Say goodbye to the ugliest building in Dallas — and hello to new playgrounds along the Trinity

In recent months, as the city’s focus has been diverted by the tremors of pandemic and protest, plans for the proposed Trinity Park have been pushed forward behind closed doors in a way that promises to symbolically and literally transform Dallas.

During this time, the Trinity Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that oversees the design and construction of the park, and its lead project designer, Michael Van Valkenburgh Architects, have committed to a preliminary design for a large observation park on the West Embankment on Commerce Street .

The Conservatory has embarked on a national quest for a “visionary architect” to redefine the Jesse R. Dawson State Jail, the 10-story, 238,000-square-foot beige-block eyesore on the opposite side of Commerce, from the most visible gates to the City. The conservatory bought Dawson and the land it linked to the Trinity last year as part of a plan to expand the park into the city.

It will take some imagination to recreate Dawson, which is less of an architectural work than an obscenity in three dimensions. It opened in 1997 and was developed by the Houston developer North Village Corp. built at a cost of $ 39 million. From the beginning it was operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (now renamed CoreCivic) and was notorious for its poor conditions. A federal lawsuit alleged that a female prisoner’s premature baby died after being put in a toilet. It was closed in 2013.

People at Trinity Overlook Park watch the sun set on downtown Dallas and the former Jesse R. Dawson State Jail (center) at 106 West Commerce St.(Tom Fox / employee photographer)

A remake is an opportunity to delve into this story and the broader issue of systemic racism in the judicial system that the protests against Black Lives Matter brought to such striking relief. The Conservatory sees it as a “visual anchor and hub” for the future park and a “healing place” for those who come and go to the adjoining Dallas County judicial complex across Commerce Street. Deciding how such a project could occupy a 10-story block of concrete with somber and less flexible interiors will be a significant challenge. Giving the building a less hideous external appearance is the least of the obstacles. Establishing a program for the building and then adjusting the building requires far greater visual acuity.

Architects applying for the job must submit their applications to the Conservatory by July 23. A selection will be made from a group of finalists by August 7th. There will be no public review, an unfortunate state of affairs, if there are legitimate concerns that over the years, decisions about the Trinity have been made in confined spaces and without widespread public consent. A park cannot bring the city together if the process by which it is made is not fully inclusive.

The plans for the West Overlook, a planned destination park and playground on the West Dam overlooking the Trinity flood plain and downtown, are now considerably more advanced.

A preliminary conceptual plan for the West Overlook of Trinity Park, which would span Commerce Street between Beckley Avenue and the Trinity levee wall.A preliminary conceptual plan for the West Overlook of Trinity Park, which would span Commerce Street between Beckley Avenue and the Trinity levee wall.(Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates)

The park, designed by MVVA, is divided by Commerce Street. A pedestrian bridge would connect its two sides. On its west side it would be bounded by Beckley Avenue. The conservancy has estimated its cost at around $ 45 million.

The distinctive feature of the south side will be a maze garden and a large over / under play area with custom elements – slides, tunnels – embedded in the landscape and connected by meandering, shady paths.

The north end will have more entertainment, including a rooftop café; a community square with an interactive water feature; a separate water-based play area with toy bridges and other quirky features; a swing area in the middle of a rugged landscape with a view of the city center and the dike; and a small theater, inspired by the German playground designer Günter Beltzig, which can be used for puppet shows, performances, classes and other plays.

“We will make engineers and architects of the future”, says MVVA boss Matt Urbanski about the imaginative scope.

Currently, MVVA and conservation firm Mell have selected Lawrence Architects from Austin to design the cafe and rooftop structure as well as an additional maintenance building in the park. Lawrence was selected from an invited pool of 10 Texan architects, with no public input, who were asked to apply for the job at short notice. The original pool was in fact only five, but some of the Dallas firms withdrew for time constraints and the field expanded.

The selection process was flawed to say the least, but the result is acceptable. Lawrence’s architecture seems to be particularly tailored to the order: his work is modest but modern, durable, contextual and human in its details. “He had a really nice combination of practicality, creativity and collaboration,” says Elizabeth Silver of MVVA.

Lawrence only has one completed project in Dallas, but it’s suitably a park pavilion; In particular, the Cotillion Park Pavilion (2011) in Far East Dallas, a pretty rectangular structure made of black steel with louvers that provide shade from the sun. It is defined by an elliptical steel mobile in orange-red that hovers over it and turns slightly in the wind. Almost a decade after its completion, it is in excellent condition.

The Cotillion Park Pavilion, designed by Mell Lawrence Architects from Austin.The Cotillion Park Pavilion, designed by Mell Lawrence Architects from Austin.(Mark Lamster`)

The park, along with the redesigned Dawson Prison, will dramatically change the entrance to the downtown area, transforming today’s low-key journey into a dramatic scenic passage.

Heading downtown from the intersection of Commerce Street and Beckley Avenue, you must ascend through a tree-lined valley to the edge of the levee. The Dallas skyline shows itself entirely at the top. Instead of turning to the terrible prison block, there will be something new – a work of actual architecture that speaks to both the future and the past of the city.

It is no accident that these developments take place on and next to the dams and not between them. These projects do not affect the approval process for the Army Corps of Engineers’ $ 300 million Trinity improvement project, which includes redesigning the levees and floors.

The Conservatory believes the Corps’ project will ultimately align with its own parking plans for the area within the levees. According to the Conservatory, the redesign of the corps will help realize its own designs.

For the moment, however, the Conservatory has its hands full and Dallasites can look forward to seeing what emerges from their respective architectural researches. And when it comes time to choose a path forward for Dawson, that public needs to be involved in the decision-making process. Put that on lock.

Illustration by Michael Hogue / Staff Artist

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