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Artful dodger

Ray Nasher was not wearing silk pajamas. This much I can tell you.
But beyond that, people aren't saying a whole lot about the unusual meeting held one afternoon last winter at Ray Nasher's home on lushly wooded Miron Drive in North Dallas.

The meeting was held at 3 p.m. on February 15, during 74-year-old Nasher's recovery from his third hip operation in almost as many years. Nasher, who was limping badly, had summoned his visitors to his home rather than to his spacious office on Central Expressway opposite NorthPark, the fabulously successful mall Nasher developed 30 years ago.

This intimate get-together was far too important to postpone. It was, in fact, one of the opening salvos in a great campaign--the latest in a war Nasher had been waging unsuccessfully for 26 years. This time, Nasher was determined to have things go his way.

All he needed was a favor from Dallas City Hall.
Specifically, he needed the city to approve a zoning change on an extremely valuable chunk of property that is part of his NorthPark empire--39 acres of raw, undeveloped, grassy pasture at the southwest corner of Northwest Highway and North Central Expressway. Formerly part of the old Caruth family farm, circa 1850, it is now the past-the-parking-lot, pastoral view from the patio tables at Barney's in-house Italian restaurant.

Nasher bought the undeveloped land--the largest such tract in that coveted part of town--in 1980 with every intention of developing it to its fullest commercial potential.

But there was a glitch.
The land had long been zoned single-family residential. And try as Nasher might--and he'd started trying 10 years even before he purchased the property--he could not get the city to change the zoning for him. That's because the 3,000-plus homeowners who live in the area around his shopping mall had always been willing to fight him tooth and toenail. Their last great duel was back in 1991, when Nasher suffered an inglorious 6-8 defeat at the hands of the City Plan Commission--a group of private citizens appointed by the city council to vote on such requests after they've been embraced or scorned by the city staff.

Nasher was not about to be thwarted again. So, among other things, he had called this meeting--a very private meeting for a handful of very influential people who could get him what he wanted.

First there was Tim Byrne, the good-looking, Jaguar-driving president of the residential division of Lincoln Property Company, one of the country's biggest apartment and office builders. Lincoln had agreed to buy Nasher's 39-acre tract from him--that is, if Nasher and Lincoln could persuade the city to change the zoning to permit more lucrative uses.

Then there was Larry Good, an unassuming, talented architect who had offices in hip Oak Lawn, where he had worked slavishly during Christmas week to prepare a detailed layout of Lincoln's vision for the property--which, at this point, we'll describe as Epcot Center meets The Village.

Sitting at Ray Nasher's dining-room table that Thursday afternoon, architect's renderings in hand, Byrne and Good were very much the eager pitchmen. The people they were pitching to--who sat on the other side of the table and took in the full 30-minute dog and pony show--were none other than Dallas City Manager John Ware and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. Nasher had personally invited both men to come up and preview his latest big plan--a highly unusual thing for a zoning applicant to request, let alone receive.

As Larry Good put it, reflecting on the importance of that meeting several months ago, "We wanted to make sure John would say something like, 'I'll make sure the staff gives strong attention to this.' It was important to make sure the staff's highest representative was there with the highest ranking public official. It seemed like the right thing to do."

The right thing for Nasher's interests, at least.
Although Kirk won't talk at all about what happened at Nasher's home--and Ware will only say, in his typically cryptic manner, that he listened politely to the gentlemen's requests for help but didn't act on them--Nasher is, so far, batting one thousand at City Hall.

Last week, the city planning staff most enthusiastically recommended that virtually everything Lincoln Properties wants to build on Nasher's land be approved--despite the still-vehement opposition from Nasher's NorthPark neighbors, who are represented by 17 indignant homeowner associations, two churches, and one school.

This week, on the afternoon of Thursday, September 12, the City Plan Commission chairman--weak-kneed, mayoral water carrier Hector Garcia, restaurant captain to the city's movers and shakers at night and point man on their development dreams by day--is going to lead the charge to get that recommendation approved.

