James Toal: a life truly worth celebrating

12/25/2013 12:00 AM

12/24/2013 4:45 PM

In the early 1970s, a group of Fort Worth leaders who made up the Streams and Valleys Committee had a dream of reclaiming the Trinity River, which for years literally had been treated as a sewer.

With a plan in hand from a nationally known landscape architect, they needed to partner with the city if they were to make any of it happen. City officials, not overly enthusiastic about the project in the beginning, assigned the youngest member of the Planning Department to work with the group.

It was the best thing they could have done, because that young planner was James Toal.

When Toal stood on the banks of the river with Ruth Carter Johnson (later Stevenson), Phyllis Tilley and others, he not only dreamed with them, but he had the ability to articulate the vision and illustrate it.

They loved him, latched on to him and went to work with him to transform the Trinity from a filthy stream to which businesses had turned their backs into an inviting river that attracts thousands to its banks.

That was decades before Fort Worth would come up with its Trinity River Vision, the $910 million flood-control and economic development project north of downtown — a project considered Toal’s signature achievement as an urban planner, along with a master plan for redevelopment of downtown Fort Worth.

Although Toal rose to become Fort Worth’s director of planning and growth management, his vision outgrew city government. But he never outgrew Cowtown itself.

He started his own firm and later led Gideon Toal as a principal and co-chair. And although he had major private projects, he was very much involved in the development of public spaces in the city he loved.

His hand was in some of Fort Worth’s greatest developments during the last 30 years, including Montgomery Plaza, the West Seventh Street corridor, Tarrant County College downtown campus and the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base.

James Toal died Sunday at age 66, leaving his fingerprints on Fort Worth forever.

A celebration of his life will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at the TCC Trinity River Campus commons along the river, with a reception later at Sundance Square Plaza.

His is a life well worth celebrating.

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