• Harwood Park is located at the transition point from the high-rises of downtown to low- and mid-rise development that is largely residential. - photo by CJ Gershon

In a time and place where the paving over of green is the norm—and celebrated as progress, development, and growth—we rarely see paved sites returning to a green state or communal use. Yet despite this, 3.8 acres on the east side of downtown Dallas have made this improbable transition. 

In recent years, urban Dallasites have grown accustomed to new significant downtown parks being delivered every few years, with Pacific Plaza Park completed in 2019, West End Park in 2021, Carpenter Park in 2022, and finally (in the literal sense of the word) Harwood Park, which opened to the public in September 2023. While we can mourn that this pace of park delivery will no longer continue, we can also stop to appreciate what a massive investment and change these parks have brought about in a short amount of time. Formerly known as Parks for Downtown Dallas, the Downtown Dallas Parks Conservancy has led the development of the parks and spoiled us over the last decade, making this improbable land-use transition feel commonplace in the urban core. 

Harwood Park is the final piece in the realization of the Downtown Dallas Parks Master Plan—created in 2004 and updated in 2013, both by Hargreaves Jones, who also designed Carpenter Park. All of the five priority parks identified in the master plan have different contexts, but Harwood Park is unique in that it is located near the greatest concentration of residential development in the downtown area. This being the case, instead of serving as a lunchtime escape or setting for a quick break for downtown office workers, this park has been created for residents and families. 

Austin-based Christine Ten Eyck of Ten Eyck Landscape Architects served as the park’s lead designer. Her Dallas roots made the project especially personal for her. She was born in Dallas, and her parents and many other family members still live there. Her grandfather attended the old Dallas High School, which is located a few blocks away. Ten Eyck tells of the uniqueness of Harwood Park’s situation in downtown: The other parks are “too in the middle of it” to have broader views of the larger downtown context, whereas Harwood Park, by virtue of its location in the Harwood Historic District and some low-rise buildings nearby, provides sweeping views of much of downtown and the surrounding district. She says that “it has the feeling of old Dallas around it,” due to the somewhat rare (for Dallas) concentration of older buildings near the park. It was this uniqueness of context and purpose that formed the foundation as the design team began work. 

As with any undertaking of this magnitude, things take time. In 2014, Parks for Downtown Dallas began what would be a three-year process to acquire the land for Harwood Park. The first conceptual designs occurred in 2015, but there were many fits and starts over the subsequent years. Plans for the D2 light rail line by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) put things on hold as different alignments were explored. (At one point, the new rail line was supposed to run down Jackson Street, leading to sound-mitigating elements being incorporated into those earlier designs. Eventually, DART abandoned the D2 project.) As design work on the park was ramping back up right before the pandemic, a planned community meeting had to be canceled after the lockdown began. Instead, online surveys were sent out to the nearby residents, with the number one request being a large open lawn. 

While Dallas is often a place where physical manifestations of its history are summarily disregarded, the past does offer clues and precedents for those willing to “dig” (metaphorically or physically)to see what was there that can be resurfaced or built upon. In their exploration of the site’s history, the landscape architects went beyond what may typically fulfill a “nod to history”—for example, revealing or reimagining footprints of past buildings. They went all the way back 12,000 years to when Columbian mammoths roamed the plains of North Texas, choosing this creature to form a sculptural and play landmark. Tracing the site’s past back toward the present, they also highlighted its former lives as a tributary of the Trinity River, an early settlers’ neighborhood, a center for the local automobile industry then the film industry, and now as a burgeoning hub due to its proximity to the residential concentration around both the Dallas Farmers Market and the recently redeveloped East Quarter. 

Along with this general historical background, there were a few on-site physical features that helped inform the park’s planning: two historic buildings that were preserved within the park’s bounds, and the former alignment of Wood Street that bisected the site with the Mill Creek Drainage Relief Tunnel under the park. This old street alignment became the park’s main circulation spine as well as the point to which all water drains, recalling the Trinity River Watershed and Mill Creek. The paved promenade surrounds a bioswale planted with hearty native plants drawn from the type of vegetation that would have grown around the old tributary. The main lawn, play mammoths, sports court, dog parks, splash pad, and gravel courtyard are all accessed from this spine.

The most iconic element of the park is the pair of steel mammoths that form the play structures. Wrapped in perforated sheet metal and internally illuminated at night, these “ghost mammoths,” as Ten Eyck calls them, are transparent and climbable reminders of the Dallas area’s former fauna. Yet one can’t help but wonder if they are also a reference to the city’s constantly grandiose, dare we say “mammoth”-sized, ambitions. In the play area, the mammoths are accompanied by two banks of “all ability” swings. Adjacent to the playground is the interactive water feature, which, after a few months, had to be ripped out and repoured due to some large cracks and grading busts. The new pad includes an extra tree and more vegetation. 

The remainder of Harwood Park’s southern edge contains the dog parks, sports court, and park administration building with restrooms and a community room. The large lawn forms the core of the park on the promenade’s north side. 

The other unique structure in the park is the Gold Ring Pavilion, a steel structure topped with rings salvaged from the Dallas Bone Yard. The rings originally adorned the nearby Statler Hotel’s former parking garage, which was demolished sixteen years ago. (On a semirelated note, that parking garage’s demo “paved” the way for the current Main Street Garden.) Much has been made of the rings’ use, perhaps because it is another direct callback to something historic and unique (although it was quite an ordinary garage, save for the gold rings). Yet, it is all too fitting that the history being preserved is related to vehicles and parking. Leave it to Dallas to be sentimental about a parking garage. Perhaps gold rings should be installed on buildings housing services for the homeless, or on new workforce housing, in order to increase the stature of those kinds of developments in the eyes of Dallasites. 

Nonetheless the Gold Ring Pavilion is a handsome addition to the park; however, currently, its function beyond indicating a space for performances is limited. Since the rings are mostly open, no meaningful shade is provided. A perforated metal layer above the rings was considered, but it was ultimately omitted due to budgetary constraints. Ten Eyck notes this may be added in at a later date. 

The provision of shade is no small consideration for a park in any location in Texas. And while the framework is indeed there for the trees and other plantings to mature, Ten Eyck notes that landscape architects “have to be so dang patient before their parks get realized with the growth.” Acknowledging the minimal shade provided by Harwood Park’s trees in their current, fledgling state, she says, “Once the trees take, they’ll provide shade, and create rooms within the park.” To see an example of this, one only has to look at Klyde Warren Park, which opened in 2011 and now boasts an extremely pleasant canopy of large trees that provide much-welcome shade and serve to define space and buffer the interior of the park. 

As a nearby resident, this author has walked to Harwood Park many times since its opening and always finds it being utilized, especially the play structures, sports court, and the great lawn—where you can typically find people sitting on a picnic blanket or playing catch. Small performances also occur on the lawn occasionally, but large performances are not planned for this park, due to its residential adjacency and the desire to keep it open and available for residents. 

As with all the downtown parks delivered prior, the many people using this new public space since its opening attest to the need for and value of amenities such as this in the urban core. The Downtown Dallas Parks Conservancy and their top-tier landscape architect partners have done well in ensuring each park has its own character and distinct relationship to its unique context. Harwood Park is no exception—it seems at home amidst its surroundings, like it should have always been there. Its addition makes downtown Dallas a bit more pleasant and hospitable for those of us who chose to live in the middle of this sprawling, auto-dominated metropolis.  

Andrew Barnes, AIA, is the founder of Agent Architecture in Dallas.

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