With any luck at all, it's going to be one hell of a fight.  

It must be said here that the actions of the mayor and the city manager are certainly understandable.

After all, if you were the leaders of an administration that had yet to accomplish anything big--no sports arena, no Trinity River development, not even a little White Rock dredging--you, too, would slobber all over a short little man and his zoning case, especially when he dangles a $200 million-plus, world-class sculpture collection in front of you as a potential gift to the city he loves.

Which is exactly what Ray Nasher is doing.
Of course, he would never admit that the two events were connected. (He had his chance to explain away the apparent linkage, but he declined to be interviewed for this story--just as he has steadfastly avoided discussing his development plans with the NorthPark homeowners.) And, of course, everyone involved in this sophisticated little shell game swears that Ray Nasher's sudden impulse to make the city the recipient of his luscious art collection while simultaneously negotiating a zoning change is pure coincidence.

In fact, if you even attempt to discuss a connection, people become downright insulted--if not perfectly terrified--that the subject ever came up.

"I don't think it's right for me to comment one way or another on this case," says lawyer Susan Mead, who until recently worked on behalf of Lincoln on this case and who, upon hearing that I'd been told she may have purposely mentioned the Nasher art collection and the zoning case in the same breath, left me four separate voice-mail messages to emphasize her lack of comment on the complete lack of connection between the two.

"But I did want to let you know that there's absolutely no involvement with the Nasher art collection and this zoning case," she told my machine. "None. That is illegal; everybody knows it's illegal. And, as far as I know--and I don't know a lot--the City of Dallas has been talking to Ray Nasher for years about this collection, and I don't even know if there's anything going on currently about that. So whatever you want to attribute to me--unless it's as I've just stated that: A) I don't know much about it, and B) it's illegal; be careful, because I'm not involved, and I don't really want to be involved."

OK, you're not involved. And we don't know if it's illegal or not. Still, we must consider this striking chronology.

Five weeks before Nasher entertained John Ware and Ron Kirk at his home about his zoning case, he entertained John Ware and Ron Kirk at his office about his donating of his art collection. Councilwoman Mary Poss, who chairs the city's arts committee, was included in that January 4 afternoon meeting, and--unlike the wheeling and dealing Stealth Brothers, Ron and John--she's more open about what went on behind the scenes in the name of the public's best interests.

"We were talking to Mr. Nasher about the possibility of giving his modern sculpture collection to the city," says Poss. "And Mr. Nasher indicated that it was very much on his mind, and he wanted us to continue discussions."

And so the discussions have continued--incestuously intermingled with the zoning discussions. This past July, just two weeks after Lincoln Properties requested that the plan commission postpone a scheduled July 11 vote on its proposal because Lincoln was afraid it didn't have the votes, Nasher hosted an intimate sculpture garden tour at his home for his new best friends at City Hall.

"We went over to his house to talk about the art collection and to see part of the art collection," says Poss, who was joined by John Ware, Ron Kirk, Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm, and Deedie Rose, chairman of the board of the Dallas Museum of Art. "We sat in his dining room, had coffee, and walked around."

On August 1, Nasher followed up the visit with a fawning, completely noncommittal letter to Ware.

"Further to our recent conversation, I am writing to confirm my willingness to consider entering into an arrangement with the City of Dallas and the Dallas Museum of Art whereby a major part of my modern and contemporary art collection would be made available on loan to the DMA for public display," the letter stated. "The loan would be permanent so long as the DMA continues in existence and so long as it satisfies mutually agreeable conditions for the display and management of the collection."

These meaningless overtures to City Hall got Kirk and Ware so overstimulated that Ware has designated $250,000 from his proposed city budget to hire outside experts to come up with a formal proposal for Nasher to consider--some public-private package that would include land acquisition, plans for a indoor-outdoor home for the sculpture, and a healthy endowment that would ensure the care and maintenance of the collection for perpetuity.  

