For the most part, Lake Highlands residents seem ready to welcome a DART light rail station at Walnut Hill and White Rock Trail. Where they don’t agree is how to access the station.
Getting to the trains from the Lake Highlands Town Center has been part of the plans since the project was announced more than two years ago as a “transit-oriented development”. The assumption is that many people who live in the residential portion of the mixed-use development will use the station to travel to other locations along DART rail lines.
It’s the question of pedestrian, vehicle and bicycle access to the station from the neighborhood — not just from the Town Center — that is causing a kerfuffle, especially among neighbors who live right across White Rock Trail from the station in Lake Highlands North.
Part of developer Prescott Realty Group’s plans for the project include a Lake Highlands Town Center Trail that will run from the south end of the project along the creek and connect to Whistle Stop Place, the road that leads to the “kiss and ride” drop-off point for the station.
This wouldn’t be just a standalone trail, says Michael Hellmann, the city’s park planning and acquisitions manager, but instead would “connect into the citywide trail network. One of the priorities is to connect into as much mass transit and DART stations as possible so that trails can be considered a transit opportunity rather than just recreation.”
The original master plan for the trail system showed a trail following the creek all the way up to Church Road, Hellmann says, but with the more recent addition of the light rail station, “it’s so much more cost-effective, as well as a better trail route, to connect through the station and on up to Lake Highlands North Park as a wide sidewalk along the road [White Rock Trail].”
The plan, he says, was for the southern end of the Town Center trail to connect to the White Rock Greenbelt Trail, while the northern end would allow pedestrians and cyclists access through the station and continue on the other side with a trail leading up to Lake Highlands North Park. But a group of neighbors rallying behind the slogan “Save White Rock Trail” don’t like this idea for various reasons, including potential traffic and parking clogging the two-lane road, and the possibility of increased crime because of rail riders’ and trail users’ easier access to homes.
In July, a private school which is located in the Lake Highlands North neighborhood, White Rock North School on White Rock Trail, purchased the parcel of land that DART had planned to use as an access point. The move effectively ended DART’s bid for an east-side trail connection, says DART spokesman Morgan Lyons.
“An east-side connection to the trail is no longer part of the station bid documents,” Lyons says. “However, we are planning to make improvements to our right of way to give us the future option of connecting to the city’s future hike and bike trail.”
A committee of Lake Highlands North residents who oppose a trail running along the road suggested to DART that a better option would be allowing pedestrian and bicycle access from Walnut Hill, perhaps from the sidewalk east of the bridge that arches over the Lake Highlands Town Center property. Lake Highlands DART Station project engineer David Ehrlicher says DART is looking at how pedestrians and cyclists could get from that point down to the trail.
One concern would be drivers stopping to drop people off along Walnut Hill. Ehrlicher says DART wants to “make sure we don’t encourage bad behavior” on such a busy street. Issues also exist with the property just north and south of Walnut Hill, where the access point could feasibly be placed — the city owns property on one side, and the other side belongs to a private property owner. But Ehrlicher says DART hopes to figure out the logistics of a Walnut Hill access point soon.
Another way to mitigate concerns about trail users and rail riders parking along White Rock Trail is for DART and Prescott Realty to provide parking on the west side of the station, Ehrlicher says. One of the reasons plans went forward with a “kiss and ride” model at the Lake Highlands station instead of DART’s more common “park and ride” is because parking lots at the closest stations — LBJ to the north and White Rock to the south — are used only at half to 65 percent capacity. But DART has space in a right-of-way west of the station for roughly 30 to 50 spots, Ehrlicher says, and if usage shows a demand for more parking than that, “we could talk to Prescott about shared parking in their final stages of development.” Prescott has plans for a parking structure on the north end of its project that could expand if this need arises.
Bottom line, Ehrlicher says: “Access is good — let’s just figure out what the safest, most convenient places for that access is.” The solution might end up being all of the above, rather than either-or, he says.
Park planner Michael Hellman says he understands neighbors’ concerns about crime, traffic and parking. The city will consider how to accommodate those concerns without leaving a gap in the trail system, he says.
“The greater good is to make a connection to the whole system and try to address concerns as best we can and minimize the impact.” Concerns about crime have arisen with other proposed trail projects, but because the city’s trail system is so heavily used, it creates a “user-based crime watch,” Hellmann says.
“Most people who use trails are the kind of folks who use cell phones and report stuff,” he says. “We haven’t had a problem with people using trails as escape routes for robbing houses.”
Plus, Hellmann says, fears about parking usually don’t materialize because “the whole point of trails is that you aren’t driving.” So far, the city hasn’t noticed lots of people parking along streets to use trails, he says, and White Rock Trail in particular is a road that “right now, really isn’t conducive to parking on the shoulder. People don’t want to park their cars along a street like that to get on a trail, [and] people aren’t going to drive to this trail — they will access it from the Katy Trail or the White Rock Greenbelt Trail.”
If neighbors are concerned about parking issues, the city has options such as “residential parking only” signs and stickers. However, Hellmann says, “we don’t usually hear complaints after a trail has been built. We get more complaints that there aren’t as many amenities as they would like.”
As of now, the trail segments that would connect the Lake Highlands Town Center Trail to Lake Highlands North Park on the north and the White Rock Greenbelt Trail on the south are not funded, Hellmann says. But he is optomistic. Hellmann says of the links to the Town Center, “I don’t think it’s a matter of if — it’s a matter of when.”