Back in the late 1920s, when plans were initiated to make White Rock Lake a city park, debate raged over what kind of development should be allowed there. Should the city indulge the masses with a “Coney Island-style” attraction? Or should it appease the wealthy homeowners around the lake with more civilized pleasures, such as golf and croquet?

Fast forward 60 years later to the 1980s. The early debate over quality of life at White Rock appeared to have been for naught. Area crime was pervasive. Traffic problems were rampant. People were scared to even visit the lake.

Fast forward to today, and our neighborhood’s most precious natural resource is once again in the city spotlight. A recent city Parks and Recreation Department study identified $42 million worth of improvements and renovations for White Rock. The idea, plan proponents say, is to bring back the glory of the lake’s heyday: 1936-1942.

“Our long-range plan for the whole parks system is a 10- to 20-year plan,” says Philip Neeley, a senior landscape architect with Carter and Burgess, a research firm hired three times in the last 15 years in conjunction with projects at White Rock. “And White Rock will be a major component in that plan for the whole 10-20 years. Almost every year, there will be a project going on at White Rock.

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Adds Willis Winters, a Parks Department spokesman whose jurisdiction includes master plan activity: “Everyone wants to see White Rock Lake be improved and be a better place.”

Not so fast. While everyone may want the lake to be a “better place,” who defines “better” in this case?

“When I hear the city of Dallas and I hear the word ‘development,’ I always get a little bit nervous,” says Tom Cook, an attorney who lives near the Bath House Cultural Center on the lake’s northeast side.

“They tend to take a germ of something that’s really great, and all the sudden they say: ‘We’re going to do this the Dallas way,’ and they overdo it.”

Will this be a case of history repeating itself?

1936-1942: Eight years that have been called the golden days of White Rock Lake Park.

“That is really the era that White Rock came into its own,” Neeley says. “It was one of the most significant parks of that era in the southern United States.”

During that time, White Rock was much more than the outdoors Mecca it is today. In addition to having Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration (two of Roosevelt’s New Deal projects) programs housed there, the lake was an entertainment destination. There was a floating dance hall in the middle of the lake, and families often camped through the weekend at White Rock while children swam in its waters. Perhaps its biggest draw was the Texas & Pacific Club, built in the early ‘20s. According to a letter written in 1941 by T&P Club secretary Carl Morin:

“The Club House…has a spacious porch overlooking the lake. It has a lobby or lounge, ballroom, card room, pool room (with three pool tables), and kitchen. It is surrounded by well-kept grounds, equipped with tennis, croquet and badminton courts lighted for night playing, swings and see-saws for the children, and a boat pier and boats, which make outdoor parties or fishing highly enjoyable.”

The park was more than a neighborhood amenity back then; it was a tourist destination. Is this what the city has in mind for the future, or are the proposed improvements more in line with trail construction and building upgrades, important items not necessarily designed to attract thousands of new park users?

Cook is familiar with many of the city’s proposed improvements, and he believes they do “sound like actual improvements.”

“I think if it’s done well and properly maintained, it can be the kind of resource they envision,” he says.

But he’s wary of anything that would draw significantly more visitors to White Rock.

“I’m in favor of not trying to make the park a destination. That would take a lot of maintenance, a major commitment of resources.”

But it might already be too late to turn that tide.

“There’s no doubt that there will be an increase in user activity,” says Neeley of the area’s future, adding: “White Rock is about more than just green space and a place to recreate. It’s about history.”

While the money doesn’t yet exist to fund the proposed plans, Neeley and Winters say multiple bond packages and a conservancy set up by those groups already involved with the lake could set the ball rolling. Some of the planned projects include:

  • Trail construction, maintenance and extensions;
  • Constructing pedestrian gateways that will allow neighborhood users to enter White Rock without having to cross dangerous veloways or intersections, and also will reflect the architectural character of surrounding homes and properties;
  • Rebuilding and restoring bridges;
  • Installing exhibits and signage that will act as an interpretive history of White Rock Lake.

“With the exception of Fair Park,” says Winters, a Lakewood resident, White Rock is already “probably the top most utilized park in the Dallas parks system.”

Those charged with shaping the lake’s future like to compare it to the Central Parks and Golden Gate Parks of the nation. Though no projections have been made for how much user activity will increase, hopes are high that it will be the “crown jewel” of the Dallas urban parks system, a phrase often repeated among those involved in its planning.

All this talk of improvements and increased usage has Gary Olp, an architect who works and lives near the lake, worried.

“As neighbors surrounding the lake, we care for its facilities, we clean it up, we pick up the trash,” he says. “All these people already coming in…do they volunteer for Saturday morning pickups? No.

“I think if we open up this park, the more we improve it and the easier we make access for people to drive in, the park is going to suffer more abuse.”

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Olp and Cook say that parts of White Rock already suffer from neglect and poor management, and they believe these issues should be addressed before other projects are started.

“There are environmentally sensitive areas around the lake that really need to be guarded,” Cook says, citing a bird sanctuary at the southwest end of the lake, near the spillway. “It’s an intermittent wetland, and it’s just an amazing place and an incredible draw for birds of all types. And it’s a little bit under siege already from the development all around it.”

Olp says people need only look at White Rock’s dog park to see how public enthusiasm for an area can translate into problems.