In mid-August, City Hall reporters "discovered" the budgeted item, and The Dallas Morning News immediately launched a typically boosterish appeal--in the form of news stories and a lead editorial, none of which even mentioned the tandem zoning case--for public support for the project.

And while Kirk, Ware, and Poss may truly believe that Ray Nasher is seriously in love with them--and that he will put aside his natural tendency to, very a la Ray Hunt, screw the City of Dallas taxpayers to the wall every chance he has--citizens just have to let history be their guide.

First let's address Nasher's well-documented lack of generosity with his beloved city.

In 1982, not long after he purchased the Caruth farm, Nasher discovered a loophole in state law that would permit him to dramatically lower his taxes on the property. Created by the Texas Legislature specifically to protect farmers, who cannot be guaranteed a good living thanks to Mother Nature, the law decrees that open agricultural space should be taxed on the value of the food or fiber it produced, not its market value.

Since the neighbors wouldn't let Nasher develop the property, Nasher claimed the agricultural exemption--citing the fact that he allowed a farmer to bale hay on the property once a year. The City of Dallas--seeing the property's taxes plummet from $87,000 a year to $56, cried foul--but lost at the appeal level due to the fact that the law did, in fact, have a loophole that rich guys could take advantage of. "The fact that Mr. Nasher is a man of means is of no consequence," Nasher's attorney, Alvin Badger, said at the time. At some point later Nasher began paying the proper amount on that land.

Nor was Mr. Nasher's wealth of any consequence, apparently, when the city and state--after years of complaints about the terrible congestion on North Central Expressway--decided to ante up the money to widen the road. In order to do that, of course, a lot of people who owned land along the freeway were forced to sell some of their property to the taxpayers. A task force of blue-ribbon business people was assembled to visit with the biggest property owners and try to encourage them to donate their property for the public good. Property owners Trammell Crow and Fort Worth tycoon Robert Bass both did so.

Not Nasher. In fact, Nasher not only didn't donate any of his NorthPark acreage, but when the state and city came back with a $13 million offer, he demanded $52 million. When the highway department boys pointed out that Nasher was losing only 500 parking spaces--for which he apparently wanted $100,000 apiece--Nasher responded that it wasn't just the parking spaces but the chaos that would be created from the construction and, worse, the possibility that the completed highway that would ostensibly speed customers to his mall could "permanently impair the mall's ability to attract customers" by blocking their view of it.

Nasher held his ground for two years--until the case was slated to go to court, a development that could have tarnished Nasher's international reputation as a hot date (a widower, he dated comedian Joan Rivers a few years ago) and a cultured man who has always generously loaned out sculptures to other cities and museums.

One month before trial, Nasher agreed to settle for $26 million--a figure that made the Dallas City Council choke, seeing as how the city taxpayers had to pay 25 percent of that.

Today, of course, is a new day.
And now, when Nasher's people argue his case down at City Hall this week--and you can be sure he won't be anywhere in sight when the tawdry fireworks begin--his side will be arguing that the expansion of North Central Expressway is the greatest thing that's ever happened to this city. That will be the defense when homeowner after homeowner stands up and explains why the already insane traffic in their part of town is why they're deathly afraid of turning an empty pasture into three or four office towers as high as 14 stories, a big strip shopping center, a retirement home, a luxury hotel, and a sprawling apartment complex with 30 to 40 units per acre.

The audacity of Ray Nasher is staggering. It's downright perverse to whip lowly public servants and a freshly minted mayor into a complete frenzy when the truth is that Nasher has played this game many times before.

When John Ware was promoted to city manager three years ago, Nasher invited Ware--a lifetime bureaucrat who lives in a modest rent house in far North Dallas and, like most of us, probably thought a Giacometti was a new tomato sauce--up to his estate. Nasher took Ware on the requisite walking tour of his private sculpture gardens. Soon Ware was deeply involved in a series of discussions between Nasher and former Mayor Steve Bartlett, who was also smitten with the idea of bagging such a magnificent collection for the city.  

