Parks or housing? Dallas officials hesitant on using city-owned land for 15 proposed new greenspaces
An environmental group that focuses specifically on creating and maintaining greenspaces around the country wants to turn vacant property owned by the city of Dallas into new parks.
That’s according to a presentation by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and the city's parks and recreation department during Monday’s Parks, Trails and the Environment Committee meeting.
TPL hopes to build 15 new parks throughout the city over the next three to four years. So where will the new parks be?
TPL officials say they’re not ready to disclose that information just yet — although at least one other city council member knows one proposed project in their district.
Some council members voiced concerns over the city-owned real estate evaluation. They say they're already evaluating that land for other needs — and say their communities need different essential facilities more than parks.
Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn King Arnold, who represents part of southern Dallas in District 4, says her constituency would be in favor of maintaining the one park the district does have — and no more.
“I don’t hear a cry for additional [parks],” Arnold said. “We’re looking for housing stock that will help grow our schools, help bring in new employees as we get new business.”
The initiative is in line with a year-long campaign by Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson to increase the city’s parks.
Most recently, the community bond taskforce — chaired by the president of the city’s parks and recreation board — approved a recommendation to allocate nearly a third of the city’s $1.1 billion bond capacity to parks and recreation.
The program and properties
Robert Kent is the Texas director for Trust for Public Land. Kent says the group helps cities across the country map out property and spaces to figure out where there is a need for new parks — and where they should go.
“All with the goal of making sure that everyone who lives in cities has a park or trail within a 10-minute walk of home,” Kent said during Monday's committee meeting.
In late 2022 Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson requested an inventory of unused city-owned land that could potentially be turned into parks. Kent says his organization started working with city staff around the same time start “to map potential locations for these parks.”
“Looking through all of these properties we have now identified one to three high priority opportunities within each council district,” Kent said.
All the property Kent’s organization is proposing to turn into parks — or greenspace — are owned by the city, vacant and located in what he calls “park deserts.” And they’re located in urban heat-islands or areas of high health disparities.
Kent says the project will be “neighborhood parks focused on neighborhood amenities” — without “multi-million-dollar investments.” The group hopes to reach out to community members to get input on what amenities they might like to see within the new parks — and then see what is financially viable for the group.
“All told we’re targeting around $500,000 per location,” Kent said. “Which would allow a generous mix of amenities.”
Those include playgrounds, pavilions, native plant gardens and solar security cameras. Johnson has already pledged $1.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to the initiative — TPL officials hope to raise the rest of the money.
The properties would be developed over the next three to four years. And the group is proposing a program for communities living around the new parks to volunteer their time — “supplementing the work that the parks and recreation department will provide.”
During the meeting, it became apparent that at least one council member was aware of a proposed site in her district, but other council members had not information on proposed locations.
After the presentation, District 10 Council Member Kathy Stewart, who chairs the committee, said the initiative was one she was “particularly excited about” — and said she looked forward to the completion of a new park through this program, in her district.
“Well I do think there’s some discussion, so I would love to see what those are,” District 9 Council Member Paula Blackmon said. “Because apparently some people do know there is something in their districts, so I am just wondering why the rest of us haven’t been made aware.”
Kent said the information isn't being disclosed yet — and conversations with specific council members and city officials are still ongoing.
“We don’t want to make it public yet because we don’t want to promise something and get a neighborhood excited if it turns out its not a suitable property,” Kent said.
A different need
Some council members also raised concerns about TPL evaluating city-owned land, suggesting that might lead to a duplication of efforts — and overlapping interests in the properties.
“I want to remind everybody…that in [the Government Performance and Financial Management committee] we are looking at all of the properties as well,” Blackmon said during the meeting. “To see how we can address some of our needs, not just our parks but housing, [economic development].”
Those needs include what some Dallas leaders call a “housing crisis” and many communities left without essential resources. Some committee members expressed the need to deal with those issues first — before adding new greenspaces to the city.
District 1 Council Member Chad West says the city's pension review board is looking to see if any city-owned real estate can be used to help pay for pension obligations. And he says the newly formed Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is also looking to see how they might use the properties to spur development.
"And now we've got a third group that is analyzing the city's book of real estate for park related activities," West told KERA. "My concern goes back to...we do not have a strategic plan that looks at all of these needs collectively."
West says city officials have formed a group to coordinate the different real estate efforts. But he says he is unsure if city staff is the right group to oversee the project either. West says an independent consultant or appointed body could be the better option.
"Parks are, I would say, a right...as a tax paying citizen we should have them," West said. "I don't think they should take priority over housing or our ability to generate economic income to pay for police and fire."
In District 4, Arnold says the priorities of her community go beyond just parks.
"I am going to continue to look at the available property we have, no matter where it is, to see how it could be converted to housing stock," Arnold said. "Or some type of use that would use the quality of life."
Arnold says in addition to more housing, her community wanted to see more — and healthier — food options.
“I have to say it again for the record, we are in a food desert,” Arnold said. “We’re constantly being fed a steady diet of inferior products when it comes to food supply.”
The TPL briefing and proposal to contract with the city of Dallas comes after a vocal campaign for more greenspaces by Johnson. It was a center point in his reelection campaign in May.
And most recently, a community bond taskforce — charged with recommending what allocations and projects should be on the ballot — approved a parks allocation just shy of $350 million. That’s nearly a third of the city’s overall capacity and over three times more than the housing bond allocations.
Only one taskforce member opposed the large parks allocation, citing what he calls more important projects the city needs to deal with.
The taskforce is led by Arun Agarwal, who was appointed by Johnson and also serves as the president of the city’s park and recreation board.
Still, city officials were hesitant about the TPL proposition.
“We have some needs for those facilities in my area that could be better served by different types of services,” Arnold said.
West says he's glad that TPL is taking the lead on the project and says he is "cautiously optimistic" about the project knowing their involvement.
TPL officials say they want to work with the city — and community — to “collaborate to transform unused city-owned land” into new parks.
That includes at least three community meetings to get feedback about the project, a “pop-up park” where community members can interact with potential amenities and the presentation of the final design.
According to the presentation, parks and recreation officials along with TPL will manage the construction of the parks. The groups initial calculation shows the 15 properties being proposed would fulfill the goal of providing a park within a 10-minute walk for over 23,000 residents.
The final steps are for the city and TPL to finalize a contract, finish council member meetings and start scheduling the community consultations for the first five properties.
KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.