Artful dodger

Ray Nasher wants to give the city his sculptures, but first there's a small zoning matter

Ray Nasher was not wearing silk pajamas. This much I can tell you.
But beyond that, people aren't saying a whole lot about the unusual meeting held one afternoon last winter at Ray Nasher's home on lushly wooded Miron Drive in North Dallas.

The meeting was held at 3 p.m. on February 15, during 74-year-old Nasher's recovery from his third hip operation in almost as many years. Nasher, who was limping badly, had summoned his visitors to his home rather than to his spacious office on Central Expressway opposite NorthPark, the fabulously successful mall Nasher developed 30 years ago.

This intimate get-together was far too important to postpone. It was, in fact, one of the opening salvos in a great campaign--the latest in a war Nasher had been waging unsuccessfully for 26 years. This time, Nasher was determined to have things go his way.

All he needed was a favor from Dallas City Hall.
Specifically, he needed the city to approve a zoning change on an extremely valuable chunk of property that is part of his NorthPark empire--39 acres of raw, undeveloped, grassy pasture at the southwest corner of Northwest Highway and North Central Expressway. Formerly part of the old Caruth family farm, circa 1850, it is now the past-the-parking-lot, pastoral view from the patio tables at Barney's in-house Italian restaurant.

Nasher bought the undeveloped land--the largest such tract in that coveted part of town--in 1980 with every intention of developing it to its fullest commercial potential.

But there was a glitch.
The land had long been zoned single-family residential. And try as Nasher might--and he'd started trying 10 years even before he purchased the property--he could not get the city to change the zoning for him. That's because the 3,000-plus homeowners who live in the area around his shopping mall had always been willing to fight him tooth and toenail. Their last great duel was back in 1991, when Nasher suffered an inglorious 6-8 defeat at the hands of the City Plan Commission--a group of private citizens appointed by the city council to vote on such requests after they've been embraced or scorned by the city staff.

Nasher was not about to be thwarted again. So, among other things, he had called this meeting--a very private meeting for a handful of very influential people who could get him what he wanted.

First there was Tim Byrne, the good-looking, Jaguar-driving president of the residential division of Lincoln Property Company, one of the country's biggest apartment and office builders. Lincoln had agreed to buy Nasher's 39-acre tract from him--that is, if Nasher and Lincoln could persuade the city to change the zoning to permit more lucrative uses.

Then there was Larry Good, an unassuming, talented architect who had offices in hip Oak Lawn, where he had worked slavishly during Christmas week to prepare a detailed layout of Lincoln's vision for the property--which, at this point, we'll describe as Epcot Center meets The Village.

Sitting at Ray Nasher's dining-room table that Thursday afternoon, architect's renderings in hand, Byrne and Good were very much the eager pitchmen. The people they were pitching to--who sat on the other side of the table and took in the full 30-minute dog and pony show--were none other than Dallas City Manager John Ware and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. Nasher had personally invited both men to come up and preview his latest big plan--a highly unusual thing for a zoning applicant to request, let alone receive.

As Larry Good put it, reflecting on the importance of that meeting several months ago, "We wanted to make sure John would say something like, 'I'll make sure the staff gives strong attention to this.' It was important to make sure the staff's highest representative was there with the highest ranking public official. It seemed like the right thing to do."

The right thing for Nasher's interests, at least.
Although Kirk won't talk at all about what happened at Nasher's home--and Ware will only say, in his typically cryptic manner, that he listened politely to the gentlemen's requests for help but didn't act on them--Nasher is, so far, batting one thousand at City Hall.

Last week, the city planning staff most enthusiastically recommended that virtually everything Lincoln Properties wants to build on Nasher's land be approved--despite the still-vehement opposition from Nasher's NorthPark neighbors, who are represented by 17 indignant homeowner associations, two churches, and one school.

This week, on the afternoon of Thursday, September 12, the City Plan Commission chairman--weak-kneed, mayoral water carrier Hector Garcia, restaurant captain to the city's movers and shakers at night and point man on their development dreams by day--is going to lead the charge to get that recommendation approved.

With any luck at all, it's going to be one hell of a fight.

It must be said here that the actions of the mayor and the city manager are certainly understandable.

After all, if you were the leaders of an administration that had yet to accomplish anything big--no sports arena, no Trinity River development, not even a little White Rock dredging--you, too, would slobber all over a short little man and his zoning case, especially when he dangles a $200 million-plus, world-class sculpture collection in front of you as a potential gift to the city he loves.

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