Audubon Center, Other Trinity Sites Would Be Better if City Gives Up that Bird-brained Road

Categories: Schutze

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A couple of days ago The Dallas Morning News reported that the new Audubon Center, a vaunted jewel in the tiara of the Trinity River project, is sucking wind already, failing to attract the visitors and income the city had hoped for.

Being mean to bird-watchers is difficult even for me, but I can't let this moment pass without asking you to see the parallel here with that other great jewel in the same crown, the Trinity River "white water feature."

The white water feature, intended to be a frothy Colorado-style rapids for kayakers plumped down in the middle of the thick sluggish Trinity River, is now a $4 million white elephant, not just totally useless but dangerous, the cause for a total ban on kayaking and canoeing in that part of the river.

Apparently it is not merely broken but unfixable. Now years in to this, city officials are still handing out mumbled excuses, claiming they are "pursuing litigation," when in fact they are calling up the contractors who designed and built the thing and asking them if they would mind taking the blame and eating the cost of completely rebuilding it.

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Trinity River Audubon Center
Rare species at the Audubon Center -- visitors.
The answer is no, surprise, surprise. So there it sits, an ugly mound of concrete and steel rebar in the middle of the river, looking less like the white elephant itself than the white elephant's petrified doo-doo.

The News reported that the Trinity River Audubon Center is drawing visitors at far lower are than the expected rate when the center opened four years ago. The story included a softly revisionist statement from center director Ben Jones about those expectations: "The mission of this center is to restore and protect this site and to engage people in conservation."

Yeah, well, what Jones and the story sort of neglected to tell readers is that the expectations and the mission for the center are a lot more specific than that, having been reduced to writing in a management agreement based on promises made to the city by National Audubon Society, which runs the place, and an outside consultant when the center was being proposed in 2005. Those promises and that agreement are important to you and me because you and I are pumping about 350 grand a year into the center as a subsidy straight out of the city's general fund, and those payments are supposed to be tied to very specific performance goals.

The Morning News story quotes city park department officials saying what the center needs is more money for marketing, above and beyond the current $100,000 a year marketing budget. But, wait. Wait. Here comes the creep. I'm talking about budget creep.

We need to know, please, exactly where the Audubon Center stands in terms of the goals it agreed to in the original management agreement. Hey, I'm not proposing that the city cut them off or abandon them. We just need to count the money before we spend more money. That's all. Just count the damned money.

If there was deception, deliberate or not, at the very beginning in terms of how this place could perform, that may not have been Audubon's doing. I have a dim memory that the Audubon people were more conservative in their own projections, but city staff brought in one of those 10-clowns-in-a-Studebaker economic consultants to jazz up the numbers for the briefing given to the City Council.

If we take a hard look at what's going on, the answer may be that Audubon got pressured by staff to hype the numbers. But that's something we need to know before we agree to let staff start writing new six-figure checks out of the property and sales tax revenues.

The larger parallel with the Trinity River Elephant Doo-Doo project is this: The centerpiece of the Trinity River project is or ought to be the 6,000-acre urban hardwood forest at the center of it. But Dallas has never called in a real park designer to come up with an overall concept for the forest. Instead we keep getting these little dollops of bling plunked down here and there -- the Calatrava bridges, the Audubon Center, the Elephant Doo-Doo -- as bread and circuses for the masses, which would be you and me.

Why? Because the real purpose and goal of the whole damned thing is still that crazy underwater toll road that the old power elite wants to build down the banks of the river because they believe inanely that a new highway will enhance their land values along the river downtown. The complete absence of an overall design or even an overall theory of the park is a direct reflection of a ferocious determination to keep the land free and clear for the toll road.

The toll road has always been, is now and will continue to be a cancer threatening the viability of the entire project and as such a serious threat to the well-being of the city. Only when the toll road has been ripped out from the project root and branch will we be able to proceed with what we voted for in 1998 -- a park.

Until then we will continue to see the Park Cities bling thing -- the little sparklies sprinkled here and there to rouge the corpse while a few selfish and not very smart interests maneuver behind the scenes for that very dumb road they want to build out where it floods.

