On the Record With Robert Decherd, The Quiet Scion Developing Parks In Downtown Dallas
Bruce Chambers/ZUMA Press/Newscom
When it comes to pivotal figures in Dallas, Robert Decherd is both iconic and unknown. He served as the president and CEO of A.H. Belo Corp. (Belo Corp. until 1998, when it spun off its newspaper business), owner of The Dallas Morning News, from 1987 to 2013, devoting himself to philanthropic public park projects after he left the company. This has led to progress and complaints as these projects come to fruition, with his Parks for Downtown Dallas organization spearheading the greening of downtown and sometimes edging competing projects out of the way.
What motivates him and his vision for downtown Dallas? His actions have spoken louder than his words, leading Forbes to list him as one of the nation's most powerful people and D Magazine to compare him to Howard Hughes "because he’s unapproachable."
While reporting a longer story (coming soon) about downtown parks, we sat down with Decherd in his office recently for a discussion about the city's past and future. What follows is a rare but valuable glimpse at the man who is quietly reshaping downtown, one green space at a time. The responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Dallas Observer: You don't do many interviews, do you?
Robert Decherd: No.
DO: What made you want to do this one?
RD: It actually is very simple. We have a contract with the city of Dallas to build a public park. In that context, we need to be available and approachable to everyone. If you're interested in doing a story on the park, I'm interested.
DO: The public can get the whole spiel from the press releases and everything, but what do you want people to know about where you're coming from with Pacific Plaza ... about the purpose it's going to serve?
RD: Our organization has a long history with the city, goes back 20 years almost, specifically related to the downtown parks that are in the city's master plan, that being the inception of the relationship between ... Parks for Downtown Dallas and the parks department. We've worked on every aspect of building permanent parks. They're very difficult to build in a built [up] environment. It's remarkable, I think, that the city of Dallas in the last decade has built three parks as a result of the first version of the master plan. That goes back to 2004. Three parks that were built were Klyde Warren, Main Street Garden, Belo Garden just right inside that window. [Points.] That is the reason we have an office here, actually.
What we know of that experience and what other cities know from having built parks in the center of whatever geography comprises the city itself: Parks have a remarkable effect on the way people interact with one another, the energy of the physical environment and the economic wellbeing of the city. These parks are tremendous tax generators in the long term because, just as you observed [of] these three parks; the real estate values around the parks and extending quite a distance from the parks increases. Those increases translate into tax revenues that are permanent. In turn, those tax revenues are not isolated. The tax revenue is available to the City Council to distribute across all 14 districts as they deem appropriate.
When you look at the combination of the social benefit, how people meet and interact with one another, the energy that is created by these parks and the economic outcome, it's a very powerful combination. We believe this is an opportunity for the city of Dallas. What we've done as an organization over these last two decades is support the actual implementation of the master plan.
Presently, in trying to build as expeditiously as possible, the four priority parks identified in the update of the master plan, which occurred in 2013, 2014 — I'd have to look; I'm sure Amy [Meadows, president of Parks for Downtown Dallas] could tell us the exact date the park board and the City Council approved unanimously the update of the master plan, but it's within the last couple of years — we essentially have said we want to be partners in whatever way we'd be helpful.
DO: When you stepped down from your role as CEO at Belo in 2013, did you become drastically less busy or did you just channel everything over to the parks situation?
RD: Probably the latter. We've all channeled a lot of energy toward the parks since we decided, formally decided in the fall of 2015, that we were going to commit the foundation's assets to this project. Before that, there was a year or so, our thinking about whether or not that was the right thing to do. The predecessor organization, the Belo Foundation, had given significantly to journalism education over a long period of time, as well as to parks and open space.
It was ultimately our decision that the place where we could have the most effect was in helping build these four priority parks because of the equation I described to you. There are a lot of people interested in journalism education. There's a lot of money flowing into that space. There's not a history in Dallas of financial support from private philanthropy for building parks. The leverage factor, if you will, is far greater in helping the city build these four parks than being a continuing participation in a very large field, namely journalism education.
