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Public Access Vital For Trinity Success

(cc) Stuck In Customs

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

Dallas, TX –

North Texas communities are spending billions to transform the Trinity River into a destination. But if you build it will people come? Today we begin a special series of reports, Banking on the River. We're looking at what it takes to create successful riverfront developments. KERA's Shelley Kofler is here to get us started.

Shelley Kofler: Let's face it, a lot of North Texans think the Trinity is dirty and unattractive. They can't imagine fine dining on the Trinity. Boating on the Trinity. Romantically walking hand-in-hand along its shores.

But that's exactly what development plans in Dallas, Fort Worth and Irving envision. The good news is that other cities have overcome challenges similar to ours. We visited their river fronts to find out how they did it.

At an off-leash dog park in the heart of Austin, Daisey, a frisky Catahoula, splashes into the Colorado River.

Manz/Daisey's Owner: Oh, yeah, she hops right in there.

Kayakers paddle nearby, while runners power along 10 miles of shoreline trails. This dammed up stretch of the Colorado is named Lady Bird Lake in honor of Lady Bird Johnson. She's credited with transforming it into a popular attraction. Christine Manz doesn't think twice about driving 45 minutes to bring Daisey.

Manz: I have other parks I could take her to but it's completely worth it. It's a beautiful place you get to hang out and meet other people.

Daisey gets to play with other dogs.

Eighty miles to the south, mariachi's stroll among diners ordering Tex Mex at Casa Rio's on the San Antonio River's Riverwalk. The two-and-a-half mile Riverwalk, with its outdoor restaurant's, shops and flat bottomed tour boats lure even more visitors than the city's famous Alamo.

On a Monday night when a lot of restaurants sit empty, the riverside tables below street level are full. Ann Miller has brought out-of-town guests.

Miller: While it's crowded down here, it's just so far removed from the traffic and it's just a nice place to come and get away.

Austin's Lady Bird Lake, with its natural attractions, and the San Antonio's Riverwalk, with its dining and shopping, are among the nation's great riverfront success stories.

Landscape architect Roy Mann says that's because both cities mastered the basic requirement.

Mann: Access is the center ingredient along with the river. Those riversides in Paris and Boston, certainly in Austin, are successful because people can have access to and along the riverfront.

That may sound easy. Just get people down to the water. But many waterfront developments fail to do that.

Some riverfronts are dark and seem unsafe. The water stagnates and smells. Levees and noisy freeways may block access to the water.

Mann began chronicling the reasons for success and failure more than three decades ago in his book, Rivers of the City. He's since designed urban riverfront projects in Austin and around the world.

Mann: In an urban environment, you can appreciate the natural environment and also the built environment together. And the most successful urban riverfronts are those that carefully and successfully blend those two elements. Walking under a magnificent live oak branch, working your way along a marina edge, seeing sculls and crew shells on the river or the lake. But often people are really interested in stopping off for a coke or a beer or to have a bit of a sandwich, and so the pleasures of cafe and restaurant life also work into a successful mix.

Austin didn't find it's successful mix until the 1970's. Planners a decade before dammed the Colorado River to control downtown flooding and to create a cooling pond for a power plant. But trash and weeds cluttered the new waterfront and Austinites avoided it. Then the city appointed Lady Bird Johnson to chair a beautification committee that planted thousands of trees near the river. Austin built the hike-and-bike trail. It linked the river to a big park and a spring fed swimming hole, Barton Springs. Now, residents gather here year round. Outdoor concerts and events on the riverbanks bring millions of dollars into the city.

San Antonio's Riverwalk also grew out of a need to prevent flooding. Some 50 people died when waters swamped the city center in 1921. After several tries, developers successfully engineered a complex flood control system. But in the 1940's, plans for development along the river fizzled. The early Riverwalk lacked that basic requirement.

Hightower: When it was first done, there were really no businesses, and there was no access from the existing buildings.

Architect Irby Hightower chairs a committee overseeing river development. He says the buildings lining the river sat at street level, a story above the water.

Hightower says it took planners 20 years to come up with a solution. They dug out the basements of the buildings so businesses would have entrances at the river level. Hightower says planners also built stairways down to the Riverwalk at almost every street to provide that all important access.

Hightower: One of the nice things is that it's isolated from the street. It's about 12 to 16 feet below street level.

Reporter: Why do people come?

Hightower: I think partly that it is original, and it has this kind of handmade quirky San Antonio quality that you don't see any place else. It's also the scale that it is very intimate public space. It's the kind of space where you can sit on one side and have a margarita or be eating and look across the river and see the people on the other side. It's great people watching.

But maintaining the Riverwalk isn't cheap or easy. Once a year the city drains water from the walled portion of the river and scrapes mud from the liner. A flood control tunnel 150 feet underground is used to recirculate water and prevent stagnation. Then there's the effort to control bacteria in the water, and the little boat that skims trash from the river's surface every day.

Hightower: Styrofoam cups and grass clippings and leaves floating on the top of the water sort of make you think that it's not clean

Success has created new problems.

Today in San Antonio citizens worry a growing number of chain stores and restaurants are threatening the Riverwalk's appeal.

In Austin on Lady Bird Lake, some are fighting changes at city hall that have allowed taller buildings close to the water.

Hightower says even thriving riverfronts need constant care, and citizens who'll protect them from too much success.

Sam Baker: Shelley, is access to the Trinity River a challenge in North Texas?

Kofler: It is a challenge. Tomorrow BJ Austin takes a look at why the levees and a toll road may be obstacles in Dallas.

Sam: And for more information on our mighty river, check out a special website,

Email Shelley Kofler

Video History Of Lady Bird Lake: