By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
We're about to get a good example. In this act the pretty girl in a harem suit will be Ted Benavides, Dallas city manager, who is about to disappear before our very eyes. The trap door--the thing they don't want us to watch--is a huge transit decision that can either turn downtown into a crapped-out Vaudeville house or turn the lights on like Broadway.
Benavides is gone. The only question is how soon. The mayor wants him gone now. But she's at her usual voting strength of a third of what it takes. That's going to have to be our new nickname for her, if we do T-shirts. "Laura (a third of what it takes) Miller."
A strong majority on the council feel loyalty toward Benavides but believe he does have to go sometime soon. They think The Dallas Morning News is out to get him in ways he and they can't survive. But they also know that the big things being pinned on him--especially the city's scary backlog of sewer, water and street repairs--are not his fault.
For his sake, they want him to go with dignity. For their own sakes, they want him to go in a way that won't allow the mayor to claim a scalp. He'll ring the cash register in November on his big pension anniversary date, and it'll be adios, amigos soon after that.
Both sides will act as if this is the most amazing and astounding spectacle ever brought to the American stage, performed here for the first time since its discovery on ancient stone tablets recently unearthed in the long-lost tomb of Nabobkadoozer. They will urge us to keep our eyes on the maiden at all times.
Please. That's no maiden. That's Ted Benavides. One city manager goes. Another one shows up. It's just a guy in a job.
Here's the thing to watch: the second DART train line through downtown. And just to save you some time, let me telegraph my punch line here a little: If it goes down Elm Street, preferably in a subway, the new rail line has the potential to create that wonder of wonders--life without automobiles! We could see an explosion of downtown population and commerce unlike anything this or any other Western inland metropolis has seen since the arrival of the railroads in the late 19th century.
That is not what the prestidigitators want to do. Forget all the costumes and the outlandish stage names. Forget "Laura Miller, mayor of Dallas, former tabloid terminatrix, scourge of the gentry." Think of her as "Laura, handmaiden to Robert," as in Robert Decherd, chairman and CEO of Belo Corp., owner of The Dallas Morning News.
Decherd wants a second rail alignment down Jackson Street on downtown's far south side, bringing the trains right through the southwest corner of downtown where Belo and the Decherd/Dealey clan hold most of their land.
If Decherd gets his way, downtown is dead. Within a few years the last brave restaurants will close their doors, and downtown will return to its normal status as a bus stop/urinal. You don't want to talk about urine? OK, let's talk about "what is a second rail alignment?" Excellent question.
DART and the city of Dallas have a contract with each other, called an interlocal agreement, requiring DART to build a second rail line through downtown when train traffic on the Pacific Avenue Mall through downtown reaches a certain level. Think about it. Car traffic has to stop for trains. If you get to the point where the trains whizzing up and down Pacific are so thick they form a virtual wall, then cars and trucks can never get through them to cross downtown.
And even if you put a second line down Elm Street, which is the next street over, it does more or less the same thing. Getting through the trains whizzing up and down Elm and then the trains whizzing up and down Pacific a block away would be like a nightmare video game, "Train Frogger."
"Hey, where's Mom?"
"Sorry, son, we won't be seeing Mom again. She drove...DOWNTOWN."
One solution--the bad one--is to move the second line four blocks south, across town to Decherdville, by bringing it down Jackson Street. Why is that bad? Oh, just this: If you want to switch from line to line, you'd have to walk four blocks through the 130-degree Fahrenheit and the going-to-the-toi-toi people.
Even if some kind of dumb buslet is provided to bump you back and forth from line to line, it's a bunch of waiting outdoors. People won't do it. There are algorithms for this: It's called "impedance" in transit talk. Bottlenecks. Create a certain magnitude of hassle, and people will not use the system. They certainly won't base a whole new lifestyle on it. Instead, the rail system will be relegated forever to brown-baggers on the way to work instead of cosmopolites out for dinner and a play.
The trigger point for choosing the second rail alignment is right now. Haven't read much about this in The Dallas Morning News recently? Yeah, that's odd, isn't it? But the time for a decision is now. I discussed this in some detail last week with Douglas A. Allen, DART's executive vice president for program development, who told me that DART's new southeast and northwest lines will put the downtown train traffic over the top.
Speaking of the second downtown line, Allen said: "We will actually start the detailed planning this fall."
In order to do detailed planning in the fall, they have to know where the train's going to go. Now.
For six years that I know of, forward-looking downtown players such as developer John Tatum have been telling anybody who would listen that the second train line must go down Elm Street, either in a subway or on an elevated bridge system. DART was required by its interlocal agreement with Dallas to keep $350 million in its budget for this project, and Tatum, one of the early members of the DART board, not on it now, believes that's close to enough money for a subway.
And even if it's not, look at what Tatum and others believe a subway would do: A subway down Elm Street would be an air-conditioned escalator ride from the Pacific Avenue Mall or an escalator ride in the opposite direction to Main Street. All of a sudden, huge things start happening.
You can live downtown, and you can fly all over the city within the portals of the train system. No sweaty, four-block trudge paying two bucks in homeless tax every block and a half. Or you can come downtown from any of the four corners of the map, pop off the train for lunch, zip on somewhere else to see a store and zip back home.
No impedance. Lots and lots of people.
The city begins to be able to do powerful things for downtown real estate--things that don't involve tax subsidies. For example, the city could waive the parking requirements for residential towers along DART's double corridor through downtown. Why require parking if developers can rent space at a profit to carless loft-dwellers? All of a sudden, downtown residential real estate has a significant cost advantage over equivalent space elsewhere.
Who wants to be auto-free? Are you kidding? Me! No gas. No insurance. No bump shop. No car! Oh, man, you're talking about heaven. If I need a car, I rent the sucker. I love rental cars. I especially love taking them back.
If that new rail line comes down Elm in a tube, you're talking about a people magnet that would change downtown almost overnight--bright lights, big city instead of Urinetown.
The Decherdville plan, a train down Jackson Street, is Urinetown. Why am I so convinced that's what he wants? Did he tell me that? No, he won't take my calls. I tried. And you are perfectly free, by the way, to call me paranoid. I don't mind. I have even considered forming one of those self-help groups around the proposition that, if you think you may be paranoid, one of the healthiest things you can do is try to find a way to make a living off of it.
I'm convinced. For the last several years, Decherd has been pushing and shoving, nudging and budging to get Jackson Street all lined up for the train. Several years ago he tried to get the city council to close most of it for no apparent reason, and the council, to its credit, refused. Then he went off on his "open space" crusade to create strange parks up and down Jackson Street, one of them dedicated to former employees of his TV station. Do you ever see yourself loading up the family for a picnic in Former TV Station Employee Park?
He even built a kind of faux transit station across from the Belo Building. I call it his Potemkin DART village. I couldn't figure out what it was for when I first wrote about it ("Belo the Belt," December 5, 2002).
I get it now. He wants to suck that train line down Jackson Street so it will go right through Decherdville. It's a terrible idea. The DART second rail alignment is the one real window that's ever going to open for a vibrant downtown. The Decherdville line would kill it.
That's the act you want to keep your eye on. Forget Benavides in a harem suit. Seductive as that concept may be.