DO: A lot of people might not know how far back your journalism background extends, working as a reporter in Baltimore in the 1970s.
RD: I think I was in journalism for 40-plus years .... I was very attracted to the idea of being a reporter, and ultimately an editor, in the newspaper world. That changed for a variety of reasons. I had an extraordinary opportunity to be involved in journalism across a wide range of types and places. It was a fabulous career.
DO: You have this reputation of being inaccessible. Mysterious maybe. I think this is a good opportunity to show people …
RD: ... that there's something there? I'll tell you what. I don't know what you were able to easily access in just a Google search or whatever. The most comprehensive description of what we all have done collectively in our company is the story the Morning News published when I retired. That pretty much is the story of this. I was surprised that we devoted so much ink to that event.
DO: To the retirement?
RD: Yeah. My approach for a number of important reasons has been the company is about our journalism; it's not about individuals. It was a wonderful story and recounted a lot of what we've done both journalistically, as a business, and civically. In that sense, it was a very welcome reminder of all the things we had done. I'm a lot happier getting things done than being worried about them.
DO: Do you read articles about you? Like ones that are critical?
RD: Well, if someone sends them to me, yeah. I don't bookmark out there "criticism of Robert Decherd." [Laughs.]
DO: Do you find them to be accurate, or do you just kind of roll your eyes?
RD: I don't roll my eyes. I just don't see much purpose served in A, reading about me at all; B, Dwelling on someone else's perception of me and whatever role is being described in an article. I don't spend any time chasing around blogs. It's not a good use of energy. Having been a journalist from the get-go and having lived in that world, it's not one article, it's not a group of articles. It's the whole body of work that matters, and I don't have to read it to know I'm doing OK.
DO: When you got here in the 1970s, what was downtown like? What was its state? I should say
when you moved back.
RD: It was in the early stages of decline. That's a loaded word. That's a very loaded word. When I say decline, I just mean in terms of measuring it by metrics. The number of people working downtown was beginning to decline. The number of companies moving out of downtown was increasing. The amount of public investment in downtown relative to historic benchmarks was declining. Tax base downtown was struggling to meet these buildings and infrastructure, struggling to remain level.
All these companies were moving. Las Colinas was new. What's now this unbelievable phenomenon around Legacy, that was literally fields when Ross Perot moved out there. The first wave of migration — maybe that's the better word: out-migration — Downtown Dallas was experiencing out-migration. That's a planning phrase or word. That out-migration persisted for 30 years. You probably marked the beginning of it in the late '60s, accelerated through the '70s and '80s.
There were some major economic shocks specific to Texas and Dallas in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By the time we were observing the first evidence of a comeback, it was the late '90s. It was a long time. Having said that, other center cities had a much worse time. As I said earlier, the recoverability factor we've always had, possibility of recovery. We've begun taking advantage of it in the last 20 years. Many cities just don't have the same opportunity, and that is a tough equation right now. I mean really tough.
DO: What do you think are the biggest issues facing downtown?
RD: Facing downtown? Let's first define the geography. There's the traditional downtown, which 20 years ago the mayor, Mayor Laura Miller, aptly described as the "inside of the loop" geography. In fact, we had a working group then called the Inside the Loop Committee that, at her request, took all the plans that had been done in recent years about how downtown would evolve, physical plans. Architects, landscape architects, urban planners. There were many, many plans, none of which had been very effectively implemented.
What Mayor Miller asked us to do is bring all that together into one simple, comprehensive physical plan for downtown so that everyone can understand what it is we're trying to accomplish. By that, I mean whether you be elected official, a bureaucrat, a businessman or woman, a civic leader, an activist, it doesn't matter. What is the physical environment and what do we need to do to improve it? At that point, the city was reacting to the snub by Boeing. I was a little amused by that because you would think one event suddenly was cataclysmic; it was when Boeing chose Chicago over Dallas for its headquarters [in 1998].
