Show Me the Lake!

City Hall talks fast, hides lake up sleeve

I'm sitting here at City Hall, listening and chewing my ball point pen in half while the city council gets briefed on what the new downtown lake will look like when they actually build it. Steam is coming out of my ears.

Look, I don't have an MBA from the Wharton School. Everything I learned about finance, both public and private, I learned riding the Woodward Avenue bus to work in downtown Detroit.

There was always at least one card game on the back bench of the Woodward Avenue bus during rush hour. Up around the middle of the bus, guys played the shell game--the real thing--with pieces of cardboard balanced on their knees, walnut shells and dried peas. This was back when con men still had pride of craft. And then up toward the front, people sold drugs.

Does this picture show a "path?"  Do you see a picture of a path around the proposed downtown lake? No.  It looks like the hanging gardens  of Babylon, right? Ever heard of  the phrase "bait and switch?"
Courtesy of The Dallas Plan
Does this picture show a "path?" Do you see a picture of a path around the proposed downtown lake? No. It looks like the hanging gardens of Babylon, right? Ever heard of the phrase "bait and switch?"

Over time and with effort, even a slow student like myself could learn a few basic principles of Woodward Avenue Bus Finance. For example, one very important rule: Never ever under any circumstances, no matter how amazingly sweet the deal, buy a diamond on the Woodward Avenue bus.

Another rule: Strangers never really want to give us their money. It's a trick. And here is the rule that took me the longest to master: Never play the other man's game.

In 1998, when the city borrowed $246 million to pay for the Trinity River plan (which you and I have to pay back), Mayor Ron Kirk said we would get a beautiful lake downtown that we could go sailing on, with fancy restaurants and parks all around it. The brochure for the bond campaign said: "If you've ever taken a stroll down San Antonio's bustling Riverwalk, sat by a lake in New York's beautiful Central Park or driven along Austin's scenic Town Lake, then you know how valuable these recreational areas are to the city."

Today at this briefing, they have the same kind of picture up on the wall: sailboats at a dock next to a municipal boathouse next to a long promenade beneath dramatic steps leading up to an amphitheater next to a thing that looks like a band shell or maybe a casino or a nightclub.

But I'm also looking at Slide No. 54, which they sort of shuffled by in a hurry in their PowerPoint presentation. I have a copy of it here in the briefing papers. It shows that the money they said they were going to spend on the lake and parks when they briefed the council on it last March was $48.3 million. Now at this briefing, preparing for next month when the council will commit to dollars and cents, they are talking about spending $15.9 million on the lake.

Huh? How can you cut the money for the lake and parks to a third when you have to build all those casinos and amphitheaters and promenades and jazz like that? Oh, it begins to dawn: They're not really going to do any of that. But why?

One council member, Gary Griffith, looks up at the picture on the wall and asks a few questions: "I don't believe, when we finish, we are going to have the promenade in basic phase one," Griffith says very politely. "We are not, is that correct? So that picture you are showing there, you would have to chop off the bottom part?"

The consultant says: "You would see that the bottom, rather than having this kind of a wide pedestrian promenade with the railings and the landscaping and all, you would have a very simple path."

Wait, wait, wait. Mentally, I'm back on the Woodward Avenue bus. A path? Don't talk for a second: Did you say a path?

Because, see, I can't tell you how important this is to me. I'm a simple person. I didn't go to Wharton. I still remember getting clipped pretty bad on the Woodward Avenue bus a few times, and it still stings, and I'm breathing kind of hard here. Trying to sort things out. I see a picture on the wall of sailboats and docks and boathouses. It looks like Paris and Vegas and San Francisco all rolled together. But what they said just now: They said it's a path?

No. No. In 1998 when they asked me to vote for this, they did not say a path.

What they are calling for now is an isolated mud hole walled by a roaring, stinking freeway, filled with stagnant water, snakes and mosquitoes. If this plan is allowed to go ahead the way they are talking about at this briefing, the idea of a beautiful park downtown will be dead forever.

Which is what the road hustlers want. The park is in their road. Let me tell you exactly what this plan really is: This is a plan to kill once and for all the concept of a Trinity River park and put the money instead in the new highway.

Slide No. 54 again, please! Last March when they were still diddling us on this, they said the road portion of the plan would cost $535 million. Now, eight months later, they say the road part will cost $786.6 million. Wow. It went up $251.6 million in eight months! Annualized, I believe that would make an inflation factor of 71 percent.

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