A decade ago, Dallas was not exactly what we would call a recreation enthusiast’s playground. If we wanted to do something outdoors, chances are we’d drive an hour or more to a state park.
The Trinity River Corridor Project didn’t exist. Groups formed to save then-neglected White Rock Lake were only just gathering steam. If we wanted to bike around town, we’d have been safer peddling in a suit of armor.
Today, that’s all changed.
Now we walk, bike, skate or jog from downtown to Plano with little interruption.
This move toward a more recreation-friendly city was given a major boost a few years ago when city parks department officials surveyed residents and found that trails and soccer fields – not traditional neighborhood parks – topped Dallas residents’ wish list.
Since then, designers and planners have gone into overdrive, as have a handful of grassroots groups that have been raising money on their own for different sections of the trail network.
Though only 85 miles of the overall, 229-mile trail network has been completed, it’s clear that priorities in the land of the SUV have started to shift. To the optimistic eye, Dallas is now poised – and probably sooner than later – to claim its own manifest destiny of sorts, joining a series of short trails into one continuous stretch of car-free splendor.
“More and more density in Dallas is inevitable,” says former Dallas City council member Mary Poss, who has been working on expansion of the Cottonwood Trail in North Dallas. “As that happens, we have to find ways to provide good recreation, good green space for people.”
Funding has already been secured for another 16 or so miles. And more announcements are expected in coming months.
Willis Winters, assistant director of the city’s park and recreation department, which oversees the new trails’ design and construction, sees the trend continuing.
“We see the trails are emerging as a higher and higher priority,” he says.
ON THE RIGHT PATH
So where are these paths? What follows are some of the projects in or connecting to our neighborhood:
• Northaven Trail is on the drawing boards at City Hall as the main east-west trail in North Dallas. It would run 11 miles, starting just east of Central near Northaven Road, north of Royal.
The trail, which will primarily be in a Texas Utilities right-of-way, will link White Rock Creek Greenbelt, Royal Park and the Elm Fork Greenbelt. It will connect with the existing White Rock Creek Greenbelt Trail with the proposed Elm Fork Trail. It will also connect several public and private schools and churches.
Construction has not begun because none of the estimated $10 millon cost has been funded.
• Katy Trail is a public-private effort underway farther south. It traces the greenbelt along the tracks used by the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (also called MKT or Katy), dating to 1887. In the 1990s, Union Pacific Railroads donated three miles of railroad to the city of Dallas.
A few years later, a nonprofit organization called Friends of Katy Trail was created to build support for the trail. The trail already connects 125 acres of parkland that’s used by an estimated 300,000 people who live within a mile of the park. Supporters say the space has the potential to be on par with Chicago’s Lincoln Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
“Our goal is to create the great American park in the city of Dallas,” says Eric Van Steenburg, executive director of Friends of the Katy Trail. “When people come to Dallas, they’re going to come to the Katy Trail.”
“It’s in the densest part of the city,” he says. “It becomes this great gathering place for all walks of life.”
It also features 3.5 miles of track suitable for bikers and skaters. A separate, soft surface running track is planned. The existing trail stretches from downtown, near American Airlines Center, to Airline Road near Southern Methodist University.
Kevin Felton, president of For the Love of the Lake, a White Rock Lake group, says he began riding his bike to work at Scottish Rite Hospital from his home in the Hollywood Heights neighborhood of East Dallas when the Katy Trail opened. Felton says he spends less time in traffic and the commute has trimmed his weight by about 15 pounds.
“I personally am really excited about this,” he says, “It’s really quite convenient for me.”
The Katy Trail fundraising effort has already collected about $16 million of the project’s estimated $23 million cost. The organization is hoping to raise about $2.3 million from government grants, with the remainder funded by private donations.
• Cottonwood Trail will be a four-mile concrete trail that will connect Preston Ridge Trail in Far North Dallas to White Rock Creek Trail. It’s a key part of providing 35 miles of continuous trail from Plano to downtown.
All but 1.5 miles of the Cottonwood is already built, but four small remaining sections are complex and expensive. Supporters say it will take $4 million to complete the work, which will essentially connect existing trails north and south of the high-five interchange at Central and LBJ.
The cost to complete the trail is high because the connection spots are difficult to design and construct, supporters say. Texas Instruments kicked off the fundraising campaign with a $25,000 donation.
“Those are expensive segments primarily because you’re tunneling under the highway at the high-five” and constructing new bridges, says Poss, who has been working to secure funding for the Cottonwood.
At the high-five exchange, plans call for a 500-foot tunnel under Central Expressway, she says.
“This trail will be very exciting because it will be complete with the amenities that people want,” Poss says, citing things such as more trees, park benches and emergency phones.
While completion of the overall master trail network is still at least a couple of years away, support is growing.
“The mentality toward trails has changed significantly,” says Winters, the assistant parks director. “It’s quite a change from 10 years ago.”
Back then, when the city built a small neighborhood trail in Far North Dallas called Kiowa Parkway, Winters recalls, many residents resisted the idea. He says some residents feared it would bring criminals into the neighborhood and provide them with a ready means of escape.
In fact, park officials and residents say, just the reverse has proved to be true. The trails are so well traveled by neighborhood residents – who don’t hesitate to report a suspicious person from their cell phones – that some residents now feel safer.
“It’s a built in crime-watch – that’s the way we describe it now,” says senior park planner Michael C. Hellman.
To some, the political support for the trail system is overdue.
“We’d love to see the trails built,” says Bruce Fitch, president of the Dallas Trekkers Walking Club. “In my opinion, it needs a lot of work.”
“Dallas is not a walking friendly city,” he says. “We would dearly like to see more emphasis made on making Dallas a walkable city.”
Dallas Trekkers is part of an international organization that has mapped about 1,500 trails in 41 countries. Although North Texas members have mapped out a dozen 10-kilometer trails – including one that makes use of the existing Katy Trail – Dallas is playing catch up, even compared to other Texas cities, Fitch says.
“Take a city like Austin, and it has done a lot with trails,” he says. “Dallas has a lot of cities that don’t even have sidewalks.”
But others see the tide turning soon. In March, park department officials briefed the city officials on the trail network master plan. The city’s Park Board is set to approve the plan this year and officials are optimistic about securing more funding in future bond programs. Meanwhile, they’re working on design and construction of the remaining miles that have been funded but not yet built.
Trails enthusiasts say the plans will not only provide more green space, but also strengthen the sense of well-being for recreation enthusiasts.
“Dallas has not been very bicycle friendly,” Felton says. “The trails have really improved that. You’re still somewhat out on your own out on the roads.”
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