They were in Seattle, actually just outside of Seattle. It came down to Dallas and Chicago. Moreover, they had said explicitly they wanted to be downtown. It was comparing the two cities, not only through Boeing's prism but through a larger prism of media and other commentators. When that process concluded, it cast Chicago as a big winner and Dallas as a loser. [Keep] in mind that at the center of every city in America had gone through a slump in the late '60s through the late '80s. It was just a matter of degree and a matter of recoverability. Could you actually come back from all the problems that plagued downtowns across the country? Chicago was much further along in its recovery. Dallas was beginning to recover.
This was seen as a very important opportunity for Dallas to take, I'll say an incremental step. It didn't happen, so there was a lot of angst about that. When Miller became mayor, she looked at some of the recent accomplishments — the whole Victory development and American Airlines Center had just been opened — and said, "We have to do better. How do we marshal the private and public sector's resources, focus on the center of the city, downtown?" She defined it in those traditional terms, meaning inside the freeway loop.
Not long thereafter, partly because of the work of this Inside the Loop Committee, it became very clear to everyone that downtown was not a discrete geography. It was more a matter of a center city, so all these adjacent districts, Uptown particularly, began to be considered as part of downtown.
That's a long way of saying what are my thoughts about downtown Dallas. I focus on this original geography inside the freeway loop.
I think the things that are most important in the next 10 years are for the city to continue to invest heavily in this core, I'll say the traditional core, and to encourage the private sector to engage in partnerships like the one Parks for Downtown Dallas has with the city. Find a way to do the things that create a permanent state of dynamism in the center city, in the downtown core.
Uptown has its own vibe. Uptown is a miracle, an economic miracle. It also is overbuilt, too congested and still has more development to go. That's a whole different discussion about public policy and whether we should have planned that differently.
DO: Were you involved in that?
RD: No. I don’t set foot outside of the freeway loop. I'm teasing. No, my only interest is in this core because, even with the success of Uptown, the renaissance of Deep Ellum, the emergence of The Cedars, South Side, you know the whole story line — this amazing phenomenon in West Dallas — the center of the city still defines the city, more so than any of those other districts, both in perception and reality. The tax base in this geography is incredibly important to the long-term health of the city. The investments that we make here are going to yield substantially above-average long-term benefits, socially and economically. When you look at what's happened in this core area in the last 10 years, 15 years, you cannot help but be impressed, but there's a lot more to go. The parks we're building, the changes to the way streets work, in the center city, the core. Things like the width of sidewalks. The policies with respect to how both historic buildings and new buildings are managed by city rules.
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All of those things are very important. The world's full of cliches, but the livable, walkable idea is where the center of cities all over the world are headed. In the center of downtown Dallas has to be, ultimately, one of the best examples of that, if we are to realize the full potential of the city and to ensure that both the perception and the reality of Dallas are as dynamic as they can possibly be.
DO: How large a problem is homelessness downtown?
RD: I'm not an expert on homelessness, and I certainly wouldn't for a moment say that I'm well informed about the dynamics or the various dimensions of homelessness in Dallas. It is a problem all over the United States. It's a problem all over the world, but you really have to step back and say, "What exactly is the problem?" You have to define that. It's a community of men and women, mostly adults, who have a range of needs that are quite specific to their wellbeing. Either we in Dallas or our counterparts in cities around the country have done our best job in addressing it.
Mayor [Mike] Rawlings is a hero on this subject. He not only was the homeless czar, he has continued to be an advocate for dealing with these problems on a very direct and assertive way. It's a very complicated phenomenon, as you know.
Is it better or worse in Dallas? I think it's probably one person's perception, in the same band it's been for the last decade. There are peer cities that are just having a horrific time sorting this out. San Francisco is an example. Parts of San Francisco, Union Square going south, is a colony. We don't have that here. That's why I say it's been within the same range. It's not acceptable from a standpoint of conscience and social policy. But it’s not as acute as it is in many other cities.
DO: How do the bond elections play into the plan for downtown parks?
