How does the garden grow?

The Nasher sculpture garden is slow to take root

It is late on the last Friday evening in February, and most employees on the fourth floor at City Hall have long since gone home. But Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm is still bouncing from one crisis to the next. Not only is a city councilman camped in her office, causing her to miss a phone call, but a Dallas Observer reporter is lurking about, waiting to inquire about difficulties with the project she's spent five years carefully nurturing: Ray Nasher's proposed sculpture garden.

"It's all been one long, continuing conversation," she explains. "Back and forth, back and forth." She's been doing this routine since she became an assistant city manager in 1993. Consequently, she doesn't get too excited about anything--including Nasher's latest threat, just over three months ago, to call the whole thing off.

Still, 11 months have passed since Nasher and beaming city officials announced that the city had landed the art-world prize of the decade: the modern and contemporary sculpture collection formed by Nasher and his late wife, Patsy. And the most amazing part was, supposedly it won't cost the city a dime. Nasher's foundation would do it all--acquire the real estate from its owners, hold an international design competition, oversee construction of the garden itself as well as a planned educational facility, even oversee rotation of the 66 sculptures. And the project was on a fast track; the garden, Nasher said, would open in the fall of 1999.

Little has happened since to move the project forward. No formal design competition has been launched. No traffic studies or proceedings toward long-discussed street closings have begun.

Most importantly, no real estate contracts have been signed. In certain circles, faint worry lines have begun to appear. On December 31, Stanley Marcus posed a startling question in The Dallas Morning News. Marcus asked whether "the mayor and the City Council [will] support condemnation proceedings to acquire land for the Nasher Sculpture garden without a [firm] contract.

Though subtle, the message was clear. Someone was being threatened with having their prime acreage in the downtown arts district condemned. And it didn't take too much effort to learn who those persons were. The first was none other than Harlan Crow, son of the man who masterminded the arts district nearly two decades ago. The second was Michael Minzer, son of a longtime Crow family friend and business associate.

In the 11 months since the city's announcement, Nasher, the city, Crow, and Minzer have been entangled in a delicate dance of real estate, hubris, and history--specifically, a history of nasty litigation between Nasher and the Crows. And so far, they've yet to reach an agreement that will get Nasher the property he needs to plant his garden.

For their part, city officials insist that the garden is in no danger. "I think that you've got two of the best deal-makers in the city on either side of this deal, and I think that ultimately they're just interested in the good of the city, and they'll get this deal done," says Suhm.

Sources involved with the ongoing tug-of-war between Nasher and Minzer/Crow are somewhat less sanguine. Though both Crow and Minzer declined to talk for the record, those close to the deal say that negotiations have been close to breaking down any number of times, and that the city's talk of condemnation did nothing to move the deal along.

Still, those sources remain optimistic that a deal will be reached--perhaps even by the time you read this story.

As always, Nasher is playing his cards close to the vest. Reached at home over the weekend, he sidestepped questions about the difficulties. "I'm in the middle of a meeting right now, and there are a bunch of people here," he said. "Could you call me at the office Monday morning?" (Nasher then failed to return the Observer's calls.)

But those who are talking, as well as city and county records, reveal that, at best, Nasher's timetable has been delayed; at worst, they show that the garden of Ray is far from a done deal. In the course of watching titans battle over a prime patch of downtown real estate, the Observer discovered an even larger potential problem.

Late last November, city documents show, Nasher threatened to call off his garden when he learned that the owners of an adjacent property were sending out a marketing brochure pitching plans for a 50-story office tower across Olive Street from the proposed garden. The building would loom over the sculptures, and Nasher wanted the city to halt the development. City officials apparently reassured him with the observation that the structure may not be built. "Marketing brochures get sent all the time," Suhm says.

The upshot, though, is that Dallas isn't halting development of the neighboring property, and Nasher isn't buying it either. Someone else is.

Even as city employees downplayed the notion that anything is wrong in the garden, the lot at Olive and Pearl was in the process of being sold to an out-of-state investment partnership. And that partnership is paying a for-commercial-development price for the property. A letter of intent for the sale fixes the price somewhere near $60 a square foot, say sources, who wouldn't identify the purchaser.

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