As you near the Dallas Zoo’s 67-foot tall bronze giraffe sculpture on 1-35, you will notice new construction spanning the highway. And while North Texans are certainly used to a road project or two, this is more than another overpass. The Southern Gateway Park is designed to bridge the seemingly inescapable North-South divide, bringing green space and economic development to the underserved areas of Oak Cliff and nearby neighborhoods. Due to open in 2022, Southern Gateway Park will sit on an elevated deck, similar to Klyde Warren Park, extending the attraction area near the zoo, and providing neighborhood activity space for local families.
Chairing the $85 million Southern Gateway Park project is Mike Gruber, a Dallas native who grew up with a practical understanding of public green space. “I am the youngest of nine kids and so my mom would always take us to have picnics at the park—it was cheap and everyone could have fun,” Mike says. Even into adulthood Mike was drawn to the outdoors, looking for hiking trails and joining local sports teams. After graduating from SMU’s Dedman School of Law in 1981, Mike and his wife settled in the Desoto/Cedar Hill area south of Dallas to raise their family. As a young lawyer, Mike used his skill set to protect green space, leading the charge for the Cedar Hill Nature Preserve and the Trinity River Audubon Center. In 1990, he joined the Board of Directors for the Dallas Zoo, a role he still holds today. Mike also spent time leading the 2013 Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity flagship project, Dream Dallas, a robust and comprehensive neighborhood investment.
All of Mike’s experience is culminating into Dallas’ second deck park. “This new green space is planned to battle city heat effects, connect existing services into the southern part of the city, and restore a historic community,” Mike explains. What the Southern Gateway Park project seeks to connect, was initially divided in the early 1960s when the Stemmons Freeway was constructed directly through the heart of Oak Cliff, forcing residents, through eminent domain, to sell their homes and watch as swaths of houses were bulldozed to make way for speed and transportation. But 60 years later, there is growing awareness of an economic development strategy which reflects the values of a neighborhood.
The Texas Department of Transportation has come together with the City of Dallas and the Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation to form a collaborative public-private partnership. The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) has committed $9 million to creating transportation access to the new park from other areas of Dallas through bike trails, pedestrian-friendly bridges, and expanded streetcar lines. Mike is convinced that drawing investment to this area is the best vehicle for sustained growth and development. “Infrastructure works. It always works,” Mike says strongly. “Southern Dallas is an inland port with isolated businesses. The Southern Gateway will not just bring destination seekers, but will also serve as a catalyst for new restaurants, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and other job-creating businesses.”
The Southern Gateway team took time to visit other urban parks to see what is working, and what could use improvement as they embark on Dallas’ own design. One feature continued to rise to the top—educational partnership. With six Dallas schools within a mile radius of the Southern Gateway Park, Mike is currently reviewing ideas to incorporate outdoor student learning, from partnership programming with DISD and the Dallas Zoo, to large projection screens and science areas. “It is our goal to champion the area schools and work for their success,” Mike says. Board members are also involved in local neighborhood councils, listening to all the ways the park can serve its closest residents without detracting from their inherent culture.
As the final funding for the five-acre park rolls in and landscape design ramps up, equitable development is the central focus. “Right now we have an incomplete city and the Southern Gateway Park is the next step to draw development into the area between I-35 and I-45,” Mike says. The capital campaign for the park will continue for the next year and a half, at which the shovel-ready deck will be turned over to park designers, tasked with creating a park that will make Dallas, and Oak Cliff, proud. Together, the city, schools, neighborhood leaders, and businesses are making it possible for families in southern Dallas to gather for more than just a picnic.
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