RD: Parks for Downtown Dallas said a year and a half ago that we are prepared to invest substantially all of our financial assets, helping the city of Dallas build these four priority parks — at any shape, form or fashion the park board and City Council deemed to be appropriate, so long as we agree that we're going to have a great outcome. We're going to build great parks. We don't want to just go, invest money on whims or bad ideas.
We want to invest in these parks provided they are the highest quality and will have the greatest benefit for the city of Dallas. That commitment was made with only one condition, the condition being the city would put a dollar-for-dollar match in its next bond program. Which at the time everyone thought would be in May of 2017, about a year and a half from when we began. This was October of '15. I guess that, conceivably, that bond program could have been put to the voters sooner. Just from our standpoint, that seemed to be the likely timing.
[Bonds are] how cities finance various projects. They go to the bond market — so there's the stock market and there's the bond market, right? Municipal bonds or state bonds, state of Texas can put bonds in the market as well. They are attractive to investors because they are secured by the assets of something big and permanent .... The state of Texas is not going to go bankrupt. The city of Dallas isn't going to go bankrupt, so they're secure, and the interest that you get as an investor is tax free. It's a whole market unto itself. I'll give you an example.
The city of Dallas wants to expand the convention center. They need $300 million to build whatever it is you're building. They would go to the bond market, the city would, with a $300 million bond issue is what it's called. Investors from all over the place would buy those bonds. The city's basically saying, "You buy the bonds, well pay you interest and ultimately we will give you back your capital." It's an income-producing investment for investors. Cities, in varying degrees, use that to finance infrastructure, parks, convention centers, whatever they may be. What we said is, the next time you have one of these programs, we're telling you we'll commit $35 million.
DO: To the city?
RD: To Parks for Downtown Dallas. At the time, the way it worked was we put $30 million of our assets into the parks program. We have firm commitments from two groups who will put in another $5 million, so there's $35 million. If the city will match with another $35 million, it gives you $70 million, and that's sufficient to build these four parks. There's a 30-minute digression about why all that math works, but it does.
That was October of 2015. As complicating factors have come along, whether it's the police and fire pension plan or whatever, all of this is extended. What we thought would be happening in a year or 18 months, now it could be another six months. It might be another year. Who knows? That's no concern to us. That's politics, that city finance. A lot of smart people are dealing with those things. We're just trying to help build the parks.
The reason I chuckled when you asked the question is at this point we have a great deal of money invested in these parks with no commitment from the city. There's a good-faith aspect to this.
DO: Are you nervous at all?
RD: No. We're very confident that ultimately the city and the City Council and the park board will find a way to put the public financing necessary into the parks .... For them to happen anytime soon, they need to include these funds in the upcoming bond program. What you’re talking about, I think, is that for Pacific Plaza, where the city, and with the help of Trust for Public Lands, has owned this site for more than 10 years. This was in the 2006 bond program, so that's 11 years ago. Nothing's happened on the site.
We ultimately said in December, "Look, we understand why there's a delay in deciding about the next bond program. We'll build that park. We'll basically cash-flow that, and we'll re-sequence the way that the public funding match applies to the other three parks.
DO: "Re-sequencing" has been characterized as you “moving money around” at the last minute.
RD: Yeah, it's re-sequencing the funding, whereas in October 2015, someone analyzing this would say, "OK, I get it. The city puts $35 million in a bond program. It passes. These folks over here have $35 million in private money. Every time we build a park ...."
DO: Those "folks" being you, right?
RD: Parks for Downtown Dallas and two private investors. Well, philanthropists. So you decide to build Pacific Plaza. It's a $15 million budget; $7.5 million comes from here, $7.5 million comes from here. That's a wonderful idea. It was the original idea and would happen in an orderly ... how to say, shared manner. Time is not our ally. There's demand for these parks. People want them. The park board and the City Council long since approved the master plans to build them. It's going to become more expensive, not less, to build these parks as inflation and other factors enter in. We looked at it and said, "OK, we'll cash-flow this park, so that's $15 million." That means that the city, which doesn't have the bonds out there, can't put any money in. Later, for example, when it's time to build Harwood Park, the city will probably put in the majority of that funding because we've already spent our part of it over here on Pacific Plaza. See what I mean?
