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Video/Special Report: The New Trinity River Audubon Center

by Jerome Weeks 10 Oct 2008 5:24 AM

The Trinity River Forest in South Dallas is the largest bottomland, hardwood forest in any American city. Now it has a stunning new Audubon center to go with it.

Trinity River Audubon Center Photo: Sean Fitzgerald / TRAC

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Cicadas drone, and a crow calls from the distant trees. A white egret, with stately care, steps into the pond.

It’s hard to believe we’re in Dallas. Yet we’re closer to downtown Dallas than the Galleria is. This is the new Trinity River Audubon Center, which opens Oct. 17 with an official ribbon-cutting. The $14 million center stands near Loop 12 at I-45. Even so, it’s part of the Trinity River Forest, the largest bottomland hardwood forest in any American city.

Anne Brown is executive director of Audubon Texas, the state office of the National Audubon Society. Dallas partnered with the group to build the center, which will be Audubon’s state headquarters. It is also one small piece of the city’s very ambitious, $2 billion plan to link together parks and wetlands and the 2,000-acre Trinity River Forest for the Trinity River Corridor.

BROWN: “One of the things that was key for us was we’re really trying to re-connect urban audiences to nature. So to have a 120-acre site six minutes out of downtown Dallas was a pretty motivating factor.”

Location was key. The building had to be in the forest and near the river. Both had to be accessible to hikers, including the handicapped. But the building couldn’t be in the flood plain.

In the end, architect Antoine Predock chose what had been an illegal dump — not far from several auto salvage yards and used car lots along Loop 12. The landfill was reclaimed. A connected series of wetland ponds was dug. Prairie grasses and bottomland plants were brought in. The animals – birds, turtles, raccoons – have returned on their own. (Native fish, on the other hand, have been stocked.)

BROWN: “Antoine Predock did a pretty amazing job siting the building, not only for the flood issue but also how it sort of fits in and hugs to the site.”

Dallasites should know Predock’s distinctive work. Winner of the Gold Medal, the highest prize from the American Institute of Architects, Predock designed the Rose family’s remarkable home on Turtle Creek. (See a photo album of the home and its Pump House here.)

Audubon Center, under construction, aerial view

With the Audubon center, Predock has designed a building that, from above, looks like a bird. The bird’s body contains the offices, gift shop and café. One wing is devoted to multi-purpose classrooms (it’s clad with cypress planks); the other wing is full of nature exhibits (it’s partly clad with Cor-Ten steel). All of these airy, open rooms are walled on at least one side with glass – the better to see the surrounding woodlands.

BROWN: “This is our exhibit space. Here, we’ve tried to, like we have everywhere else in the building, tried to turn people outside again. We tried to take as much of the building and face it outwards.”

The Great Hall

The building is also notable for its environmentally friendly, sustainable design. It is the first “green” or LEED-certified building put up by the City of Dallas Park and Recreation (LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a rating system developed by the United States Green Building Council). Features include: Rainwater is collected for irrigation. Outside of the initial watering to start them when they were planted, the native grasses and other plants around the center will be watered only through stored rain. The landscaping is xeriscapic. The administration wing has a “green” or “living” roof — it’s planted with grasses. The acoustical ceiling tiles (in the shape of giant feathers) are made from recycled jeans. The siding is made from renewable, harvested cypress wood. The boardwalk paths are made with Trex decking. Even the glass walls are angled in such a way as to deter birds from crashing into them.

For her part, Brown believes deeply in the Audubon’s mission of nature centers in urban areas – and not just to benefit the ecosystem.

BROWN: “I think being in nature makes people better. I think if you can respect nature, that that respect that you have for nature translates to other people.”

To that end, the center is designed to serve different communities. There are picnic areas because neighborhood residents wanted a place where families could sit and eat. The center is working with DISD and El Centro community college, offering outdoor science classes. Although the center is officially opening Oct. 17, parts of it are still ‘filling in,’ some are still under construction. Eventually, for instance, the center’s four miles of trails will be linked with the Katy Trail, so hikers and bikers and bladers can travel here. One day, it will even be accessible by canoe or kayak from the Trinity River.

But Brown says the important community that will be hardest to reach are Dallasites and suburbanites who won’t go south of downtown, who think the Trinity River is an unpleasant mud spot to drive over as fast as possible. The trick, she says, is getting them to visit the center – that first time.

BROWN: “What we found is that once they get here the site engages them. We don’t have to do anything else.”

This is the center’s larger educational mission. Not simply for people to learn the call of the Southern leopard frog – [sound of frog] – but to acclimate us to what was once here. And can be still.

BROWN: “We try to work with a lot of parents who are uncomfortable in nature, to guide them through. We actually have backpacks families can come and check out.”

WEEKS: “Food, supplies — flares?”


BROWN: “Although we do have cappuccino and espresso.”


[cicada sounds]

If you go: To see birds at the Trinity River Audubon Center, earlier in the day is generally better. Migration periods (early spring or fall) are also better — migration is happening now through November. Because the water in the ponds is moving (gently), there are actually fairly few mosquitoes. Some of the center’s landscaping is still incomplete — the plants have to grow into their spaces. But while we were there in the morning, we saw frogs, turtles, a snake, egrets, a heron, shore birds and a kingfisher. And we weren’t even trying much.