By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Over the last two years we've been reporting in the Dallas Observer on a campaign by Belo Corp., owners of The Dallas Morning News, to refashion its metastasizing campus of land at the southwest corner of downtown by linking it to the city's convention center.
Belo also wants to link its campus with the West End by a series of plazas. And Belo would like to attract a 1,000-room convention hotel to its property ("Belo Bashing," April 5, 2001).
This isn't something Belo talks about in any detail publicly, because, who would? It's real estate. Real estate, like all courtship, depends on stalking.
Truth is, things have not always gone as favorably for Belo in this campaign as you might expect, given the enormous local political clout of the Morning News. In July 1999, in fact, Belo got slammed pretty good by the Dallas Plan Commission. Belo wanted the city to close a block of Jackson Street through the middle of a proposed Beloan plaza.
Marc Richman, a neighboring property owner, says he learned about the proposed street giveaway only a few days before the hearing at the plan commission. The bad news was that he had little time to prepare. He says the good news was that Belo was even less ready for opposition:
"Basically Belo was very unprepared. They thought it was a done deal, that they had snuck it by everybody."
Richman argued it was crazy to shut off a major downtown traffic corridor. "Their basic statement was, 'We own both sides of the street, so you ought to give us the middle.'"
Richman won. The plan commission voted 14-zip to deny Belo its request for a closing of Jackson Street.
Since the street-closing deal, Richman says he and neighboring small-property owners have been engaged in a guerrilla real estate war with Belo. He accuses them of building fake walls inches from his property, putting up fences to cut off access, stuff like that.
I called Belo for comment for this story, of course, and they did not, of course. Their spokesperson said to me in an e-mail: "I don't think I'll be able to get a comment for you re: the Record Street article, as those who might provide insight are on vacation for the holiday." Well, I can actually understand their not wanting to talk to the Observer so close to Thanksgiving. There's probably even a rule.
Because I couldn't talk to Belo about those details, I won't go into them, except for what I could see with my own eyes: Right behind Richman's law office at Record and Jackson streets, Belo has built what can only be described as a Potemkin Transit Station. Supposedly it's some kind of visitor parking lot for people with business across Wood Street at Belo headquarters. But it doesn't look like any parking lot you've ever seen. It looks just like a miniature DART transit station.
There has been much discussion lately, especially in the Morning News, of how DART needs to bring a new train line down Jackson Street. There also has been discussion, behind the scenes, of some kind of north-south people mover between the West End and Belo. So what the fake transit station looks like is a kind of real estate voodoo: "Focus closely now. You see a transit station here. It's already here. You see it. It's very transit-like. You want to make a train come here, don't you? You are yearning for a train to come."
And, of course, that gives people like Richman and other property owners with whom I spoke the absolute willies, because it raises the specter of eminent domain. Maybe Belo can't force them to sell, but DART, the regional transit agency, could.
Earlier this year Belo went to the plan commission again and asked it to shut down half of Record Street between Young and Wood streets, taking away a lane of parking along the half of the block that is adjacent to the Belo-owned Potemkin Station just at the end of Richman's building. Belo said it wanted to turn the parking lane into a doublewide sidewalk.
Why would the city squeeze half of a street for half of a block, taking away a lane of parking? Belo said it had done the same thing on the other side of Young Street in front of its own corporate headquarters--took a parking lane and turned it into a fat sidewalk. Belo said it wanted the sidewalks on both sides of Young Street to match.
Wha-a-a-t? Screw up a downtown street right next to the George Allen Sr. courts building, which is about to be expanded, so that the sidewalks will match? What's with sidewalks matching? Whoever heard of that?
The plan commission said no. It turned Belo down cold again. I'm sure everyone on the plan commission figured out what was really going on here with the proposed matching sidewalks. Belo wants the whole block that Richman's property sits on, and Richman is what we call a "hold-out." He won't sell for whatever price Belo has offered.