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.

For instance, Leggio asks why the transportation staff offered up what he describes as a series of "poison pills" that would have killed the east-side rail option--proposals that made Houston Street either too narrow for rail, or so wide as to slash deeply into Hillwood's property.

Leggio doesn't know for certain, but he isn't averse to a little speculation.

"You consider what [Hillwood is] doing," he says. "They're building a huge planned development--entertainment, office, retail, and residential. What have you got at the West End? Entertainment, retail, residential.

"If you bypass the West End going into the arena, you'll take all those customers into the arena. Transportation and roads--where you place them or don't place them--they'll create boom towns and ghost towns."

In other words, Hillwood didn't exactly have an economic incentive to make it easier for all those cash-carrying customers to get to the West End.

Greed, or as Leggio described it in an interview, "rapacious development," might explain Hillwood's motives in this conspiracy that some plan commissioners see cooking. But what might motivate city staff to screw the West End?

Nothing, according to Dybala, the man who took the beating at the plan commission meeting.

"I do not intend to do anything other than serve the city in going through this process," Dybala says. "I know that the city planning commission has indicated that they were unhappy they didn't have all the information when the transportation committee was reviewing the proposed thoroughfare plan amendment. There's no question they didn't have all the information. In fact, we still do not have all the information we would like them to have."

Fact is, no one has all the information. DART is still reviewing the potential routes, and city staff is waiting for DART, sorting through traffic data and trying to decide where the best spots for rail and roads are.

It's not a conspiracy, Dybala says. It's a deadline problem. The city council wants to take up the issue of streets by the end of October; the city is committed to extending Houston Street before the arena opens in 2000; and DART and city staff are still crunching numbers, trying to see what might work.

According to Dybala and Hillwood attorney Del Williams, the best information available right now indicates that running tracks parallel to Houston Street to the east of Hillwood's property raises unworkable headaches for traffic and hazards for pedestrians at five intersections--unworkable, that is, unless DART can come up with its own solution.

They're working on it.
In the meantime, the best option, according to city staff, is to find another route--either zigzagging across Hillwood's property from east to west, or elsewhere.

The plan commission, on the other hand, says it's better to keep all the options open. If it turns out that DART doesn't use Hillwood's property, the developer can have it back.

Dybala says there will be plenty of opportunities--and plenty of proposals--to make adjustments before the council makes its decision on the thoroughfare plan, probably some time next month.

As for Hillwood, Williams says there is "absolutely no conspiracy" between staff and the developer, other than to avoid traffic snarls and squashed pedestrians at their new development. "The pedestrian safety concerns are very, very real," he says.

Blaydes points out that DART rail runs through the heart of downtown, and the tracks haven't yet been littered with corpses.

Williams denies that what's driving Hillwood and city staff is competition with the West End, pointing out that Hillwood has agreed to finance a pedestrian plaza linking the arena development and the West End. (Hillwood would be reimbursed by a special city tax district.) A number of parties are interested in the rail routes, and Hillwood plans to work with all of them, he says.

Besides, he doesn't even know what "rapacious" means.

At the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fred C. Dobbs dies badly, isolated by his own suspicious mind, shot down by banditos.

No offense to the commissioners, but it's probably too much to hope that anything that entertaining will happen at the next City Plan Commission meeting. Of course, Bogey only had to deal with bandits. The plan commission is facing off against a developer that was willing to tear apart the suburb of Westlake to complete another development.

Whatever happens, after the vitriol the commissioners unleashed on city staff last time around, there's some fence-mending to do. That, says City Councilman John Loza, may require some help by the council.

Loza appointed Leggio to the plan commission, and the councilman says Leggio isn't the first of his appointees to city boards and commissions to come to him and complain that staff was being less than forthcoming.

"That idea and the trend concern me greatly," he says. "And I can't sit here and tell you that I will guarantee to you that they always provide us with as complete information as we would need to make a rational decision.

"It frustrates me...I have had more than one come to me and tell me that he or she didn't feel like they were really in a position to make a decision on something because staff didn't provide them with all the information they needed."

As for future rail lines, Loza says he's leaning toward the east-side alignment, though it's pretty much anyone's guess what the council ultimately will decide. But, he adds, any solution is likely to take into account the needs of both the West End and Hillwood.

"I don't think there needs to be inherent conflict," he says. "I realize that Hillwood wants to maximize its profit, and they have every right to do so, but I don't think we need to be drawing battle lines between the two areas.

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