By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"What in the hell?" asks Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb, who has just been put on hold by a goosey receptionist inside the city manager's office and is thoroughly frustrated.
On this Thursday afternoon, Lipscomb and Carol Brandon, his appointee to the city's park and recreation board, are angry as they wait on hold with the city manager's office. There, they suspect, an emergency meeting is taking place that they haven't been invited to but want to crash. Just the day before, Lipscomb received word that dirt was once again flying at Highland Hills Park, which is located off Bonnie View Road near Interstate 20 and is about to become home to a new road.
The situation is intolerable to Lipscomb and Brandon, who is barely resisting the urge to damn the city's managers to hell. "This," she tells Lipscomb, "is a blatant disregard of the everyday customer by the public works department all the way up to the city manager."
Highland Hills Park is an 18-acre haven blessed with groves of old trees and lush grass that thrive on a spring that bubbles from the earth and twists luxuriously through the hilly grounds. For better than 20 years, people of all ages have enjoyed the park's bounty. There are tennis courts and a swimming pool, a baseball diamond and some hoops. A little walkway is sprinkled with barbecue pits, which stand at attention before pairs of knobby picnic benches. At the center of it all is the Tommie M. Allen Recreation Center, where residents can sign up for everything from aerobics classes to courses in wellness and ceramics.
Just weeks ago, dozens of youngsters scurried across the park, combing the grass in a frenzied hunt for Easter eggs. But come this time next year, a strip of those hunting grounds will be paved over, and the kids will have to stay away from the park's entrance, lest they get squashed beneath an 18-wheeler.
The trouble began in early March, when without warning a construction crew appeared and began digging out grass, grading the earth for a road. The new road will share the park's entrance and lead right to the doorstep of a new neighbor, Utility Trailer of Dallas Inc. The company sells semitrailers, and it needs the road so its customers can access its business, which is located behind the park along I-20.
When the residents realized what was happening, the image of big rigs and kids in their minds, they called Lipscomb. The District 8 representative put the brakes on the project, halting construction. Later, two neighborhood meetings took place during which city staff pointed lots of fingers but, according to Lipscomb, offered few explanations. Things were at a standstill. Then, last Wednesday, Lipscomb learned that the construction crews were back on the job. By Thursday, his blood was boiling.
"Those trucks are too close. We've got too many trucks out there," Lipscomb says, exasperated. "We used to hide Easter eggs out there."
Like his constituents, Lipscomb wants to know why the construction resumed and just who thought it was a good idea to build an industrial road through a city park in the first place. And why didn't the city staff let anyone know about this?
On this Thursday afternoon, Lipscomb calls the city manager's office in hopes of catching the responsible city employees, who he believes have gathered to discuss the project. Maybe they can give him some answers. Initially, the receptionist confirms Lipscomb's suspicion that a meeting is going on. But after discovering she's on a three-way call with a reporter, the receptionist puts the call on hold. A few minutes later, she returns and tells Lipscomb that the meeting he's looking for will take place the next morning. People from the city manager's office, public works, and the city attorney's office will be there.
"It's a staff meeting with the directors," she says, explaining that it will be closed to the public. No citizens allowed.
"Nobody even called me," Lipscomb says, sounding astounded and unsatisfied. Lipscomb angrily tells the receptionist that he wants Brandon at that meeting. "There's been too much hanky-panky going on," he growls. "I need someone to level with me."
The receptionist isn't sure whether Brandon can attend. So she takes down Lipscomb's number and offers a line all too familiar to anyone who has ever tried to get a straight answer out of City Hall: "I'll get back to you."
Just like that, the weird conversation is over, and Lipscomb and Brandon are left wondering what in the hell is going on down there.
No one is more perturbed by this situation than Tommie M. Allen. The recreation center bears her name in honor of the fact that it was her idea to build the park. That was back in the late '60s, Allen explains as she cautiously navigates a bumpy stretch of dirt that will soon become the paved road.
"Careful," she warns, as she climbs onto a curb to avoid a passing semi, which spews exhaust as it hauls off a load of trees that have been cleared from land behind the park, just past the baseball diamond. Across the street, at the Flying J Travel Plaza truck stop, a big rig backs up, and its beep, beep, beeping echoes through the park, which is void of visitors on this Tuesday afternoon. There won't be any kids running around here during the day for about six weeks, when school lets out. That's also about when the road likely will be finished.