Dallas’ Southern Gateway Park Will Bridge Generations of Divide and Inequity
When Interstate 35 was built through Dallas in the 1950s, the highway connected the city to other major U.S. cities and opened vital trade and other new opportunities.
But the same highway that placed Dallas along a major transportation route from Texas to Minnesota has physically separated Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood for six decades, fueling inequity and poverty in the area. The neighborhood is among Texas’ most impoverished areas and lacks access to basic resources such as health clinics, employment centers and major grocery stores.
A new park in the works will soon bridge that divide, however, and make the neighborhood whole again with five acres of water features, wooded walkways, a multi-purpose pavilion and a playground – all built on a deck above I-35E near the Dallas Zoo. Designed by HKS along with landscape architect SWA, the Southern Gateway Park’s first phase is expected to open in early 2024. A second phase is planned for soon as possible after that.
At a news conference in April, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said the long-sought park will be a game-changing investment in the families that call southern Dallas their home.
“For my entire life, Oak Cliff has been divided by this highway,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said. “…but that’s not the way it was, or the way that it has to be. We have the opportunity now to heal this divide by literally bridging that highway, a connector of cities, with a park that is a connector of neighborhoods.”
HKS President and CEO Dan Noble said the park is also a way for architects to participate in Dallas’ ongoing conversations around equitable living and design spaces that will empower the city’s underserved communities to thrive.
“Doing something like this gives us a chance to give back and to not just be part of design, but also the community, to create a positive aspect of social life and knit together a broken neighborhood,” Noble said. “We don’t want to think of architecture as a business but as a catalyst to improve people’s lives.”
Rooted in Nature and Possibility
Dallas has several landmark projects that have changed the city’s landscape for good. Klyde Warren Park, a deck park in downtown Dallas, has become a popular attraction for locals and visitors since it opened 10 years ago. The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and the Margaret McDermott Bridge, located just outside downtown, have become staples of the Dallas skyline.
With the success Klyde Warren Park, some Oak Cliff residents came up with the idea of adding a park to the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to widen the interstate’s lanes. They shared the idea with other Oak Cliff residents at neighborhood association meetings and eventually, word spread to city leaders who were willing to join the cause.
In 2017, Dallas residents passed a bond to contribute $7 million toward Phase 1 of the Southern Gateway Park, estimated to cost about $82 million. By April 2022, more than $62 million of the necessary amount had been raised from public and private organizations.
The park will be the biggest and most expensive project – an investment – in southern Dallas in the last 80 years, Dallas officials say.
The park’s advocates say they hope it will be more than a pretty sight for those entering or exiting Dallas on I-35. They say it will celebrate Oak Cliff’s history as one of Dallas’ oldest neighborhoods and highlight ongoing efforts to make the city more equitable.
“We call it a park with a purpose because it’s meaningful on multiple levels. We’re not just building a green space, but we’re investing in a part of the city that really hasn’t seen this type of investment in 80 years,” said April Allen, President and COO of the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation.
HKS Senior Project Manager Ryan Blaylock and Project Architect Eric Martin said engaging Oak Cliff residents from the start of the design process was crucial because the park will ultimately serve them. Even when planning meetings shifted to Zoom due to the COVID pandemic, more than 300 people attended to show their support.
“People came and gave their comments and opinions of what they wanted to see in a local community park,” Blaylock said. “And those were done bilingually to make sure that we captured everyone’s voice.”
The final design that emerged from those meetings takes inspiration from Oak Cliff’s unique topography, rolling hills that set Oak Cliff apart from the rest of Dallas. It also celebrates the neighborhood’s history and potential.
So, a pedestrian promenade will curve through the park and finally reconnect Oak Cliff’s Twelfth Street, which was divided when Interstate 35 was built. A stage and pavilion will host concerts and events, an outdoor classroom space will allow local schools to make use of the park’s picturesque backdrop for learning, and a flexibly designed indoor space will give local restaurants or businesses the opportunity to rent out space and expand their clientele.
A Gift to the Community
For Oak Cliff residents, especially those who have advocated for it for years, the park can’t open soon enough.
“We opened another park named Renaissance Park in southern Dallas and at the ribbon cutting the only question I heard was people asking how the development of Southern Gateway was going,” said Dallas Park and Recreation Board President, Arun Agarwal. “They’re watching it. They’re all excited for it.”
Former Dallas Mayors Mike Rawlings and Ron Kirk both helped raised funds for the project and eagerly praised it at the April news conference held at Dallas City Hall. Rawlings also noted that Southern Gateway Park has a broader significance for Dallas as a whole.
“This is our opportunity to put a stake in the ground, to put a front yard in the city of Dallas when you’re coming up from Austin,” Rawlings said. “Isn’t that cool? You’re driving up and you see this park and it represents the whole city, and you see families and neighborhoods drawn together.”
HKS’ Martin, who moved to Dallas two and a half years ago, said he, too, is looking forward to having a new place where he can experience his new city with his loved ones.
“Dallas as a city could use a lot more spaces like the park that are community oriented, where there’s not an expectation to spend money, where you can just go to and hang out, joke with your friends, or take your mom for a walk,” Martin said. “The more these places like this are built, the better Dallas is going to be as a city.”