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Trinity River Audubon Center

By Jerome Weeks - Art&

Dallas, TX – A new nature center opens next week south of Dallas. But it's a nature center with a different mission. It re-introduces Dallasites to the Trinity River. KERA's Jerome Weeks has this report.

Cicadas drone and a crow calls from the distant trees. A white egret, with stately care, steps into the pond.

It's hard to believe we're in Dallas. Yet we're closer to downtown Dallas than the Galleria is. This is the new Trinity River Audubon Center. The $14 million center stands near Loop 12 at I-45. Even so, it's part of the Trinity River Forest, the largest hardwood forest in any American city.

Anne Brown is executive director of Audubon Texas, the state office of the National Audubon Society. Dallas partnered with the group to build the center. It is one small piece of the city's ambitious plan to link together parks and wetlands for the Trinity River Corridor.

BROWN: "One of the things that was key for us was we're really trying to re-connect urban audiences to nature. So to have a 120-acre site six minutes out of downtown Dallas was a pretty motivating factor."

Location was key. The building had to been in the forest and near the river. Both had to be accessible to hikers, including the handicapped. But the building couldn't be in the flood plain.

In the end, architect Antoine Predock chose what had been an illegal dump. The landfill was reclaimed. A connected series of wetland ponds was dug. Prairie grasses and bottomland plants were brought in. The animals - birds, turtles, raccoons - have returned on their own.

BROWN: "Antoine Predock did a pretty amazing job siting the building, not only for the flood issue but for the way it fits in and hugs to the site."

Dallasites should know Predock's distinctive work. A prize-winning architect, Predock designed the Rose family's remarkable home along Turtle Creek.

With the Audubon center, Predock has designed a building that, from above, looks like a bird. The bird's body contains the offices and caf . One wing is devoted to classrooms, the other wing is full of nature exhibits. All of these airy, open rooms are walled on one side with glass - the better to see the surrounding woodlands.

BROWN: "This space is our exhibit space. Here, we've tried to, like we've tried everywhere else in the building, tried to turn people outside again. We tried to take as much of the building and face it outwards."

Brown believes deeply in the Audubon's mission of nature centers in urban areas - and not just to benefit the ecosystem.

BROWN: "I think being in nature makes people better. I think if you can respect nature, that respect for nature translates to other people."

To that end, the center is designed to serve different communities. There are picnic areas because neighborhood residents wanted a place where families could sit and eat. Eventually, the center's four miles of trails will be linked with the Katy Trail so hikers and bikers can travel here. One day, it will even be accessible by canoe or kayak from the Trinity River.

Brown says the important community that will be hardest to reach are Dallasites and suburbanites who won't go south of downtown, who think the Trinity River is a mud spot to drive over as fast as possible. The trick, she says, is getting them to visit the center - that first time.

BROWN: What we found is once we get them here the site engages them. We don't have to do anything else.

This is the center's larger educational mission. Not simply for people to learn the call of the Southern leopard frog - [sound of frog] [2 seconds] - but to acclimate us to what was once here. And can be still.

BROWN: We try to work with a lot of parents who are uncomfortable in nature, to guide them through. We actually have backpacks that families can check out.

WEEKS: Food, supplies -- flares?

BROWN: Although we do have cappuccino and espresso.