OK, just for now, how about this? How about having the staff revisit the original agreement with the Audubon Center and then show the council point by point how that agreement is faring? Or is that not cool? If we ask to count the money, will that make us look like poor people? Then will we not get invited to parties?

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26 comments
ItsSoSad
ItsSoSad

Uhh, don't you remember? Governments don't know how to count money! That's why they can keep spending money they don't have, on projects that don't work, and not face any blame because they don't know where the money went!

Last I checked, conservatives are very good at counting money. That seems to be the chief complaint of the liberals!

bill.holston1
bill.holston1

Oh and as to Charles Allen.  I ran the Trinity with him a few weeks back. I have to say I was very impressed with how professional he was. That trip was a blast. We put in below the white water feature and ran to McCommas Bluff. Really, I wish we would open up that easy access point and let people run the river below. 

chris_culak
chris_culak

Educating thousands — and I do mean thousands — of schoolchildren, giving them a chance to experience true "hands-on" outdoor learning, over the course of the past four years is a great success. Too often we gauge things solely by how many people come through the door. What we should be asking — and tracking — is, "are the children and guests visiting the Audubon Center actually seeing and/or learning something new."


The educational experience at the Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas is beyond compare. I would encourage you to dig deeper; to ask questions about impact vs. numbers. The City of Dallas and Audubon have created something that most cities wish they could count amongst their treasures. Let's write stories about how an old, illegal landfill — an ecological travesty — has been transformed into a place where children and families have easy access to Dallas' amazing forest.


Chris Culak, Former Director Trinity River Audubon Center

PerryMoore
PerryMoore

Come to the Big City, where people pay for places to watch birds and tip their kayaks. So like the land that we covered up with parking spaces, convention centers, condos, and malls. Now, all we have to do is figure out how to pay for our faux natural beauty through the coffers of our admittedly inept government. Sing it, Joni. Write it, Mr. Schutze. Laugh on, country boy.

iamronburgundy
iamronburgundy

WRT Design is in charge of the overall master plan for the Trinity River and it's ancillary components. Ignacio Bunster-Ossa is the guys name I believe. So yes, there is someone in charge of the overall vision, and yes there is an overall vision, and yes you're wrong.

Executing that vision.... well that's a whole other story. Let's not misunderstand the "problems" with the Standing Wave though. You continually blame the contractors, architects, and engineers for these projects. That just seems wholly unfair(park). The contractor bids and constructs what someone else designs. In the case of the Standing Wave, it was built in the exact geometry of the plan by the firm in Arlington and the Guys in Colorado (who came up with the whole idea). Which by the way, dispels the notion that we are just winging it down here.... those guys at RE&P are professional kayakers and designers, engineers and architects who came up with this idea. It's a solid plan and concept.

For each person that complains about how "dangerous" it is there are multitudes of both experienced and novice kayakers who post/comment/speak about how awesome the installation is and how if you pay attention to what you're doing you will not get hurt. I'm sorry, but the one lady who complained was 65 years old or something, and the other guy is a raging hippie who didn't want his pristine swampland destroyed. Get over yourselves. What you're talking about isn't a "Fix" of the Standing Wave... it's an alteration of the Standing Wave. Not unlike altering a dress. The dress may look great on the rack and in pictures, but put it on and you realize that it just isn't the perfect fit, and you have to make adjustments. The dress isn't Broken or Inherently Flawed, and neither is the Standing Wave, it just needs a tweak to be perfect.

Quit complaining just for the sake of complaining. Use your bully pulpit to call together all of the parties who have been involved and try to find a solution to your supposed problems.

Tolldya
Tolldya

So much for that half million dollar forest management plan that's gone to pot. It has two unfortunate words: management and plan.  The lack of pretty much negates the forest.

BenS.
BenS.

