When Lee Kleinman first served on the Dallas Park Board in 2008, he found the City already had a map that planned hundreds of miles of trails.
“That was an epiphany for me,” Kleinman says.
An experienced cyclist, he was familiar with the city’s few and unconnected trails at the time. The Katy Trail opened in 2000, and the White Rock Creek Trail is one of the oldest in town. But that was about it.
He knew there was an Oncor easement running the length of his neighborhood.
“There was a lot of talk about a lack of green space in North Dallas, yet you had this potential asset just sitting there,” he says. “Nine miles of linear park.”
The Northaven Trail will one day connect all the way to the Trinity River and Fort Worth, and by this time next year, it will cross over Central Expressway to Lake Highlands.
Kleinman had a good idea but no funding for the Northaven Trail, so he started an advocacy group, the Friends of the Northaven Trail, modeled after similar groups for the Katy and Preston Ridge trails. It turned out there was some 2006 bond money earmarked for sidewalks on Royal Lane between Central and Hillcrest, but neighbors there didn’t want sidewalks.
Then came another epiphany: Sometimes public funds can be “reprogrammed” at City Hall to pay for similar amenities.
With an initial investment of about $2 million from that 2006 bond money, construction started on the Northaven Trail in 2009. The original section was 2 miles from Valleydale Drive to Preston Road.
Now it spans 9 miles, from Central Expressway to near Denton Drive.
Its crowning achievement is under construction, a signature bridge across Central that will connect five trails: Northaven, Cottonwood Creek, Preston Ridge, White Rock Creek and the Central Trail in Richardson.
On the western end, an expansion is planned to the Trinity River levee trails, which already connect to Irving’s Campion Trail. So one day, it will be possible to ride a bike from White Rock Lake to Fort Worth entirely on a trail system.
Nicknamed “the low five” because of those five connections and its proximity to Dallas’ “high five” expressway exchange, the bridge is expected to be complete early next year.
It didn’t happen overnight.
Arriving at this destination required wrangling the City, Dallas County, Oncor, Atmos Energy, the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Texas Council of Governments.
“Just think of the bureaucracy that you have to get through to get this done,” says Jeff Kitner, who is president of the Friends of the Northaven Trail. “But we were consistent. We were convinced this was going to happen, so we found the money, and we have an excellent board of advocates.”
Here’s how the Friends of the Northaven Trail got it done.
GREASING THE WHEELS
Anh Vo, the owner of Cindi’s NY Deli, allowed Friends of the Northaven Trail to use a side room at the Royal Lane location for its meetings. Kleinman, who served on City Council from 2012-2020, invited everyone he could think of and had a good turnout for the trail friends’ first meeting. His wife, Dr. Lisa Umholtz, joined the board and later originated some of the signature events, such as outdoor movies and “light up the trail.” Any time neighbors complained about plans for the trail, Kleinman would ask them to join the board, and he wound up winning several people over that way, he says.
When the original 2 miles went out for bids in 2009, the economy was in a slump. Kleinman asked city staff members to list every desired amenity they could think of — drinking fountains, stone benches, landscaping and lighting — in the request for proposal, “just to see what we could get,” Kleinman says. The project received about 14 bids, and the winner agreed to everything they requested.
“Because they were hungry. The economy was slow, and they needed work,” Kleinman says. “I had to live that down at Council for a while, because it was, ‘Oh, why does North Dallas get everything?’”
That was a stroke of luck, but it set a higher standard for trails in Dallas, he says.
“Changing that mentality … for what a trail could be, and that it’s so much more than just a ribbon of concrete, was a big deal,” he says.
O.P.M. (other people’s money)
Kleinman stole this phrase from Errol McKoy, former president of the State Fair of Texas, and he’s employed it throughout the development of the Northaven Trail.
Koop and former City Council member Ann Margolin had the idea to ask Dallas County for trail money, Kleinman says. County Commissioner Maureen Dickey helped them get a match for city bond funds to build more sections of the trail.
“I’ve since heard Dallas County refer to our city bond funds as O.P.M.,” Kleinman says.
The signature bridge and related projects, costing around $20 million, are being funded mostly by the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Texas Council of Governments.
KNOWING THEIR AUDIENCE
Kitner, a former lawyer, served as Kleinman’s park board commissioner for most of his eight years as a council member. Kitner has frequently employed his powers of persuasion on governmental bodies.
“If you’re talking to the council of governments, then it’s an alternative transportation project,” Kleinman says. “We’re trying to take cars off the streets and take walkers out of the streets, because a lot of places in North Dallas don’t have sidewalks.”
For city and county audiences, the points were more about quality of life, he says.
NAVIGATING RED TAPE
In guiding these projects through bureaucracy, Kleinman kept running into “forward and forget it,” where unreturned emails were stalling progress. So as a councilman, he started having meetings, the Northaven Trail Task Force, that brought everyone from all agencies involved into the same room together once a month for three or four years.
“There were a few times that people like me were pounding their fists on the table going, ‘We need answers on this,’” he says.
Kleinman’s term limit set an artificial deadline for projects, he says.
“I can’t sit on this Council for eight years talking about this bridge and not have it started yet,” he says. “And staff responded pretty positively to that.”
MINISTRY OF HAPPINESS
Kitner and Kleinman have taken to referring to their work as part of “the ministry of happiness,” and they’ve even had buttons made.
That’s the concept that parks, libraries and cultural facilities are the three things in a city’s budget whose purpose is to make people happy.
“Unfortunately, when times are tough, those are the departments that are cut pretty quickly, and those are the departments that when times are tough are doing more for the actual residents,” Kleinman says.
User counts shot up at the start of the pandemic. About 30,000 people stepped onto the Northaven Trail in June 2020, for example.
Trails are expensive to build, costing about $1 million per mile, but they require little maintenance and no staffing or building costs beyond that.
“The dollars per contact is way low compared to a recreation center,” Kleinman says.
The cable-span bridge now under construction crosses all eight lanes of Central and requires no pylons through the center. Engineering and construction are extra challenging because the bridge isn’t perfectly straight. It had to be curved slightly between its endpoints. The project also includes a second bridge over White Rock Creek on the east side.
The state highway department had to buy some of the land for the project, and Friends of the Northaven Trail wound up paying about $2,000 to cover property taxes that came due before the deal closed.
A quarter-mile bike lane connecting Valleydale to the bridge on the West side has been completed, but that also took a lot of negotiating with neighbors, who won new sidewalks in the deal.
The bike lanes will approach a gently sloping roundabout up to the bridge, designed so that it’s not too difficult a climb.
“It’s going to be so beautiful and cool when it’s done,” Kleinman says of the bridge.
What’s left for a rockstar neighborhood advocacy group once all their dreams come true? Friends of the Northaven Trail will continue to raise money and partner with churches and businesses for trail enhancements. And eventually, there’s the connection across Harry Hines to the Trinity River.
They also advocate for trail connections throughout the city.
But their next project is a push for the reconstruction of the White Rock Creek Trail, which has its own friends group.
Friends of the Northaven Trail is an example for other friends groups, often lending knowledge of how to navigate the system. Last year, they invited all of the trail friends groups in Dallas to lunch at Rodeo Goat on the Trinity Strand Trail to share ideas.
“We have a great trail system, but it’s disconnected,” Kitner says. “If we can make these small connections, we become a more pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly city.”