Join the club.
"He told me he was being courted rather heavily by other cities and other museums, but all things being equal he would like to stay in Dallas," recalls Bartlett. "But other cities and other museums were making other significant offers--there were pretty regular appeals for it.

"We did as much as we could with internal City Hall staff--securing proposals, providing schedules--nothing compared to other cities that were offering full-blown plans."

Bartlett admits he became terribly excited at the prospect of securing a commitment from Nasher. It never happened--not even close. "I thought reasonable people could get together and make this happen," Bartlett says. "I was eager. I met with DMA officials several times. But they quickly told me these things take years to develop the right relationship, the right feel, the right place."

The right zoning case?
Actually, non-City Hall types are sick to death of doing this slow dance with Nasher. They've learned that, after a decade or more of such loose conversations, Nasher isn't handing over anything to the public anytime soon.

This is, after all, a man who bought a piece of land across the street from his house on very private, circular Miron Drive some years back, tore down the house that was sitting on it, turned the acre-plus into a private sculpture garden, and subsequently tacked up "No Trespassing" signs all over it, lest some nosy North Dallas housewife wanted to plant her Ferragamos on the grass. It should also be noted here that the one time Nasher deigned to share some of his sculpture with the world--five pieces--he sold them for a princely sum to a museum in Kansas City that hustled up the money from the family that founded greeting-card company Hallmark.

That's not to say that a donation from Nasher wouldn't be one of the greatest things that has ever happened to this city--his collection includes more than 250 pieces of the world's most magnificent modern sculpture. The best museums in the world want it. People would fly here just to see it.

Which is the point, of course.
At this moment, Nasher has Ron Kirk and John Ware so lathered up about the chances of snagging a worldwide draw like the Nasher Collection that it makes their eagerness to build a new sports arena look like a passing infatuation.

As we already know, John Ware and some of his staff members were willing to lie consistently to the city council and the Dallas public in their Holy Grail crusade to give two other millionaires, Don Carter and Ray Hunt, a new sports arena. In fact, their underhanded behavior cost Ware's No. 2 man, Cliff Keheley, his job last year. An argument could have been made that Ware should have lost his job instead.

Faced with the even greater glory of getting Nasher's art, it is frightening to think of how far Ware--and Kirk, who mysteriously and disconcertingly insists on doing all his mayoral deal-making in private--will go this time.

Last February 15, both men--despite Ware's protestations to the contrary--were certainly eager to help Nasher get his zoning case through the system that had failed him before.

As Tim Byrne and Larry Good explained to me some months after their meeting that day with Ware and Kirk, the two City Hall leaders were filled with both advice and promises.

Ware promised to get them all the staff attention they needed, the two men told me. And, indeed, Byrne and Good were soon meeting privately with the city's new planning and development director, Cherryl Peterman, and the city's plan commission chairman, Hector Garcia. (Ware says he did not set up either meeting.) Thanks to the meeting with Peterman, Good told me, Lincoln was able to hand-pick the city planner they wanted on the case--Karl Crawley, the planner who had embraced Nasher's proposal in 1991, when it was spurned by the plan commission.

"We did get Karl Crawley assigned--[he's] the most experienced and appropriate for the case," Good told me. "Cherryl Peterman appointed him."

That took care of staff. Then there was the plan commission to consider.
Good and Byrne told me that in the meeting at Nasher's home they had explained to Kirk and Ware that they wanted the city to do something that Susan Mead, one of their two zoning attorneys, had recommended to them.  