In regards to the Standing Wave, I'm not sure canoeing the Main Stem will be possible in the near future. It appears as though the halfmillion dollar Sylvan Avenue Boat Ramp and parking lot were bulldozed by TXDOT for the construction of the new Sylvan Avenue Bridge. Looking ataerial photos plus viewing it from the opposing bank I can no longer see the boat ramp. If it is there, the ramp is deeply buried under construction debris. The contractor built pillars through the parkinglot and at the head of what was once the boat ramp. 

The Audubon Center has the only safe parking, flush toilets and clean drinking water
in what is called the Great Trinity Forest. Why it is not a magnet for visitors is somewhat of a mystery to me. While the real river, the real wilderness, lies beyond the fences of the Audubon Center, it is centrally located and a great jumping off spot to adventures beyond. I think that if it were branded as a jumping off spot instead of a destination, it would attract more visitors.

It's not a zoo with caged animals. If you don't come away with a quality experience there, you have no one to blame but yourself. If you walk the trail frequented by kindergarten classes, you will get a kindergarten experience. If you want for something more you need to venture further into the woods. The largest wild hog caught in the woods there weighed in at over 400 pounds. There is a large population of deer, otters, birds of every variety and even flying squirrels. 

The one complaint I have with the Audubon Center is that working schmucks like myself cannot visit. It's only open regular business hours with the exception of 3rd Thursdays. In addition, on weekends the hours are short too. The best wildlife viewing times down there are 2 hours after sunrise and the 2 hours before sunset. The Audubon Center is closed during those hours.


Guesty
Guesty

The problem was thinking that the City can decide what people should like (e.g. real nature in an educational setting) and then get them to voluntarily go there.  The Audubon Center is mostly a place for school children to learn about nature.  It serves that purpose.  If anyone thought it was going to draw crowds or pay for itself, they were fooling themselves.  People in Dallas prefer the manufactured "natural setting" of Arboretum more than the actual nature at Audubon Center. I'm not saying that's right (I like both), but it is what it is.

The only question from me is whether the place is worth the money as an educational tool.  I'm not sure--I'd like to see more numbers on how many school children go there, etc.  But we should be honest that the place is an indirect subsidy of the DISD by the City and not a whole lot more.  

dallasdrilling.wordpress.com
dallasdrilling.wordpress.com

I was out there about 4 months ago to look around. For one thing, there were just two other cars in the parking lot....on a September Saturday. Meanwhile, GONE are the really nice hand out maps showing you all the trails with side bar information. Instead, the high school girl at the information desk handed me a photo copy of a map on a 4x4 piece of paper, as if she had just drawn it and copied it. World class. So if you want to get more information as to how the City of Dallas is going to make this little used gem shine, I would suggest that you contact your good friend, the honorable Mary Suhm. She's been such an extraordinary cash flow manager over the past few years that I'm willing to bet she has a really nice flow chart all ready to show.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

The city should be building lovely cat parks.  I would volunteer to be on the commission since I have many ideas for the parks, like cat rides, cat flumes, elevated catwalks, cat races of various kinds, cooking for cats lessons, classes in fashioning fruit hats for cats.  What a joy and a treat that would be!

oakclifftownie
oakclifftownie

If you build it they will come ....


Not so much eh ?

MariaB
MariaB

All we need is one more really dumb project. Something like a Horse Park. 


Oh...wait...

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

Out of curiosity Jim, is there any overlap between the contractors or builders of the Audobon Center, the White Water boondoggle, and the proposed golf course? Might as well throw in the Klyde (which admittedly is great), the Perot, and the MHH bridge to Ray's Guns and Hardware.

A city like Dallas doesn't just start building these things unless someone with clout is getting rich off it. I'm just curious as to who that is. Ross Perot Jr maybe?

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

What are they doing with the hundred grand marketing budget they have? I have never seen an ad or a billboard or a press release or anything. I'll bet there's a marketing director making a hundred grand a year complaining he has no budget.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@chris_culak 

All good points. Would you agree that the city council also needs to ask for a performance review based on the management agreement?

