Bridging the divide: Southern Gateway Park
begins construction in Dallas, decking across I-35E
Slated to open in 2025, Dallas’ newest cap park “makes ground” – stitching together the community of Oak Cliff, torn apart by highway construction in the ‘50s
November 8th, 2023 — After years of design, planning, and extensive public engagement, Southern Gateway Park officially entered construction this week.
Constructed on a deck spanning I-35E in Southern Dallas between Ewing and Marsalis Avenues adjacent to the Dallas Zoo, Phase I of the park will introduce 2.8 acres of open space. It will also reconnect the neighborhood of Oak Cliff, an historically Black community bisected by highway construction in the 1950s, growing to an overall 5 acres with Phase II. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) completed the bridge and related infrastructure earlier this year, paving the way for construction of the park’s first phase to begin this week.
Designed collaboratively by a Dallas-based team of HKS (as prime), SWA, and Pacheco Koch, the park is a public-private project with the City of Dallas and the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation, with support from the North Central Texas Council of Governments and TxDOT. The park’s construction is led through a joint venture between McCarthy and EJ Smith Construction.
“This generational project will lead to increased greenspace, significant economic development, and safer, healthier places for people to live and play,” said April Allen, President and COO of the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation. “But on a personal level, one reason this project is so important to me is that I want to show the people in this community – my community – that they matter, that they are worth hundreds of millions of dollars of investment.”
Reflecting the community’s desire to capture the history, culture, art, and landscapes of Oak Cliff, sculptural landforms across the park reveal an eroded “escarpment” that echoes the unique topography of the surrounding neighborhood. The park features diverse amenities including playgrounds, a pavilion incorporating restaurant and retail options, flexible spaces for gathering and performances, educational nodes, historical and cultural interpretative features, intimate meditative gardens, and more.
Running north-to-south, 12th Street Promenade will be the park’s central pedestrian crossing. Informed by the Texas Trees Foundation’s 2017 Urban Heat Management Study, the park will also feature shade trees, fountains, and other cooling infrastructure that will help mitigate urban heat island effect in the surrounding area.
“What I hope historians will say is that this moment in time turned out to be the turning point in how we viewed and treated the Southern part of the city,” said Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. “This marks the moment we stopped talking about investing in Southern Dallas and actually did it.”
Social and environmental equity is a driving principle of the park’s development. In 2017, the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation established an Equitable Development Plan Task Force, underwritten by the W.W. Caruth, Jr. Fund of the Communities Foundation of Texas. Led by Dr. Lorin Carter of C-Suite Consulting, the team engaged over 500 community members, leaders, businesses, organizations, and educational institutions, as well as private and nonprofit partners, to help guide the park’s approach to equitable neighborhood development.
“At its core, Southern Gateway Park is about righting a wrong from the 1950s, converting a freeway that tore apart the community of Oak Cliff into a physical bridge that helps reunite it,” said Chuck McDaniel, Managing Principal of SWA’s Dallas studio. “We are thrilled to celebrate this benchmark alongside the community and many stakeholders who propelled the vision forward over all these years.”
Phase I of Southern Gateway Park covers the span of I-35E between Ewing and Lancaster Avenues. Phase II covers the span between Lancaster and Marsalis Avenues. An initial analysis estimates the first phase alone could generate over two million park visitors per year and more than $1 billion in economic impact within the first five years. Together with the adjacent Dallas Zoo’s Master Plan, the collective capital investment will exceed $300 million – the largest investment in Southern Dallas’ history.
Oak Cliff: a thriving, diverse community torn apart by highway construction
Named for Texas’ native trees and green cliffs, Oak Cliff is located directly south of Downtown Dallas, bordered by the Trinity River. Tenth Street Historic District, in East Oak Cliff, is one of Dallas’ oldest neighborhoods. It is also central to the history of African American culture and life in the city as one of its first Freedmen’s towns established after the Civil War. At its peak, Jefferson Boulevard, Oak Cliff’s main street, was a thriving retail corridor second only to Downtown.
In the 1950s, I-35E was built directly through the center of Oak Cliff, demolishing homes and businesses, severing connections between residents, and shattering its economic prosperity. In following years, lack of capital investment and adequate services contributed to generational poverty, social isolation, environmental injustice, and economic despair for much of Southern Dallas. Over six decades later, the adjacent census tracts are among the poorest in the country. With the introduction of Southern Gateway Park, Southern Dallas has the opportunity to knit historic Oak Cliff back together and to create a physical connection and public space that drives equitable community revitalization and economic mobility.