(Interesting aside: As though they weren't doing enough to ram this thing through, the Nasher-Lincoln faction took the incredibly unusual step of hiring both Susan Mead and Kirk Williams--who, as two of the top zoning lawyers in the city, compete for clients. The point was, of course, to prevent the monied NorthPark neighbors from hiring either lawyer. Lucky for them, Lincoln didn't hire Michael Jung--a brilliant lawyer and local zoning whiz who, as a member of the plan commission in 1991, voted against Nasher's last proposal. The homeowners hired him in May at a cost of $19,000, which they collected from among themselves. "If this was at Loop 12 and South Central Expressway, the neighborhood would just be run roughshod over," Jung told me. "Here you have some of the wealthiest, most influential people in the City of Dallas opposing this, and still it's a horse race. They could lose.")

Mead's recommendation to her client was a good one. Typically, a zoning case is handled by the plan commissioner whose district the proposed project is located in--reasonable, seeing as how the plan commissioner living closest to the project is presumed to know the area best. Mead, though, shrewdly wanted a coalition of plan commission members to be appointed to study the project and make a recommendation. The effect of this would to be to dilute the influence of plan commission member Mitchell Rasansky, who was sympathetic to the homeowners and was an appointee of councilwoman Donna Blumer, champion of all those angry North Dallas neighbors who successfully fought off the Tinseltown multiplex project a few years ago.

Byrne and Good presented this idea to Ware and Kirk, they told me, and both officials quickly embraced the idea. The following week, plan commission chairman Garcia called Rasansky, who had already begun meeting with a handful of homeowners and Lincoln to try to reach a consensus. "Hector said, 'Mitchell, there is one case that the plan commission is handling that will truly have a citywide effect on the City of Dallas--NorthPark,'" Rasansky recalls. "'And this is too big for one person to handle.'"

Rasansky strongly disagreed--especially when he heard that Garcia was limiting the task force to three people. Rasansky would be joined by a well-respected but strongly pro-developer member named Rob Richmond, and a freshman member of the commission, Arnold Blair, who was a Ron Kirk appointee. Rasansky asked Garcia to reconsider the plan during the weekend, but the following Thursday, February 29, Garcia announced at the plan commission meeting that he had decided to appoint the NorthPark task force. At Rasansky's request, Garcia did add a fourth member, Carol Scott, who had a strong record of working with homeowner groups.

"It's just a shame that politics have entered into this," Rasansky says today. "When Hector appointed this task force, I said, 'Hector, I know this is not your idea; this is coming from somewhere else,' and he just smiled. This is not in the best interest of these Dallas homeowners. If Nasher prevails, the homeowners are the victims, and if this persists--that just a few people get their way--it could turn out like this in any other commissioner's district. It's got to stop."

Nasher, of course, has the city right where he wants it. After all, how incredibly flattering for our new mayor that a man of Ray Nasher's stature would even think of turning over a life's work to a city that couldn't even keep our one Henry Moore sculpture free of urine and graffiti. Never mind that it was sitting right there on City Hall Plaza--right under the windows of the last city manager and mayor. (It's still there, and after much howling from the public, the city finally cleaned it up.)

It's possible, of course, that the plan commission will do the right thing and reject Lincoln's application. After all, wouldn't it be reasonable to wait to see how Nasher's recently revealed plans to double the size of NorthPark affects an already overburdened neighborhood before approving even more development?

If the plan commission doesn't knuckle under, Lincoln promises to appeal the vote to the city council this time--something Nasher didn't do five years ago. And that's where the promise of that art collection will really do its magic. If you don't believe me, just ask Mary Poss--a good, hardworking councilwoman who is extremely responsive to her constituents and would think long and hard about the wishes of 3,000 united North Dallas homeowners.

Could she press that "no" button, knowing she would jeopardize the city's chances of getting the Nasher Collection--no matter how slim a chance the city might have to get it? "These are two completely separate projects with very separate timetables," Poss told me carefully, "and I would like to think that I could look at the facts of each and make two, totally separate decisions. I'd like to believe I could do that."  

We'll see.


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