Trust no one

The City Plan Commission won't let Hillwood Development or city staff play them for saps

As dramas go, last week's City Plan Commission meeting wasn't exactly a barn burner, but it was about as close to excitement as a meeting on street widths and railroads is likely to get.

Greed. Conspiracy. Suspicion. Think The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as performed by a troupe of policy wonks and traffic engineers. Forget gold dust. We're talking real treasure here, in the form of light-rail lines around the arena and the people those trains will eventually haul downtown--somewhere downtown--so they can spend their money.

Auditioning for the role of Humphrey Bogart's cynical treasure hunter Fred C. Dobbs is the City Plan Commission. There's a lot riding on the question of where DART eventually lays its tracks, and plan commissioners are determined that no one, neither arena developer Hillwood Development Corp. nor city staff, is going to play them for a bunch of saps.

But to hear some plan commissioners tell it, that's just what the staff and Hillwood tried to do.

To understand the dispute over the potential rail route at the new arena, you need a good map. Better yet, you need several, all of them helpfully drawn by consultants of Ross Perot Jr.'s Hillwood Development and provided to city staff.

For now, picture a huge two-tined fork, with its points aimed at the West End. The tines are the proposed routes for roads that will run on the east and west sides of around 60 acres that will one day be home to the new arena and a proposed multimillion-dollar spread of hotels, shops, offices, and apartments built by Hillwood.

By the time you add cross streets and connections, the map's not nearly that simple. But the important point is this: There are two obvious--as well as infinite not-so-obvious--paths for a rail line coming into the west side of downtown from the north. One runs to the west of Hillwood's property, along existing railroad tracks next to Stemmons Freeway. Passengers taking that route could get off the train at the arena's back door and bypass the West End, according to plan commissioners.

Another potential route follows a planned extension of Houston Street to the east of the arena development. It would require Hillwood to give up some of its property to DART. That route would link the West End and the arena.

When the plan commission met September 24, part of its job was to advise the city council on whether it should make the path for Houston Street wide enough to accommodate that east-side rail line, if DART eventually chooses to build it there. (The decision on where to place a rail line ultimately belongs to DART, though the city council can foreclose some options by the way it designs the streets.)

Plan commissioners said yes, the council should do just that. And by the way, if the city staff and Hillwood say otherwise, don't trust them. The plan commissioners--a good number of them, anyway--sure don't.

"I've never seen [city] staff act this way," says plan commissioner Bill Blaydes, who took the first swing in a public spanking the commission gave Public Works Director David Dybala at last week's meeting. "There is a set procedure for things to go through, and I'm not sure that staff held all of that sacred."

Blaydes is chairman of the plan committee's transportation subcommittee, which spent a good part of September looking at whether the Houston Street right-of-way should be made wide enough for rail.

The process, as Blaydes and fellow commissioner Rick Leggio describe it, smelled. While the subcommittee was trying to sort out how to keep DART's options open, they say, city staff and Hillwood kept shifting the information about, in what they see as an effort to kill the east-side rail route.

Other information simply didn't find its way to the subcommittee on time. For instance, a map outlining another possible route, bypassing the existing West End rail station and zigzagging across Hillwood's property, cropped up the day after the subcommittee voted September 17 to recommend keeping the Houston Street option open. At his office on Abrams Road, Blaydes unfolds the map and points to red lettering that shows when the map was drawn--September 16. The subcommittee never saw it.

It didn't stop there. Leggio and Blaydes say that after the subcommittee's vote, city staff attempted to set up private meetings with plan commissioners to brief them on further details--essentially to lobby them, Leggio claims.

At the September 24 meeting of the full commission, Blaydes was incensed as he outlined the exchanges between the transportation subcommittee and city staff: "We have been used. We have not had full disclosure. They [city staff] have made a mockery of public involvement."

If that's true--and Hillwood and Dybala say it isn't--the question is why. Why did city staff and Hillwood try so hard to deny even the possibility of a DART rail route on the east side of the arena, one that would link to the West End?

The answer depends on whom you ask. What you believe depends on just how cynically you view the developers.

For his part, Leggio says he doesn't think there was a "grand conspiracy" between Hillwood and city staff to block a DART rail line east of the arena. But he wonders.

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