Chasing The Elephant: Thoughts From Last Night’s Panel on Fair Park and South Dallas

Last night at the Dallas Center for Architecture, I moderated a panel that discussed the relationship between Fair Park and South Dallas, and how Fair Park’s design and use impact the surrounding neighborhoods. The panel members included Rev. Gerald Britt, Robert Foster, Patrick Kennedy, Hank Lawson, and Vicki Meek, and the conversation brought a number of issues to light regarding the history and use of the park and the ongoing difficulties that face redevelopment there. I wanted to pull out a few takeaways, as well as put forth a few ideas to keep the conversation going. If you’re interested in your city, jump:

Here are some key issues that kept resurfacing during the discussion:

Perception

A major obstacle for South Dallas remains perception, but not merely perception of the neighborhoods as dangerous and undesirable, but rather:

- A misperception of South Dallas that ignores the fact that there is a deep-rooted and historic sense of community and real political rigor and engagement in the community.

- South Dallas is in fact comprised of multiple, distinct neighborhoods with unique strengths and needs

- There is a disconnect between the underwriting parameters used by banks and developers that show little potential return from investment in South Dallas and the reality of the successes that occur when business do actually open there (For example, record grossing Minyards and Subway locations).

- South Dallas is a “charity case,” and that efforts from the outside to help with revitalization often take the character of arms-length, condescending “pat-on-the-knee” (my words, not the panelists) without real commitment and follow-up as well as accountability to missed benchmarks for development.

 

Political Will

A second key obstacle that came up frequently is the need for stronger political will from a variety of sources:

- The need for local council members and political leaders in South Dallas to be more accountable and effective in representing the needs of the community.

- The need for the entire Dallas political community to see the needs of the neighborhoods and Fair Park holistically, that is, to not see Fair Park as one project and the neighborhoods as another, but rather to address both as two parts of the same urban ecology. So goes Fair Park, so goes South Dallas, but also, so goes South Dallas, so goes Fair Park. I would also add so goes South Dallas, so goes Dallas.

- The need for political leaders to stand up for the needs of the communities around Fair Park to the business leaders and the State Fair officials whose plans and practices sometimes prove counter productive to the needs of the neighborhoods. This is a recurring theme in Dallas politics. We tend to be push-overs to business interests and view the investment of capital has the highest form of civic good. And just as this “pro-business” attitude has created as many economic successes in this city, it has also created social inequality and lingering poverty. South Dallas is the most glaring manifestation of this, and we can’t hide these neighborhoods behind Fair Park anymore. The entertainment-ization of Fair Park perpetuates the site as a tourist destination, and while it will increase traffic to the park, as a number of the panelists remarked, that alone does not impact or help the neighborhoods.

- A number of the panelists expressed hope in Mayor Mike Rawlings’ renewed commitment to South Dallas through his Grow South initiative, saying the tone and resolve of the mayor’s project feels more substantial than many of the countless prior efforts to revitalize the Southern Sector. That said, it sounds like the mayor’s project requires communities to seize initiative, to bring projects to Grow South and advocate for their own cause. This mutual buy-in sounds like a productive path forward, but it will require real leadership from the communities around Fair Park, as well as real listening (and not just gesturing) from the mayor’s office.

 

Redevelopment Potential

Robert Foster brought to the panel a compelling idea for rethinking Fair Park as the future home of green technology initiatives that would use the park — or part of the park — as a campus for green industry. This could offer a way to redevelop vacant land around and within the park for workplaces and housing, as well as re-purposing some buildings in the park for year-round use. It could also create jobs for residents, create incentives for developing housing that allows upwardly mobile residents the option to stay in South Dallas as means improve, and it could foster a relationship with local schools that drives increased investment in education. These are the kinds of out-of-the-box ideas that need to be continually revisited and explored. A year-round operating commercial complex that provides hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, after all, will have a whole lot more economic impact on Dallas than a summer amusement park operated by the State Fair.

