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The Future Of Parks In Collin County

Find out why North Texas has some of the best parks and what's coming our way
Oak Point_Courtesy City of Plano
Oak Point. Courtesy of the City of Plano

Sitting down at one of the bright green tables under the arches that line Jane’s Lane in Klyde Warren Park, it’s hard to imagine that only a decade ago, this was just the side of a highway, dividing the center of Dallas. Kit Sawers, known for her successful large-production events, took over the presidency of Klyde Warren Park in 2018. She was involved in the North Texas Super Bowl XLV Host Committee and the North Texas Final Four Local Organizing Committee, but perhaps most relevant, she orchestrated the park’s grand opening in 2012.

Klyde Warren Park
Photo courtesy of Klyde Warren Park

“There have been about 20 new buildings built just around the park,” says Sawers, pointing at one residential building near our table. “The economic impact just from the incremental tax revenue that is paid from these buildings to the city has been more than $500 billion dollars, which has been rerouted toward DISD and Parkland Hospital.”

But that’s all the way down in Dallas. 

Stop me if you heard this one before, but Collin County is growing. In less than five years, 100,000 people have moved to Dallas’ northern suburbs. And when people are looking to relocate, there are a few things they keep in mind — high-quality schools, housing affordability and safety. But there’s one additional factor to take into account when talking about the quality of life — recreation. And luckily for these newcomers, Collin County also knows a thing or two about that.

“Combine the rising demand for new parks, facilities, sports fields and open space amenities with the relatively abundant land and capital resources found in North Texas and we are primed to deliver not only more parks and recreation places and experiences year over year but also the most creative and industry-leading examples,” says Michael Kowski, McKinney’s director of parks and recreation since 2017. 

In his five years on the job, Kowski saw a significantly increased interest in local parks from both local residents and the private sector. “Look at any recent rendering of new commercial development in North Texas, and one cannot ignore the focus on families hanging out on great lawns, the presence of pavilions for live performances, interactive water features and outdoor dining options adjacent to active public spaces.”

This renewed interest in public spaces is helping cities fund projects with money coming from private donors, fundraising events and public-private foundation models instead of depending exclusively on tax revenue. But where did all this attention come from? What’s Collin County’s secret sauce? 

“Well, I think first and foremost it’s the placement of the parks,” says Kate Meacham over the phone. She is the director of Allen’s Parks and Recreation Department, and just like every parks and recreation representative Local Profile talked to in North Texas, she’s one of the most enthusiastic people out there about her job. “We are really focusing on finding the gaps and serving those underserved populations, so that way, no matter where you’re at in Allen, you’re within 10 minutes of walking to a neighborhood park.”

And you want to live near Allen’s parks. There’s not just an abundance of them (67 parks and facilities and 79.2 miles of trails for hiking in the 26.5-square-mile city), but Allen is also set on creating a park system that is as new and exciting for residents as possible. “We really focus on keeping our playgrounds fresh,” Meacham explains. “We have a replacement plan that we really work on to make sure that not only are they really well maintained and safe for our families to be at, but we’re also constantly looking at improving the playgrounds.”

Parks and recreation departments across Collin County make sure their park systems are attuned to the needs of their communities by using the oldest trick in the book: asking them what they want. For example, in Plano, the department will actively look for residents’ input by any means possible. “One of the challenges that we had in the past was really getting adequate enough input from the residents,” Renee Jordan tells Local Profile. “So we’ve switched to online presentations and online surveys that can be accessed 24/7 via computer, a tablet, or a phone. And we advertise these opportunities — we share surveys and presentations via QR codes that we mail out on postcards or place on signs at the park.” You truly can’t escape Plano Parks and Rec.

There’s yet another trick up parks and rec’s rolled-up sleeves: programming. Fortunately, Collin County has a successful example to take notes on, only 40 miles south.

“So my background is primarily in event planning, fundraising, marketing and PR, and I think those skill sets came to the park at the right time,” says Sawers as she looks toward the new Nancy Best fountain installation, currently under maintenance. “I was able to help raise money to put on programs and events that I could help develop because if you want to have people come to the park, that requires things for them to do. A passive park really isn’t the model anymore.”

Parks and public space planning models change as much as cities due to the major role they play in improving residents’ quality of life. They provide public and open spaces for recreation and exercise, function as a meeting point for the community, provide a safe space for children to play and reduce the urban heat island effect, which, in Texas, is of capital importance. 

“Way back, people just wanted to avoid the heat,” Sawers says. “And so they just thought, ‘What’s the coolest way to get from point A to point B? Let’s just cool these tunnels with air conditioning,’ and now there's a whole tunnel system under downtown — it was like we were hiding.” Fortunately, the tunnels are not needed anymore, thanks to cities becoming greener. Today, major cities devote a median of 15% of city land to parks and recreation. “So we’ve come up to the surface and we’ve decided to make our surface friendlier,” she says. “I think it’s actually a little bit of a silver lining of the pandemic — so many people were drawn to being outside and realized the importance of it, and we’re willing to invest in it.”

Klyde Warren Park was a $110 million project funded by a public-private partnership between the city of Dallas, the state of Texas and individual donors who chipped in $54 million of that $110 million through the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation. With this partnership, Dallas is the owner of the park, but programming, funding and maintenance are privately operated through the foundation. Sawers compares Klyde Warren Park to a PBS model with its privately raised funds and free programming — a model, she says, that can be replicated. 

It already is. “One park system in Collin County we are collaborating with the most is Kaleidoscope, which is at HALL office park,” says Sawers. “And they brought in a new gentleman to run Kaleidoscope Park who was formerly head of Millennium Park in Chicago — an incredible park. So they’ve got good leadership and a good example.” That gentleman Sawers is talking about is Scott Stewart, the head of Frisco’s newest park development.

“The short story is that Kaleidoscope Park is going to be sort of North Texas’ first arts and culture-centric public space,” says Stewart. Just as with Sawers, Meacham, Kowski and Jordan, his excitement is contagious. “Our goal is to bring the best of arts and culture, not just of North Texas or the U.S., but from the entire world to the stage of Kaleidoscope Park for the citizens of North Texas and visitors to the area in a manner that is accessible, equitable, representative of life here in North Texas and, I think, most importantly — free.”

Sounds ambitious. Especially for a city like Frisco with a population of a little more than 200,000 people. But so was Klyde Warren in Dallas 10 years ago. 

Kaleidoscope Park is located within the HALL Park office development, a mixed-use development right in the heart of Frisco’s hottest commercial spot. Only a couple of blocks up north, you have The Star in Frisco, the Omni Hotel and the Ford Center, and to the south, you’ll find the Stonebriar development, Riders Field and Legacy West. 

“The park, hopefully, will follow a similar formula as Klyde Warren Park and Millennium Park and other larger signature parks that have helped stimulate further development in the area because it becomes an asset — if you’re looking to move your company here and you look at some office space, you want a floor that faces the park versus a floor that faces the street,” Stewart explains. “So the hope is that with the park’s location and with the park’s amenities and offerings, we’re going to help stimulate further economic development, both residential and commercial.”

Don’t be fooled by all the comparisons made between Kaleidoscope Park and Klyde Warren or the Millenium; Kaleidoscope will be all Frisco through and through. “A park needs to reflect, embrace and enhance its local community and its region,” says Stewart. “Klyde Warren Park was what downtown Dallas needed at that moment, and that’s what Kaleidoscope Park will be for Frisco now.”