8. Arlington's Natural Wonder
There’s a place you can go in Arlington where you will find solitude in the midst of natural wonders that may cause you, for a little while, to forget that you are surrounded by more than six and a half million people who live in the fastest growing urban area in the country.
The city’s largest and most popular park encompasses the Trinity River forest flood plain and stretches along more than eight miles of paved trails from the eastern edge of the city to its western boundary.
Here you will find the Trinity much different than the way you see it when you drive cross it on the bridges found throughout the expanse of the Dallas – Fort Worth region.
But it wasn’t always possible to experience this treasure trove of wildlife, woodlands, and waterways. Until the late 1980’s Arlington owned only a couple hundred acres of inaccessible North Arlington land along the roadway that is today’s Green Oaks Boulevard. The almost unknown piece of property didn’t come close to reaching the river.
You may not know her name but we were very fortunate indeed to have Donna Brasher as our parks department director thinking beyond the usual budget restrictions in addressing the city’s scarcity of parkland and green spaces.
She had approached some in the community whom she believed might be able to help expand the size of the property so that it at least reached the river and then begin a plan to open it up for public access while protecting the natural environment for all to enjoy.
Without much success in getting anyone sufficiently motivated for a big private fund raising assignment, in 1987 she decided to approach Arlington’s First Lady believing she might be able to get things moving.
At first, Sylvia Greene was reticent. She told Donna that she had little experience in asking people for money. Donna’s response was to the point. “You are the mayor’s wife and you will be surprised how people will react when it’s you sitting across their desks describing how much the community needs their help.”
The River Legacy Foundation was formed as a non-profit corporation, a board of directors assembled, Sylvia was named president and the work to make something special happen was underway.
More and more land was obtained from property owners whom she convinced being a part of a plan to create an extraordinary experience for the community was better than holding on to land in the flood plain.
Next came the fund raising challenge. With a visionary master plan to help people see the possibilities in hand, contributions were obtained from individuals and corporate donors. Large foundations in both Dallas and Fort Worth were inspired to support Arlington’s dream.
State and federal grants for park development as well as wildlife and environmental preservation were committed as the project gained momentum. Arlington voters overwhelmingly approved a bond proposal to create the city’s largest and most unique park project ever envisioned.
In June, 1990, the first phase of River Legacy Park was complete and open to the public. The next phase was already underway and collaborations with area, state and federal partners were growing and producing significant results to ensure it would all become a reality.
Today the park encompasses almost 1400 acres including those eight miles of paved trails along the Trinity, picnic areas, a nature-themed playground and a popular pavilion where meetings, weddings, and events are staged.
Then the crown jewel of the park was imagined. At first the idea was to find a way to build a nature center that would be a place to pick up a trail map and set out to explore the park. Maybe something that could be built with the remaining park bond money that totaled about $500,000. But Sylvia and her supporters had something more in mind. Much more.
They brought in a talented architect experienced in designing the kind of facility they though belonged in the new park where people today and generations to come growing up in the community could learn about the natural world of the forest flood plain they didn’t even know existed. It would be a place where youngsters and adults alike would experience the wonder of discovery.
When that vision was drawn up and presented to the city council, the reaction was both enthusiastic and yet pessimistic at the same time. What a wonderful thing this could be but we don’t have the money was the essence of the response.
Sylvia and her foundation team said, “Fine, we’ll start with the $500,000 in bond funds already committed and increase it ten fold with money from the private sector.”
“Well, if you can do that, it would be great,” was the answer from the collective elected body – all of them doubting that any such thing would ever happen. No such amount of money had been raised for a single project by an Arlington non-profit organization before and there was little belief it would happen for this one.
It took a bunch of 20-hour days stretching over many months of revisiting and sharing the vision with previous donors, recruiting new ones, and a spirit of never giving up but Sylvia’s team was following the inspiration of Margaret Mead.
River Legacy's Award Winning
Living Science Center
“Never doubt,” she famously said, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
That small group of River Legacy Foundation’s thoughtful, committed leaders raised all the money they had promised to the doubting city council who stood in the reflected glory of those citizens on the day in 1996 when the doors to the new and amazing River Legacy Living Science Center were opened to the public.
From that day until now, some 200,000 children have received their natural science and environmental educational curriculum from the Center’s accredited educators and that number is growing by about 14,000 per year.
Every day, area residents can visit the Center and learn about the natural wonders of the park, view exhibits of the habitats of the critters that live in the park and celebrate one of the community’s signature accomplishments.
So, the thing that didn’t happen to make all this possible was that Sylvia Greene didn’t say “no” to Donna Brasher and then spent the next 15 years of her life meeting and exceeding expectations and overcoming the doubts of those who didn’t believe. The result was a $5 million gift to the City from that small group of committed citizens.
The Trinity River crossing reveals unexpected natural wonders among more than 6.5 million people.