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.
Holding out happens to be one of the privileges appertaining to private property in this country. A holdout is the contrary, in real-estate terms, of a holdup. All this business about matching sidewalks, erecting walls around the back of his building and so on, is clearly aimed at forcing Richman to sell. The plan commission wasn't buying it.
When Belo appealed the plan commission's denial to the city council, several of the council's more conservative business-oriented members, including Alan Walne, Sandy Greyson and Lois Finkelman, expressed skepticism about shutting down one lane of a downtown street in order to create matching sidewalks for Belo. Walne in particular brought up the fact that the city normally charges people thousands of dollars for even allowing awnings or signs to poke out over the right-of-way a few inches. Why would the city give the whole right-of-way to Belo for free? And for such a loony ostensible reason? Matching sidewalks? They can't do better than that? It's like the duke saying he wants a date with your daughter on her wedding night, because, "It pleatheth me."
But after the rest of the council was done expressing its skepticism, Belo's new champion on the council, Mayor Laura Miller, tongue-lashed Richman for not selling to Belo:
"They [Belo] tried to buy Mr. Richman's building," the mayor told the council, "because they wanted to have the whole block, and beautify the whole block and extend the sidewalk down the block and extend the trees down the block. It is Mr. Richman's choice to not sell this building if he doesn't want to."
She paused. She looked at Richman. She said: "Are you willing to sell your building?"
Then Miller put a full-court press on the rest of the council and got them to overturn the plan commission and vote yes, to take away all the parking along half of one block of Record Street leading right to Richman's door. Free to Belo. No air rights. No fees. All waived.
Miller doesn't deny she has been championing Belo's cause lately, nor does she deny that this position represents a notable shift from where she stood as a council member and as an Observer columnist. She says the reason for the shift is that now she's the mayor, and as mayor she thinks it's her duty to get behind whatever makes downtown better.
"Who's the advocate for downtown?" she asked. "When you have 14 council members all fighting for their piece of the community, there's no advocate for downtown."
She concedes that a convention hotel on Belo property is a possibility. She says she has to pick horses, and right now she thinks Belo is the strongest, winningest horse for downtown. You could argue that her ability to get over past contretemps with Belo and give support to their cause shows that she is smarter and more mature than the average Observer columnist.
I don't not get that. But it still bugs me to see Belo taking on this guy--Richman--whose family has owned a piece of property downtown since the 1960s; the Potemkin Station and the talk of train lines down Jackson Street are an unsubtle threat of eminent domain to squeeze him out; and then they have the mayor beating him up in a public forum for not selling to them.
Exactly how much more of an advantage does Belo need?
By the way, I made a bad mistake in a column last week. I said a proposed park at the other end of downtown was going to cover 46 acres. I meant 4 to 6 acres. The park would be big but not nuclear. I might mention, in this vein, that the area between Belo and the West End that people are talking about turning into Beloan plazas is roughly 127 acres. Not 1 or 2 or 7 acres, but 127.
Yikes. A hundred and twenty-seven acres of matching sidewalks. But let me ask you something. Sincerely. Why do we want to make downtown look like a shopping mall?
Downtown was cool when it had funky little Greek cafeterias in basements, when it had Sol's Turf Bar and the Point, street preachers and cops in riding breeches--the little incongruities and anomalies that make a city cool. Downtown's not dead now because it isn't scrubby enough. It's dead because the yo-yos who developed everything in the '80s scraped off all the texture. Who wants to go? It's got all the charm of Siberia.
Matching sidewalks, indeed. Anyway, that's a made-up reason. Why does Belo really want plazas, a hotel, a transit station and no more Marc Richman?
"It pleatheth me."
Apparently it pleatheth the mayor now, too.