That's what I mean by re-sequencing. Rather than the starting line, $1 for $1, we're pre-funding. Maybe that's one way of thinking about it. We're pre-funding our portion of the total of $70 million — 35 from the city, 35 from our sources. We're pre-funding, in the case of Pacific Plaza, $15 million of construction costs, and we're creating a $1 million endowment. Nobody asked us to do that; we just know these parks need endowments.
DO: Who are the philanthropists, besides you? Who is donating?
RD: The Carpenter family. One of the four parks is Carpenter Park in the master plan. Their family helped build it in the late 1970s. Been a public park for 40 years, and it needs to be renovated in a big way. The other thing I'm sure you've come across this: Our match at this point is up to $44 million on our side. It's not even a one-to-one match anymore. We've found other resources, so the city puts in $35 million, we put in $44 million. That's a pretty good deal, and we have the money. We don't have to go raise this. This is all exists, and that's a very important point.
DO: What's it going to cost to Dallas taxpayers?
RD: To do what? Build a park?
RD: You would make the case that the interest paid on the bonds is a cost of building the parks. Ultimately, the city has to pay back the bonds, so if the city has $35 million in this bond program, you would think of it as a $35 million investment by the taxpayers into these parks. That's where you have to go back to this equation I talked about at the outset between both the social benefits — the resulting energy created by these parks, the resulted energy in the economic impact, which is quite significant. The city puts $30 million into these parks; they have a private sector partner that's putting in $44 million, which doesn't cost the city anything.
These parks increasing .... Let's just pick a number. I'm making this up. These parks over the next 10 years increase property values by $200 million. The city invested $30 million and you got a $200 million increase in property value. That's a pretty good investment. In that sense, it doesn't cost the taxpayers anything.
DO: You’re saying it'll come out in the wash.
RD: I think it only comes out in the wash. This is a living example of product placement. Whoever did that wash is going to have an incredible .... The towels will be numerous and perfectly cleaned and stacked in nice stacks. It's a big win for the taxpayers. I know we have to have streets and infrastructure. Everybody knows that, but those are pure investments. The argument about a return on investment is a lot more tenuous with repairing streets that should have been fixed 20 years ago, replacing pipes that are 80 years old. You kind of go down that list, they're all necessary to the quality of life in the city and its attractiveness to current and future residents, businesses, the usual list.
Parks distinguish physical space. Think about the physical environment inside the freeway loop. If you could have seen it in 2000 and look at it today, it's a completely different experience and all to the positive. We were doing the inside-of-the-loop work in 2001, 2002. Maybe it was 2002 or 2004. One of favorite my throwaway lines was, "Why do we need to do this?" Because it is impossible to walk from one side of downtown to the other and have a good experience. Today, it's becoming a very positive, exciting, interesting experience for a lot of reasons. Parks are right at the top of that list.
DO: The bond issue is not quite ready for a vote.
RD: The City Council needs to agree on what's going to be funded by the bond. That process is underway as we speak. It's been underway in different forms for the last year and a half. What we are told is that the council hopes to determine what would be in that program by the end of June. There would be what's called a bond election in November, wherein voters would vote up or down on maybe four or five proposition[s], one of which would be funding for parks. Our projects would be in that funding-for-parks component of the bond program. Until that happens, we cannot say for certain if the public-funding match is in place. It's not; in fact, the council hasn't even determined whether $35 million would be in this bond program.
We're very hopeful. The four priority parks are a category of one among all these choices. This is the only category where the specific outcome has been defined. So there's a master plan [that] says, "These are the four priority parks. We know where they are." They know generally what they're going to look like. The park board and the City Council have both unanimously approved the plan. We have a private funding partner that is going to match more than one for one, whatever the city invests, and they have the money.