 

The Fair Park Comprehensive Plan

I think there are a number of places the panel could have gone but for time and the natural direction of the conversation, we didn’t touch upon or make clear enough. I wish we spent more time digging into the 2003 Fair Park Comprehensive Plan. When the panelists did speak about it, they expressed frustration that not enough of the benchmarks have been hit soon enough. Specifically, how do you trust the plan’s implementation when the number one priority of the plan — to keep and expand museum activity — has already been something of a failure, seeing that the Museum of Nature and Science, the Women’s Museum, the train museum, and the automobile museum have all vacated since 2003? The communities around Fair Park are tired of plans, but even more tired of plans that fail to materialize, so there is an innate distrust of those who point to the plan and say, “Hey, we’re working on it.”

I would have liked to take this criticism one step further. I think there are major flaws in the Fair Park Comprehensive Plan, primarily as it relates to green space, interconnectivity, and priorities.

Green Space

Yes, there is a contingency for the creation of more green space and for fields and sports facilities in the 2003 plan that have not yet come to fruition. But I believe they are insufficient in scale and poorly laid out. Here’s a quick comparison. I grew up in a neighborhood next to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, NY, which, like Fair Park, is a public space repurposed from the site of a fairground (two world fairs were held there). On any given weekend day, the park is absolutely filled with activity, this despite that it is cut off from the surrounding neighborhoods by highways. Why is it used? Because the entire park is green space, and the residents from the surrounding neighborhoods (whether Latin Americans from Corona or Asians from Flushing or anyone, really) flood the green space to play soccer, volleyball, badminton, etc.

This activity is organic and largely un-programmed, and as a result the organic energy feeds more organic energy as the park is flooded on the weekends with food venders, bicyclists, rollerskaters, children, ice cream trucks, street performers, and other people who feed off the energy created by the organic use. Fair Park needs to give nearly the entirety of its acreage over to usable green spaces coupled with an increased ease of access (kill the fence around the park, already), plus add a few basic facilities that will drive residents from the neighborhoods to the park to actually use it on a daily basis: soccer fields, baseball fields, handball courts. Yes, some of those things are planned, but there is not enough planned and they are given second billing to other priorities that don’t immediately serve the community. Let me put it this way, the Fair Park Comprehensive Plan doesn’t even include a single basketball court. That should tell you something right there.

Interconnectivity

The fence must go. The parking lots must be given over to better use, redeveloped as mixed-income/ mixed-use residential/commercial facilities. Vacant space (or perhaps even some of the larger facilities like the automobile buildings) could become economic drivers for the neighborhood if they are leased or sold for commercial or manufacturing use. Gexa Energy Pavilion is a giant obstruction between the park and the southern neighborhoods and it forces the need for too much concrete parking; why can’t the Cotton Bowl be scaled down for Gexa-sized concerts when needed so that we can turn the entire Gexa area into fields and courts? The roads around the park are built way beyond the required capacity and are a disincentive to pedestrian crossing. Highways dice and chop up the neighborhood, and macro-urban planners need to look to the example of cities like Paris that are actually dismantling their ring roads. These are all big, complicated, expensive problems that require immense energy and political capital to solve. We should pursue them, but we also need small ideas, little creative solutions that can create real connectivity immediately. That is perhaps the subject for another gathering of minds.

Priorities

A lot of this ultimately this comes down to question of priorities. Progress has been made on the comprehensive plan, but the progress relates to facilities improvement and upkeep and the realization of a summer amusement park in the midway. But these improvements have no immediate relevancy to the neighborhoods themselves, causing further distrust that the people leading the charge for the comprehensive plan actually have the neighborhood’s real interests at heart.

The elephant in Fair Park (itself the “elephant” in South Dallas) is the State Fair of Texas. Panelists agreed that there is a way for the Fair to operate and the neighborhoods to thrive, but there also needs to be more creative solutions surrounding creating a mutually-beneficial coexistence. The fair, after all, needs space; it needs parking; it needs concrete (or does it?); it needs a fence to regulate attendance; it needs total control of the park for two months of the year, thus making it difficult for local businesses to operate during that time.

I would also add that Dallas needs The State Fair. Sure, it needs it because it is invests heavily in Fair Park, but more importantly the fair is something that helps define the city, that is bound up in its history, that is connected to us even if, as Gerald Britt put it, for nostalgic reasons.

But the Fair’s activities must be better incorporated into the year-round use of the park in a way that creates both an economic and recreational benefit for the surrounding neighborhoods. This is not going to happen automatically, nor is it going to happen by merely helping the Fair succeed economically. It is going to take real political will.

