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New Park In South Dallas Seeks To Heal Racial Wounds Left Behind By Fair Park Land Grab

When Anna Hill talks about Fair Park’s community park project, she doesn’t mince words. A prominent figure in her South Dallas neighborhood of Dolphin Heights for the last 40 years, Hill has witnessed the environment change around her, sometimes for the best and other times for the worst. This project, she said, will bring a much-needed amenity to her community. She just hopes her neighbors will use it.

“I want to see the very ones that said we needed a park to be using it,” she said. “You raised all this hell, so now, here comes a park. This is what you want; this is what you need to show your support.”

The project provides a walkable park for 11 nearby neighborhoods.

The $100M project, scheduled to break ground early next year, is the bedrock of a recently approved master plan to breathe new life into Dallas’ 277-acre Fair Park. Features of the project, intended to elevate Fair Park to a year-round destination, include a community stage and pavilion, gardens, picnic areas, a dog park, fitness pods, water elements, playgrounds, a nature walk and more.

Fair Park First, the nonprofit charged by the city with the management and stewardship of Fair Park, decided green space would be the best use for the land after almost 250 interactions with nearby residents. Executive Director Brian Luallen said it will not only enhance the livelihoods of residents in surrounding neighborhoods but also encourage reinvestment in the area.

“It’s very much a response to a tremendous need for an improvement to quality of life, social justice, racial justice and equity,” he said. 

Obscured by the project’s glittering design is an underlying motive to right a series of wrongs that occurred more than 50 years ago. The land where the park will be built was once a predominantly Black neighborhood of more than 300 homes. The city of Dallas seized the homes by eminent domain in 1969 to make room for surface parking for the State Fair of Texas.

“The effort was to effectively move Brown and Black people out of sight from visitors,” Luallen said. “That left a very deep wound there.”

At the time of the land grab, a promise was made on the part of the city to build a park for the surrounding community, but it never materialized. When the city hired Fair Park First to manage the park in 2018, one of its first requirements was to finally make good on that promise.

“For 45 years, no one could tell with any real authority where it was going to go or what it was going to have in it,” Luallen said. “After making no progress on it for four decades, the city made it a contractual obligation.”

Hill, who has served as the president of the Dolphin Heights Neighborhood Association since 2004, did not live in the area in the 1960s. But some of her community’s longtime residents still harbor resentment toward the city.

“Some people try to make a big issue of it and some don’t, and I’m one of the ones who don’t,” she said. “Instead of talking about what happened in the past, I’m interested in what did you learn from the past and what will you do for the future?”

Without significant investments in infrastructure, the park would not be possible, Luallen said. Fair Park First partnered early in the process with public entities to provide things like a trail connection and wastewater lines. The park also requires a parking structure, which Gensler was tapped to design.

The parking structure will include a rooftop event deck.

From the outset, Gensler was determined this would not be any ordinary parking structure. The design of the garage is such that it serves as an extension of the green space and can host park events, said Brian Nicodemus, design manager and senior associate at the firm. 

“What if the garage had a park that ascended on top of it so that when you’re in the community park, you looked and never saw the end of it? Like the infinity edge of the pool,” Nicodemus said. “That was kind of the idea.”

Ensuring the structure is aesthetically pleasing from all sides is a crucial piece of the design, Nicodemus said. He wanted to be sure the structure was not an eyesore for adjacent homes.

“We’re acknowledging the past, and to heal, you have to do that,” he said. “The city has talked about adaptive reuse of Fair Park for years, for decades. Now, this is really moving forward; there is really progress.”

Those leading the project hope it will do more than just bring a well-amenitized community park and parking structure to the neighborhood. One expectation is that it will spur economic activity around the park, which Luallen views as a good thing, as long as it is done responsibly.

“How do you afford the protections from tax increases that can result in displacement?” Luallen asked. “That is really a troubling concern.”

Fair Park First is limited in its ability to protect the surrounding communities from displacement, Luallen said. Still, it has advocated for state laws that would guarantee property tax protections, and it continues to work with municipalities to figure out what policy actions can be taken locally.

“It’s notoriously complex,” he said. “Nobody has ever found the magic bullet that will ease the negative impacts of gentrification.”

One thing Fair Park First does have control over is the hiring of local, minority-led firms to participate in the park’s design and construction. In some cases, local companies were too small to do the work themselves, in which case Fair Park First paired them with larger firms. 

Studio-MLA, whose award-winning work includes SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, is designing the park in partnership with bc Workshop and Studio Outside, two firms with a strong minority presence that are located near Fair Park. Gensler is partnering with Moody Nolan, the nation’s largest African American-owned architecture firm, on the garage.

The park is intended to be a regional draw that keeps Fair Park active year-round.

The goal, Luallen said, is to give local firms the exposure and experience they need to make them more hireable for future projects. 

“These are true joint or tri ventures, this isn’t just spinning off 10% to check a box,” he said. “When we talk about capacity building, it’s about putting them at a meaningful level of participation working along very experienced firms so that the next time we put out a contract, we have a minority firm that is local that can serve as prime instead of a sub.”

Of the $100M needed for the park and the garage, Fair Park First has raised just over $20M in private funds. Luallen said he expects to close out another $15M before the end of this year, which would put the organization on track to break ground in January. The park is anticipated to debut in 2024. 

Hill said she would have preferred Fair Park First put that money toward preservation of existing monuments and museums. Nevertheless, she said she plans to ride her three-wheeled bicycle over to the park once it opens.

“I have an open mind, and I hope and pray this park that everybody is talking about works,” she said. “It will really be nice, and I hope I live long enough to see it become a reality.”