DO: That's the Carpenters?
RD: No, that's us. That's Parks for Downtown Dallas. Well, with the Carpenter family and that foundation. The majority, now $30-plus million for Parks for Downtown Dallas, these are funds in hand, and basically we're ready to go. There is no other project that has all those characteristics. If there is, I don't know what it is.
DO: Have you always been, throughout the '70s and '80s, interested in the parks aspect of downtown?
RD: I have. Much more so today. I think I know more about the role that parks play and just the whole phenomenon. When The Dallas Morning News celebrated its centennial in 1985, we built a turnkey park and gave it to the city of Dallas. That was a very modest project in retrospect, but [my efforts] began with that. We helped with the police memorial and, you know, I could go down the list. I personally have a keen appreciation for the importance of parks for a long time.
DO: Is there anything about the issue that you think is lost among the funding and fighting?
RD: Look, this is really simple. It's about helping the city build great parks. People choose to make that complicated. I understand that phenomenon, but we've totally channeled on one thing, [which] is how do we get these parks built? By "we," I mean the city of Dallas.
No. We have a contract to, on the city's behalf, to build Pacific Plaza, so as soon as we get the site from the city — they have to finish some environmental work — we'll have people ready to build the park by this time next year at the latest. We own substantially — Parks for Downtown Dallas — substantially all of the property for Harwood Park, so we're caretaking then until the city has the money to build the park. Carpenter Park at the far end of downtown, that's the one if you go to south and center.
Do you know where the DART Transfer Station is at the east end of downtown? It's the side just beyond that. It's been torn up for a number of years because of street changes and whatnot. We have that, we being the park department and Parks for Downtown Dallas, through the design, development stage. That can go to construction drawings as soon as the bond program passes.
We're very busy. It's just the timing is going to be dictated by funding. That's always the case. If this bond program includes $35 million for the four downtown parks, the priority parks, we'll have three of them under construction within the next two years, two to three years at the outside.
DO: You have all the moving parts.
RD: They're all there. They're ready to be synchronized and go.
DO: You're ready for the City Council to get this ball rolling.
RD: A lot of people are anxious about that. It's us; it’s the trails people. That's Trust for Public Lands. The trails is an enormous and important project that literally connects all the trail systems around Dallas. It's not just the Katy Trail. There are numerous trails, Santa Fe and others. I don't know all the details. The parks department is very focused on that as well. They have pledges for a lot of money, so there's a match there. But there are others. There are always far more ideas competing for these dollars than there are dollars. My point is — what we tried to make consistently — we understand that. All of these are meritorious. We're for as much smart investment as this City Council is willing to make in any or all of these kind of projects. When you step back and just look at it dispassionately, we're the only project where all of these moving parts, as you said, are in place and ready to be synchronized and go. We can get going very quickly. There are no contingencies other than let's match the money and go.
DO: We're still seeing Dallas' recovery downtown that you say started in the 1990s. What do you think was the impetus, and does it still apply?
RD: Cliches are abundant. The story line is the "can-do" city. You go back to the Time magazine cover; I think it was from the '60s or early '70s. The attitude in Dallas has always been no project is too big. No idea is too complex. If we set our minds to it, we can do this. That has served the city very well for a long time. It creates some interesting political tensions — lot of misperceptions, I'd say, about people’s motives and all the stuff we journalists like to write about. The simple fact is Dallas has an unusual attitude as a city.
Between its political, civic and private-sector leadership, we do things that other cities just can't even imagine being possible. We found a point in the late '90s where we said, "Enough. We've got to fix this. We've been observing out-migration and all of its effects for too long, and here we are." It's pretty amazing.
If you told me that what you experienced walking and driving around the center city, Uptown, Deep Ellum, Cedars, South Lamar and so on would look like this in 2017, I would say it's impossible. Only 10 years ago, I said, 2025, 2030, maybe.
This is amazing acceleration. It has good aspects. It has some negative aspects, but we need to make sure we get this right. That's why these parks, among many reasons, are so important. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
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