Here’s just one example of how that could be better achieved:

The Fair drives the necessity for parking, which is a major reason for the stagnation of the development and a lack of connectivity around the park. Unless we figure out a real way to wrestle Fair Park free of its gluttonous need for parking, other urban design band-aids will prove ineffective. So, how about turning the space underneath I-30 into parking for the fair, forcing fair goers to walk through the neighborhoods to get to the park? The fair could also offer shuttles or rubber tire trolleys. Or, how about offering more incentives to take DART, or just slowly reclaiming the parking lots for development with the confidence that increased difficultly with parking will drive more people to DART. The problem with building public transportation into an existing environment developed around the car is that even after the train arrives, the car still offers the most convenient way to travel between one’s home and a destination. We need to be confident that the Fair is a healthy enough attraction that people will continue to come even if they need to get creative about how they travel to it.

One obstacle to this line of thinking is that the State Fair derives income from parking. This is where we need political will to stand up to fair officials on behalf of the surrounding neighborhoods, not just for the good of those neighborhoods, but for the good of the entire city. One solution: raise parking rates for two years while other options are introduced, thus creating an incentive for visitors to find other transportation solutions while allowing the fair to recoup additional revenues in anticipation of the eventual forfeiting of the lots.

These are just a handful of ideas, and I’m sure there are countless others, which only shows that this is a conversation that needs to be ongoing and not brushed aside because “we have a comprehensive plan.”

Lastly, I want to add in one quick anecdote that Hank Lawson shared last night. The parking lots around Fair Park (if you don’t remember or weren’t living in Dallas at the time) were created by seizing homes through eminent domain. Not only has this left an physical scar in the neighborhood, the memory of the turmoil caused by the destruction of part of the neighborhood for parking has left a lingering and understandable measure of distrust.

Here’s the bit I found fascinating: Before the seizure of the homes for the expansion of parking lots, fairgoers used to park on the lawns of South Dallas homes, temporarily turning these green spaces into parking — and sources of income for residents. This, ironically, sounds like the kind of sustainable, economically organic, forward-thinking parking solution that urban thinkers today would spend years trying to implement, but back in the day, it just happened. Parking was provided for fairgoers, and neighbors earned a few extra bucks. But when the parking lots were built, not only did they destroy homes and cut the neighborhoods off from the park, they took away a seasonal source of income for the residents. I believe the city should seriously think about allowing this kind of parking system to come back.

But there is an obstacle, of course. Part of the incentive of the construction of the parking lots was that the State Fair saw a potential revenue stream it could claim from all that demand for parking. Thus we are back to the idea, once again, of the need for politicians from every level of city and county government to stand up for the neighborhoods in an effort to best rethink Fair Park in a way that really and truly benefits the neighborhoods around the park. Because creating a park that benefits the neighbors will be a park that benefits the rest of the city. Just look at White Rock Lake: a resource for Lakewood/East Dallas and a destination for everyone else.

Last night, Rev. Gerald Britt Jr. reminded us that there is more than an economic or urban connection between Fair Park and South Dallas. Recounting a story of his childhood classmates who would skip out of Sunday school and pay a nickel for an end zone seat in the Cotton Bowl to watch the Dallas Cowboys, Britt said that there is a spiritual connection between Fair Park and its neighborhoods. That kind of bond, rooted in a history and shared experience of place, is not easily broken. The least we can hope is that it will be respected.

9 comments on “Chasing The Elephant: Thoughts From Last Night’s Panel on Fair Park and South Dallas

  1. Pete, good post, yet you start by referring to the “relationship between Fair Park and South Dallas.” Fair Park isn’t in South Dallas. Yes, it is south of Interstate 30, but it is plainly in East Dallas. I realize that Interstate 30 is a divider between north and south when one is, say, downtown or west of downtown, but not exactly when one is east of downtown. Even Pleasant Grove (which is farther east and farther south than Fair Park), isn’t historically considered South Dallas, but rather Southeast Dallas.

