated Lake Cliff Towers redevelopment, for example, has been in the planning stages for years. Located at the intersection of Zang and Colorado, the Towers project was passed over by many investors and sat vacant; now it is just a matter of months away from opening its doors as 60s-chic, high-end condo units.
Property appreciation is not limited to commercial projects, either. Residential property values have experienced significant gains over the past several years, signaling the reality, welcome to some, unwelcome to others, that living in Oak Cliff is no longer the sole terrain of urban pioneers.
“The Trinity is starting to have an impact. The public is responding to the plans for the river, and as a result we’re seeing more showings for people who live north of the Trinity and who have an interest in buying into the Oak Cliff residential market,” explains Keith Cox, a residential realtor with Abio.
This interest from outside Oak Cliff has driven real estate prices steadily upward. “Since 1994, the North Oak Cliff residential real estate market has almost doubled in value,” Cox says.
One residential development project in particular that accentuates this point is Kessler Woods, a group of 30 mid-century modern home sites nestled next to Stevens Park Golf Course on North Oak Cliff Boulevard. Developer Matt Holley has been pleasantly surprised by the response from across the city to his project.
“The market for Kessler Woods has been very strong this year and I attribute that to general excitement for the Trinity River Project and its impact on North Oak Cliff,” Holley says. Of the lots Holley has available, 24 with prices ranging from $495,000 to over $1.5 million have already been sold.
“It’s about taking advantage of all of the things that are special and unique about Oak Cliff… Its ethnic diversity, unique pockets of architecture, amazing terrain, and close proximity to everything. There’s not a better location in the city… this is the heart of the Metroplex,” claims Holley.
And while the Trinity can certainly take some of the credit for the increased development opportunities and rising home prices, many argue that the crown of North Oak Cliff is still the Bishop Arts District.
“Bishop Arts is a big factor in the growing interest in Oak Cliff,” Holley says. “As a result of the retail success in the District, there are major real estate players from across the river starting to buy up property. It’s very exciting to have investors of this stature buying in this market.”
The addition, in the past year, of Cosmo Rouge and Hunky’s, and the expected addition of Café Madrid and Zensushi, make the Bishop Arts District a significant draw for traffic coming across the river. Yet in all of
the positive changes taking place in North Oak Cliff, there is an air of caution.
“There are some key leaders like Ed Oakley and members of the development community that are doing the proper planning to make sure we’re not a hodge-podge community. It’s been a curse because we’ve been five to ten years behind the rest of the city in terms of development, but the blessing is we’ve been able to learn from others’ mistakes,” Keith Cox says.
Above all, it seems clear that as the Trinity River Project lurches along, there will continue to be difficulties and roadblocks in its path. From all indications, however, it is not overly optimistic to expect building to begin in the near future and to believe that the building will continue to make Oak Cliff a better place to live. But even if it doesn’t, the Cliff shows signs of life on its own. So bring on the Project, we’ll be ready.