Three major updates contribute to Trinity River park

By Vivian Berreondo - March 17, 2021

West Dallas

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For years the Trinity River has been something of a scoff-worthy site. With its toxic, polluted water, the surrounding land inside the levees isn’t much of an attraction for Dallas residents.

That soon will change as the Trinity Park Conservancy transforms the land into Harold Simmons Park, with more than 200 acres of natural beauty, playgrounds and other amenities.

With some big announcements in the last few months, conservancy leaders say they intend to make good on their promises to make the park a welcoming place for West Dallas and other communities along the Trinity riverbanks.

WEISS/MANFREDI to reimagine old Dawson jail

WEISS/MANFREDI’s sketch of the redesigned Dawson State Jail. Image courtesy of Trinity Park Conservancy.

The former Jesse R. Dawson State Jail at 106 W. Commerce St. is a bleak, 10-story cell block that acts as a reminder of its troubling past. The building is infamous for its poor conditions and its protruding presence amid the Dallas skyline. Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster calls it the “ugliest building in Dallas.”

The old jail sits at the future gateway of the park, providing a place for Dallas residents of all races, ethnicities and incomes to come together as a community.

As they chose an architect for the project, conservancy leaders focused on equity and creating systemic changes that would serve all the diverse community members along the Trinity River banks. After selecting New York-based architecture firm WEISS/MANFREDI, leaders met with community members with direct connections to the jail, including individuals who were formerly incarcerated there.

A view looking east across the Commerce bridge at the old Dawson State Jail. Image courtesy of Trinity Park Conservancy.

The general consensus during the conservancy’s community listening session was that the building was a painful reminder of their trauma and Dallas’ contribution to systemic racism, yet they wished to preserve the stories of those impacted individuals.

The task before WEISS/MANFREDI is to transform this painful place into a haven that Dallas residents can be proud of while still maintaining its historical integrity. To help them with this, Colloqate Design, a New Orleans architecture firm, has been selected to assist in the process. The firm’s mission is to reform oppressive structures through design and architecture in order to create a more equitable society.

Concerning the removal of racist statues and monuments, Colloqate has been involved in a community-driven redevelopment process for these controversial sites called “Paper Monuments.” Through public art installations, they are trying to create conversations about lost voices in New Orleans history.

Trinity Park Conservancy’s new CEO: Tony Moore

Incoming Trinity Park Converservancy CEO Tony Moore. Image courtesy of Trinity Park Conservancy.

Tony Moore is coming to Dallas after his work as the CEO of The Gathering Place, a 70-acre park on Tulsa’s Riverfront that attracts about 3 million visitors a year. Jeamy Molina, the conservancy’s director of communications and engagement, estimates that Harold Simmons Park will attract similar numbers once it is completed.

Similar to The Gathering Place, Harold Simmons Park serves a purpose of inclusivity and bringing the diverse cultures together, Moore said in a press release. He emphasized the importance of a project like this after the onset of the pandemic exposed a need for more outdoor infrastructure, like parks.

Moore’s experience with the Gathering Place and other major outdoor venues during his 30-plus year career aid in his emphasis on community engagement and including community members in the development process by listening to their needs, Molina says.

One of the ways in which he plans to do this is through programming. Once the park is finished, conservancy leaders have plans for festivals, live music and much more, and Molina says they want the community to know that this isn’t an empty promise.

To reassure residents, Molina says the conservancy hopes to launch programs as soon as late-spring. At first events will be virtual to ensure safety, but later in the year, they hope to begin in-person programs.

Moore’s start date with the conservancy will be April 5, which comes at a “pivotal moment” in the project, according to the conservancy press release.

The final piece: The East Overlook

The finalized boundaries of Harold Simmons Park. Image courtesy of Trinity Park Conservancy.

A donor who wants to remain anonymous recently gave more than four acres at 505 Riverfront to the conservancy, securing the final piece of land for the over 200-acre park. This site will serve as the East Overlook, complementing a West Overlook on the opposite side of the river near Commerce Street. Both overlooks will include playgrounds, cafés, performance spaces and other amenities.

Securing this land helps with two of the Conservancy’s main goals for the park, connectivity and accessibility, because of its location in relation to surrounding neighborhoods and the access it will provide to the Floodway. They want to bring the community together and do so with ease. Leaders say it’s important that all neighbors in the surrounding area have easy access to the park, not just the wealthiest areas.

The Overlook’s proximity to the Ron Kirk Pedestrian Bridge, which parallels the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge between Downtown and West Dallas, will connect the east and west sides of the park.

Designs are already in the works for the East Overlook, and groundbreaking could happen as early as mid-2022, Molina says. The West Overlook will take more time because of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers current work on the west side to conduct flood risk management and improve the levee.

The overlooks will play host to activities for the surrounding community, including free events, food and family fun.


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