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Public-Private Partnerships May Save Plants

What has been happening to the landscaping along Central Expressway since early 2010 and what is planned for the future. Photo by White Rock Weekly staff photographer.
What has been happening to the landscaping along Central Expressway since early 2010 and what is planned for the future. Photo by White Rock Weekly staff photographer.

Published October 20, 2011 by Lucy Higginbotham


New plants such as Muhly (pronounced “Mule-ee”) grass and Sideoats Grama (the state grass) get ready for their new home.

In this final part of a three-part series, WRLW explores what has been happening to the Central Expressway landscaping since early 2010 and what is planned for the future.

Motorists using US 75 lately have no doubt noticed two things: dead plants are still hanging around and live ones are going in. The ambitious landscaping project that started $13.5 million and 15 years ago is in transition.  

It has taken two years for the State of Texas (TxDOT), who is responsible for the corridor from downtown to LBJ, and the City of Dallas, who lives with the results, to craft an agreement for future maintenance they can both live with, as shown from city documents in 2008 and 2010.

All that most people knew was the plants were dead or dying, it was hot as blazes, and it looked like no one was doing anything. This was partially true.

Dallas was waiting for TxDOT’s “plan B” for native grasses to take shape, but Dallas was not going to water the trees or other plant life in the meantime because, as Councilwoman Linda Koop said, “it is TxDOT’s responsibility. But because of a decrease of revenue at state and city levels, there is less and less money to maintain it.”

According to Haigh, TxDOT’s contractor was supposed to start removal of remaining material in the median in September 2010, but did not actually begin until late October. A six-week delay by the city formalizing the contract with TxDOT contributed to the slow timing. That fall, TxDOT stopped watering the bridges because a replacement plan had been agreed upon and it did not want to waste more money watering plants that were coming out anyway.

“If (the contractor) would have finished installation of the new plants last spring, we would have been paying the contractor to maintain the plants throughout this past summer. Since he didn’t, the installation will be completed this fall and we’ll turn it over to the city during the dormant season,” which is early 2012.

He said no tax-payer dollars will pay to replace plants that do not survive the initial planting. That is all on the contractor’s tab per their agreement with the state. New ones will replace the dead starters over time.

Haigh also said once the median is finished, action will commence on bridge and terrace removals. He said he expects the bridge removals to start sometime later this month and that “large disincentives” to the tune of $5,000 per day kick in if the new plants aren’t on the bridges by the end of April 2012.

“This was – and continues to be – an experiment to provide plant material in the middle of a concrete corridor running down the middle of Dallas. We are making changes to make it sustainable,” Haigh said.

What is going in?

In the median, they are planting Muhly grass, Mexican Feather Grass, Purple Threeawn, Little Bluestem, Sideoats Grama (the state grass) and Blue Grama, as well as some broadleaf ornamentals such as abelia, autumn sage and primrose jasmine. The soil composition will change to two parts clay and one part chemically-treated compost to improve moisture retention. The old irrigation system has been removed with no plans to put in a new one.

In the bridges and terraces, TxDOT will use those same grasses and shrubs as in the median but no trees and no irrigation systems.

The window box plants have already come out but nothing will replace them. According to the 2010 briefing to the Transportation and Environment Committee, TxDOT would only replant the boxes if the city agreed to irrigate them. Dallas declined.

Meanwhile, trees have had to fend for themselves. The Cyprus trees in particular have varied in their survival. How can a green one stand next to a brownish one when they use the same soil?

“Genetics,” replied Haigh. “Some just manage better than others.”

But Steve Houser, certified arborist and founder of the Dallas Urban Forestry Advisory Committee, is puzzled and irritated. He believes no effort was made by either government entity to preserve the investment in what he considers a significant component of our society’s physical and mental well-being.

“Trees have a huge effect on the cleanliness of our air, an impact on bug and small animal life and, because of their aesthetics, an influence on our mental health,” he said.

What, if anything, can citizens do to partner with government to maintain the plants in what is becoming Round 2 of The Great Central Landscaping Experiment? That depends on whom you talk to.

“Our preference is for municipalities to be the ones who work with citizen groups,” Haigh said. He cites successful projects in Las Colinas and Plano as proof.

“It is a TxDOT right of way. Just because Dallas has a maintenance agreement with them doesn’t mean we can sub-contract to outside groups because of liability issues,” said Erica Ferron, coordinator of contract compliance for Dallas street services, which will be the city entity responsible for maintaining the plants once their contract begins in early 2012.

Councilwoman Koop said, though, that she thought it “would be great if some private groups, businesses and individuals would join in” in an adopt-a-bridge program of some sort. Last year, the City of Dallas passed a budget for fiscal year 2011 that included a one cent per evaluation property tax increase to create the funding to maintain all right of ways in the city, including Central.

But fear of getting sued is exactly what has prevented what Lakewood resident and attorney Michael O’Brian calls “common sense, simple solutions.”

“I have seen the city refuse simple solutions because they are so afraid of liability. If citizens are willing to step forward to do it, why not let them do it? Together, they (TxDOT and Dallas) ought to authorize some public participation. Why can’t we solve this problem?” he asked.

For at least five of the bridges along the corridor, that problem has been solved, according to Gerry Bradley, Director of Parks for University Park.

UP City officials approved a plan in their Sept. 20 council meeting to assume maintenance of the bridges abutting their city boundary. This includes the Mockingbird, University, Lovers, Southwestern and Caruth Haven bridges.

Once their contract is finalized, Bradley says UP hopes to begin planting new trees and shrubs in early winter of this year and be finished by May 2012. According to their agreement, TxDOT will finance a new irrigation system per UP’s request, which UP will maintain. TxDOT does not plan to put in more trees on any of the other bridges, but because UP will maintain them, TxDOT agreed to the city’s request to have some.

Individual citizens like O’Brian have also expressed a desire to adopt a bridge. SMU grad Chris Boyd lives in the M Streets and crosses the Monticello overpass many times a day.

“It seems to me that we (neighborhood groups) can get together with nearby merchants and get it taken care of. I want there to be an effort from citizens to have a hand improving the look of where we live,” he said.

Dave Retzsch, who originally helped form the landscape plan for the entire US 75 corridor to LBJ back in the early 90s, stated this kind of cross-pollination of care is critical to long-term sustainability.

In a 2007 online article for McGraw Hill Construction, he states: “What will be the difference between cities, counties and suburbs that dream about change and those that actually achieve it?

For many, it will be the formation of public-private partnerships in which the government and private sectors unite their expertise and resources to share the costs, risks, and advantages of developing projects.”

How government chooses to handle this project moving forward will be a test of that theory.

About the author

Ms. Higginbotham writes for the White Rock Weekly.

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