“The dog park has been an incredible success,” he says, “but what’s happened is it has completely ruined that piece of land. That whole area is just mud.”

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While proposed improvements might benefit the city by attracting more people to the park, Olp says, “it’s not a benefit for the plants and animals that live there.”

“Natural systems are already overburdened for other purposes,” he adds, citing erosion control, over-mowing and traffic emissions.

“The more inaccessible you make it, the more those who really enjoy the resource and walk softly on it will continue to enjoy it and preserve it.”

He’d like to see the city take an opposite approach at the lake, fearing the worst from an increase in visitors, especially those from outside the neighborhood.

“They’re going to bring in tons of people who see it from behind their car windows, throw Styrofoam cups out those windows, and pull off onto the grass for a picnic,” he says. “And it’s going to have an adverse effect.”

Not surprisingly, car-related issues – traffic and parking – are at the top of just about everyone’s list of issues that need to be well-managed at White Rock.

“It comes down to cars,” Neeley says matter-of-factly.

Unfortunately, just how many more cars we’re talking about seems to be anybody’s guess. Neeley says most of the increased usage will revolve around specific, planned activities on the weekends. However, Winters says White Rock could also just become “more desirable for a Sunday afternoon drive.”

Whatever the draw, more traffic is a prospect that many residents, particularly those who live near the lake, would like to avoid.

“We already suffer from too much traffic in this neighborhood,” Olp says.

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Resident Margie Haley has lived near the lake for 50 years, and she remembers a time when traffic was so bad that residents were concerned emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to reach them in the event of an accident.

“In 1982 or ’83, the people who live out here, particularly on Lawther Drive, were not able to get out of their driveways because the traffic was so thick,” she says. “Sometimes it would be bumper to bumper to bumper.”

Turning Lawther into a one-way street at one end of the lake helped alleviate those problems, but for Cook and his neighbors who live on Northcliff, races and other large events at White Rock continue to pose a problem.

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“Parking and traffic control for those could probably be managed a little better,” he says. “People are stacked up all over the place. A lot of people have to post signs or put up tape to keep people from parking in their lawns.”

Some areas that already see higher usage – near Tee Pee Hill, the pump house and the nautical clubs – have been or will be candidates for additional parking, Winters says. But, he adds, “I don’t see that we’ll be increasing parking dramatically. Increased parking generates larger activities, and those activities often come into conflict with the neighborhood.”

One possible solution virtually everyone agrees upon is public transit. To that end, many people interviewed for this article agree that improvements need to be made at the White Rock Lake DART station.

“Once you’re off the train, it’s not necessarily visible what you should do if you want to go to White Rock,” says Maria Richards, president of FTLOTL.

“I think the park needs to be working with DART to advertise and make sure signage is working appropriately.”

Richards and others also point out that White Rock’s DART stop is about half a mile from the lake and park itself, a distance many visitors would be unwilling to walk, particularly those with small children. A shuttle system might be the solution.

“If they could have something that was fun, like a trolley that was painted to look like the lake,” Richards says. “You have to make it fun, and something kids would want to get on.”

Susan Falvo of the White Rock Foundation agrees, but says those days are still a long way off.

“It would be wonderful if we got to the point where we had to bus people in or have them take shuttles, but that’s something way in the future. And it’s something we’ll address as it comes up,” she says.

As for parking and traffic becoming a point of contention…

“Could it ever be a problem? Anything could be a problem,” Falvo says. “But, as long as we have groups like the [White Rock] Task Force, we can continue to address these things as they come up. We’re out there more than somebody who’s just using the lake and we’re doing a really, really good job of seeing issues before they become problems.”

That right there is the key to changes at White Rock being welcomed by those in the neighborhood, many residents say.

“It needs to be thought about before it happens,” Cook says. “I definitely would want to make sure there was planning for increases in traffic and some additional parking. And also plans to manage sanitation and that kind of thing.”

Neeley agrees there will have to be careful “physical planning, event planning and program planning” done in conjunction with future events at White Rock. But, he says, residents of the surrounding neighborhoods should see themselves as stewards of the projects – as opposed to adversaries or onlookers – and should actively include themselves in plans for White Rock’s future.

“People from the neighborhood could help think through the problematic areas,” Neeley says. “Of course, there will be struggles or battles, and people will get frustrated. But in the end, it’s the citizens at large who will be the beneficiary.”

Richards agrees: “I see the neighborhood as being the host or hostess of the lake. They can set the tone for all these visitors.”

Whatever the prevailing opinion of improvements at White Rock, Winters asks that all neighborhood residents keep one thing in mind.

“These improvements are going to evolve fairly slowly,” he says. “The funding isn’t there right now, so it’s not like we’re going to come in and drop $40 million overnight and make this the most popular tourist destination in the Southwest. Things will occur naturally and build slowly…there will be no sudden impact. We’ll manage it as it happens and hope it doesn’t get out of hand. I don’t think it will.”

Words that should put many residents’ minds at ease. But Cooks says, all the same, he’d like the Parks Department to keep something in mind about White Rock.

“It’s one of the few natural resources that Dallas has to offer, which is why I live here,” he says. “It’s not my private park. I wish it were, but it belongs to the city and all the people of Dallas. And as such, it’s a great melting pot, a great meeting place and a great place for family activity.

“But,” he says, “it’s OK to leave this area a little bit wild and a little bit free.”