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@iamronburgundy 

Ron, here is a simple challenge for you. If you are so certain that Charles Allen is some simple-minded "raging hippie" fool, then go to the city attorney and tell him that you want your department to post some kind of signage along the river conveying that the city invites people to use the canoe bypass.  If you think its OK, then you should hike up your drawers and take on the risk and responsibility of re-opening it. But banning paddling and then talking about there's nothing wrong with it is stupid.

As for your Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, whose name even you can barely remember. I see that Mr. Bunster-Ossa's  "...current assignments include the design of permanent security barriers and related landscape rehabilitation for the Jefferson Memorial in the National Mall." Terrific. But do you think it's fair to suggest that whatever he's doing for Dallas, it doesn't really add up to a grand civic vision if nobody in the city even knows he's doing it?

A-nony-mouse
A-nony-mouse

@iamronburgundy 

You will excuse me if I take the word of Charles Allen over yours that the Standing Wave is unsafe. Or that of Shane Sigle of Recreation Engineering & Planning in Boulder, Colorado, who expressed "concerns" after paddling the canoe bypass, so much so that his company recommended that the city go back in and rebuild the bypass. Or Willis Winters, the Assistant Director of Planning and Design with the city of Dallas who said in an interview that "If they are inexperienced canoers with young family members, our recommendation would be to portage out above the bypass and get back in the water below."

Kayakers might think that everything is fine with it (though I have my doubts there as well), but when everyone is saying that canoers shouldn't even use the river around the Standing Wave, that is a problem.

bill.holston1
bill.holston1

@BenS. Agreed Ben. The biggest draw back in my view is that trail is still not open, and it won't be accessible either other than the Audubon hours, because parking is inside the gate. Ben is correct, the most interesting stuff is outside the fences in land that's not hard to access but requires a bit of effort. I think TRAC works great as an introduction to nature for kids and for accessible areas for people in wheel chairs etc. My 86 year old mother in law completely enjoyed it. I've also been on guided hikes which were quite good. There's plenty there to enjoy. Like Guesty says, you are comparing apples to oranges in comparing TRAC to Arboretum. You want to see birds more common on the Texas Coast? Less than a thirty minute walk from TRAC. 

roo_ster
roo_ster

@MariaB No, a horse golf park with white water obstacles and quick sand traps.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@SuperfuzzBigmuff 

Lots of fertile ground there, beginning with Halff Associates. They’re the ones who thought up and proposed the Calatrava bridges in the first place. http://www.dallasnews.com/news/margaret-hunt-hill-bridge/bridge-headlines/20120224-pillars-behind-hill-bridge-stretch-from-texas-to-europe.ece
They have a very cozy relationship with top city staff.
http://cityhallblog.dallasnews.com/author/sthompson/page/14/?chocaid=397
In the political campaign leading up to 2007 Trinity Toll Road referendum to put the road outside the levees, Halff was very active and aggressive. Halff president Martin Malloy coordinated the anti-referendum campaign, which was the campaign to keep the road out between the levees where it floods.
http://www.dallasnews.com/news/community-news/dallas/headlines/20110604-trinity-toll-roads-backers-told-only-part-of-the-story-to-win-2007-vote.ece
They are but one example of companies who that are not merely always at the city trough: they’re actually the caterers who run the trough.



MiddleAgedMan
MiddleAgedMan

That marketing manager likely aspires to be an Afghani hospital administrator.@Montemalone

chris_culak
chris_culak

@JimSX @chris_culak 

The City Council should ask for a reveiw!  The reveiw should reflect the reality of what the center has been able to accomplish.  However, to that end, management agreement  reviews should show how both parties have performed.

Best, Chris

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@iamronburgundy 

And if all the Standing Wave needs is a tweak, what are you waiting for? Tweak it.

lbartos1
lbartos1

@JimSX @SuperfuzzBigmuff 

In the 2007 campaign -- Joe Novoa from Halff was one of the speakers for the pro side (I was on the con side) and he had no problem twisting the facts.  I started calling it the Joe Novoa retirement program.  As Jim says, they were the ones who thought the whole mess up. 

bill.holston1
bill.holston1

@JimSX It was only a matter of time before you started being mean to us birdwatchers once you took up with a shotgun Jim!

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