Yet Another Big Urban Park Project Gains Steam, and Stirs Controversy

 Photo: Trinity Park Trust

Photo: Trinity Park Trust

Far beyond the philanthropic glitz of Manhattan, it seems that every American city is hungry for its own High Line. From Cleveland to Tulsa to Houston to Atlanta, private funds are backing parks projects in hopes of boosting their respective cities.

The latest such development comes out of Dallas, where the city is rallying private donors to breathe life into its Trinity River park project near downtown. The park made news when Annette Simmons, wife of the late Harold Simmons, recently donated $50 million—its largest single gift from a private donor and believed to be the largest donation for a public-private partnership benefitting the City of Dallas. And, as in many of these projects, there’s already concern about donor influence over the park’s future.

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Along with $30 million in city money, the donation will fund the first phase of the park’s construction, a landmark step for a plan that has been on the table in some form for decades. Simmons made the gift contingent on the park being operated by a private entity that has secured operations and maintenance funds, with funding for the rest of the project to be raised over the next three years. 

Harold Simmons, who passed away in 2013, was a Texas billionaire probably best known in his career as a pioneer of the leveraged buyout and a leader among the “corporate raiders” of the 1980s. Simmons is also known for his massive support for Republican political groups, specifically his funding of the “Swift Boat” ads that made since-debunked attacks on John Kerry’s military record to sway the 2004 presidential election. Simmons and his family have been active in philanthropy, giving several million to causes like hospitals, medical research, universities, and cultural institutions. His daughters now run a family foundation.

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The Trinity River park project has been a long time coming, and the subject of local clashes in Dallas. Park plans are intertwined in a multi-faceted public works project that would redevelop the river in the Dallas area, including transportation improvements, flood protection, and recreation. The project was approved by voters in 1998 under a bond referendum, but has since failed to fully materialize, caught up in various planning and funding hurdles. The nonprofit Trinity Trust has been advocating and raising money for the project, including a $250 million price tag for the park.

As cities around the country pursue these ambitious parks with a combination of public and private funds and management, they find themselves grappling with questions of how much donors should influence the parks themselves, and the oversight and maintenance structure. That’s been the case in Dallas, before and after the latest $50 million donation was announced.

In particular, some have come out against the Simmons' restriction that the park be operated by a private entity. Dallas City Council Member Philip Kingston told local news, “How does this decision get made by fiat, apparently from wealthy people, who can use the money to essentially make us do anything they want.”

Local media has also opened fire. Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer writes, “The mayor was a proud peacock Monday, telling us all about the $50 million gift and reciting all of the conditions and contingencies to which he had already agreed to get it. But where was the part about what we keep? Where were the assurances of our continued ownership and control over the park?” Locals have also raised concerns that the current plan is too extravagant or expensive.  

Public-private partnerships, and conservancies that raise money in service of land that’s under public control, have done some great things for city parks. Private donors can also nudge along plans where they’ve stagnated. But with all of these projects, there’s a serious danger that city governments, desperate for funds, will hand over too much control too quickly, and ahead of proper public involvement (see the controversy over the Barry Diller-backed Pier55 project.)  

That concern in the city isn’t limited to the Simmons gift. Prior to the donation, but referencing multiple philanthropic projects that include the Trinity effort, Peter Simek from Dallas Magazine writes, “There seems to be an attitude in this city that when the private sector has an idea and is willing to put hard-earned charitable dollars behind it, the city’s role is to applaud the generosity of our enlightened civic patrons and swallow what they are given.”