    As Wick wrote in an April 2010 piece urging the East Dallas portion of I-30 to be torn down, “Fair Park is commonly referred to as being in South Dallas. It is actually­–as the map shows–in East Dallas. In fact, it was once an integral part of East Dallas.”

    http://www.dmagazine.com/Home/D_Magazine/2010/May/Wick_Allison_Says_Tear_Down_Interstate_30.aspx

  2. I agree with Jackson about Fair Park being in East Dallas (it is adjacent to Deep Ellum after all). Is it a PC thing to call it South Dallas? Are we abandoning the stuggles of southern Dallas by calling it by its actual geographic location?

  3. I always thought Fair Park spanned, or formed the border between, East and South Dallas. Certainly Grand Avenue, Park Row, MLK Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue, all of which extend southeast from the park, are in no sense East Dallas. In fact, they form the very heart of historic South Dallas. Likewise, Exposition Park is in no sense South Dallas.

    Rawlins Gilliland needs to weigh in. He’s the reigning expert on such matters.

  4. Usually the answer to the question of “who wrote this nonsense” is Mahoney, so congrats.

    (i) “The need for local council members and political leaders in South Dallas to be more accountable and effective” and “[t]he need for political leaders to stand up for the needs of the communities around Fair Park to the business leaders and the State Fair officials whose plans and practices sometimes prove counter productive to the needs of the neighborhoods [just try to diagram that second sentence].” How is this not the squarely the fault of the local community complaining? Elect people with “political will” instead of crooks.

    Compare and contrast that, by the way, with “[a] misperception of South Dallas that ignores the fact that there is a deep-rooted and historic sense of community and real political rigor and engagement in the community.” An area with a historic sense of community and political rigor and engagement, coupled with political leaders who refuse to stand up for the needs of their communities. There’s your disconnect.

    (ii) “[T]he future home of green technology initiatives” and “campus for green industry” officially compete with “solar water taxis” for absurdly Panglossian buzzphrase. Can you even begin explain what that means in reality?

    (iii) “Fair Park needs to give nearly the entirety of its acreage over to usable green spaces. . ..” “The fence must go.” “The parking lots must be given over to better use.” Such imperatives! Good thing you are leaving room for debate. Dallas is far from Flushing, by the way, something for which a great many people are thankful.

    (iv) “Recounting a story of his childhood classmates who would skip out of Sunday school and pay a nickel for an end zone seat in the Cotton Bowl to watch the Dallas Cowboys, Britt said that there is a spiritual connection between Fair Park and its neighborhoods.” You could buy a piece of hard candy for a penny and suck on it all day long. Of course we had to say “dickety” back then because the Kaiser had stolen our word “twenty”. I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickety-six miles.

    And then I realized that the world changes, technology changes, people change, children change, certainly neighborhoods and communities change, and adapt, and so I untied the onion from my belt, because it is no longer the style, and joined the current, real world instead of the alter world of Peter, Patrick, Michael and the rest of the urbanistas.

    The recap reveals the problem with the very kind of panel you describe. A chorus of voices all singing the same tune, none of it subjected to dissent or practical rigor, will end up sounding as ridiculous as, well, your recap.

  5. @Daniel, Rawlins should absolutely weigh in (!), but I also fancy myself a “reasonable expert” after 50-plus years as a from-the-inside-out Big B native. Fair Park isn’t in South Dallas. It’s just due east of downtown.

  6. @Jackson: Fair Park is a border between East and South Dallas. But because of I-30, the portion of East Dallas that abuts the park has been cut in half and left as a kind of no-man’s land. As Daniel said, MLK, Grand – these streets run straight into the park, and they are the heart of historic South Dallas. Park Row is mere blocks from the park. Therefore, this area represents the only intact neighborhood that has a direct geographic relation to the park.

    @thufir: Not sure if you’re trying to get into a rant-off, but your points: (1) we don’t disagree. (2) Yes, I didn’t get into the deep details of Foster’s plan, which was only touched upon at the panel. Stay tuned. (3) This post leaves room for debate, so why don’t you debate the imperatives instead of dismissing them as imperatives? (4) Nice Simpsons reference, but again you’re only sending up a rhetorical flare. The only point here is that there is a shared history with the park. Change can be positive and negative, and we must evaluate whether or not the changes that have affected the park and the neighborhoods have been beneficial or whether or not it is worth trying to guide the ongoing changes in a way that recaptures something worthwhile from the past with the possibilities offered by the future. Adapt, as you say, is the key word here, but strategies for adaptation require more than snarky dismissals.