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A Rift Runs Through It

Nine years ago, voters in Dallas opted to remake the riparian no- man's-land in the center of the city. Now its leaders are fighting over what they meant.

A lake with sailboats. That was the image a 1998 brochure used to tout the Trinity River Project, a massive effort to reclaim the unused wetlands that run through central Dallas. But was that what the voters envisioned when they agreed to a $246 million bond measure to bring the project to life? Nearly a decade after the vote, civic leaders are still engulfed in a fight over just what the mandate was.

The Trinity River separates downtown and north Dallas--upscale and overwhelmingly white--from south Dallas, historically poor and black and now increasingly Hispanic. The land in question is essentially a wide, wet and almost entirely ignored trough--"Most people in Dallas think this river is a dirty little ditch," says local columnist Jim Schutze--and the project is aimed at turning it into the kind of civic asset that San Antonio's Riverwalk has become. Mayor Laura Miller has spent much of her time in office trying to shepherd the project into being; it has always, she points out, been about recreation, flood control and a "parkway."

But what sort of parkway is the right sort? City council member Angela Hunt isn't so sure. She is trying to put an initiative on the ballot asking voters whether they want to move the highway that is currently planned. In her view, the road on the drawing board would overshadow the lakes and parks that were the essence of the original Trinity River idea.

Hunt says the road voters envisioned in 1998 was a low-speed, meandering stretch of pavement that would give them access to the amenities they were seeking. What they're going to get if nothing changes is a four-lane toll road designed to divert thru-traffic from downtown; it has no exits into the parkland planned for nearby. At the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' insistence, the road was moved away from one of the levees the Corps is building, and plans now call for it to run through the heart of the river's floodplain. Given all this, Hunt thinks voters should be able to pass judgment on whether that is really what they desire.

First, though, she has to get the referendum qualified for the ballot. And there's the rub. She needed to gather 50,000 signatures by the end of June. Mayor Miller has hit back hard--not just at the ballot measure but at the council member herself. She dumped Hunt from the city's tourism board, rallied major business leaders to pooh-pooh the whole referendum idea, and launched a "Sink the Petition/Save the Trinity" effort designed to dissuade people from signing Hunt's petitions. "It sickens me," responds Hunt, "that someone would try to block the exercise of a democratic right."

Miller counters that the project as it stands now is vastly better than the original design--which had two four-lane highways and "a giant bathtub in the middle"--and that undoing any piece of it would jeopardize the progress she's made over the past five years. Whatever happens, though, she won't be the one who has to pick up the pieces. Her term ends in a few weeks, and she is not running for reelection.

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