Despite a last minute venue change (I’ll let Candy ‘splain that, it’s a lulu) more than 200 concerned Dallasites slipped under LBJ last night to hear a qualified panel of speakers add their voice to others dismayed by the runaway freight train the Fair Park redevelopment plan is on.
For those who missed, Candy led a panel that included:
Don Williams, former CEO of Trammell Crow Founder of Foundation for Community Empowerment, Frazier Revitalization Inc., and the Institute for Urban Policy Research at the University of Texas. For this work, he received the prestigious Dallas Linz Award.
Byron Carlock, Head of Price Waterhouse Coopers’ U.S. real estate practice. He works on strategic planning and property transactions including capital formation and business plan execution. He’s a process and implementation guy with an MBA from Harvard.
State Rep. Eric Johnson, for District 100 is the vice chair of the House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development. He’s also a Harvard graduate.
Angela Hunt, a previous Dallas City Council member who, in 2010, was awarded the Virginia MacDonald Leadership Award leadership by the League of Women Voters of Dallas.
Jon Anderson, lil’ old me.
We may have been in a church, but there was no bully pulpit employed, no whine-a-thon. I opened my comments with what I feared could be a quote from our future, ”
“In the three years since the Mayor announced a plan to transform a derelict downtown rail yard into a dazzling park for the new millennium, the project has turned into an expensive public-works debacle that can be traced to haphazard planning, design snafus and cronyism.” – Chicago Tribune comment as Millennium Park opened four years late and costs soared from $150 million to $475 million.
As such, “Concerned” was the most often used word of the evening. We were concerned about:
- The lack of public input in the plan
- The lack of contract and financial transparency
- The lack of dialogue (we’ve been lectured to, not involved)
- The lack of a “request for proposal” process to seek and understand other options
- The lack of rigid, pro-city contract language
- The lack of contingency planning (what happens when — not if — it goes over budget?)
- The disconnect between what’s needed and what’s funded
I will preface by saying that hours before our gathering, Preservation Dallas sent an invitation to the City Council’s session on Monday. Within that notice were two links. One was to an art-filled presentation from May that has DRAFT watermarked on most pages. The second was the management contract with Walt Humann’s Fair Park Texas Foundation.
The management contract has been updated since the highly edited DRAFT version was approved by the Parks Board. Some things, like the 6- to 7-acre community park now have a hard date for its construction (dependent on 2017 bond money). There is a small addition of Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBE) support. So, there has been some listening going on. But it’s still troubling that the Parks Board approved what could only be described as a work in progress. It’s a point I made several times last night. What sane business would proceed with a DRAFT contract for a 30-year investment plan? None. And yet, here we are, asking Parks Board and Dallas City Council to vote on just such a document.
While this latest contract dropped the DRAFT watermark, there are still notes attached, but it’s a cleaner document. Still not in any condition to be voted on, but cleaner. But it was also a lot slimmer (from over 100 pages to 12). All the pesky “Exhibits” (mostly blank placeholder pages) and reference documentation, those pieces that really illustrate its haphazardness, had been stripped out … as though it’s less troubling to not see it at all. (Out of sight, out of mind)
Of course we’re forgetting the foundational problems at work here. As one audience member pointed out, any business would have developed an RFP (request for proposal) where the city would have spelled out their requirements and goals for Fair Park. That RFP would have been posted to encourage competitive bids and implementation strategies. Those plans would have been presented to the city by those qualified entities. Dallas would then pick the path that made the most of Fair Park.
In fact, when Walt Humann was appointed to study this issue three years ago, his deliverable should have been the RFP and resulting presentation of the responses for the city to evaluate. What it shouldn’t have been was carte blanche to DIY a plan himself. It’s mighty rare that one voice nets the best answer to such a complex issue as Fair Park and its relationship to its neighborhood and the city of Dallas.
Unfortunately, I think turning the clock back that far is not possible, we are too far gone. Many have said this is our last opportunity to get this right. I wish that were true. We can do this badly in any number of ways and any number of times … and still fix it later … for exponentially more cost … and exponentially more time wasted.
One thing State Rep. Eric Johnson said crystallized my thoughts on the contract. To paraphrase:
“If something is in the contract, there is legal remedy for non-performance. But if something is not in the contract, you guarantee it won’t happen and you have no recourse.”
Yes, any contract can be violated in any number of ways and the injured party can choose not to force performance, but at least if it’s in the contract, they have the option of seeking remedy or performance. Because of this, lawyers work very hard to make contracts iron-clad. As I read the Fair Park Foundation’s management contract with the city, I see a contract clad in gauzy imprecision.
Angela Hunt called the contract language very legally dense, requiring multiple readings to ascertain actual meaning (and she’s a lawyer!). But dense legalese doesn’t equal precision and it doesn’t equal an encompassing document. After the discussion, I was approached by a Parks Board member who asked if any of the updated contract’s changes benefitted the city. Without the time to scour the hours-old version, I’d thus far found two places. The hard date attached to the community park (subject to bond money) and the city’s ability to cancel the contract beyond starving the Foundation by not appropriating its annual fees. The big bucket problems remained.
Another key point made several times was the surrounding neighborhood. The Fair Park Texas Foundation’s (and by default the city’s) plans end at the park gates. There is no economic development component. Nothing that outlines how to best take the neighborhood along for the ride. Instead, like the early days of the State Fair, they’re left outside the gates.
Gentrification and displacement were hot concerns from the audience. I share that concern, having written about that fear here and here. Again, Johnson’s words rang. If it’s not in the plan, it will be a free for all. Capitalism at warp speed. Buy ‘em out, price ‘em out, move ‘em out. State-Thomas all over again.
Unfortunately there was some “old Dallas” thinking as well. Speaker Byron Carlock showed several examples of other US cities who had successfully rehabilitated decayed neighborhoods with projects like Fair Park and questioned why we had not evaluated other’s success. After the program, one attendee said Dallas had nothing to learn from other cities that have tackled the same problems. “Dallas has its own way of doing things and doesn’t need any help from anyone. Dallas is different.” Portraying this kind of “Not Invented Here” attitude is poison. No one person or city has all the answers. At best we learn what works and repeat with whatever local flavor is required. To continually reinvent the wheel because “our wheel” will be completely unique is … (insert adjective here).
Thankfully this was not the majority opinion in the room that evening. Unfortunately, seeing how this has been handled by Dallas so far, perhaps Dallas is different.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016, my writing was recognized with Bronze and Silver awards from the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email email@example.com.