A couple of days ago The Dallas Morning News reported that the new Audubon Center, a vaunted jewel in the tiara of the Trinity River project, is sucking wind already, failing to attract the visitors and income the city had hoped for.
Being mean to bird-watchers is difficult even for me, but I can't let this moment pass without asking you to see the parallel here with that other great jewel in the same crown, the Trinity River "white water feature."
The white water feature, intended to be a frothy Colorado-style rapids for kayakers plumped down in the middle of the thick sluggish Trinity River, is now a $4 million white elephant, not just totally useless but dangerous, the cause for a total ban on kayaking and canoeing in that part of the river.
Apparently it is not merely broken but unfixable. Now years in to this, city officials are still handing out mumbled excuses, claiming they are "pursuing litigation," when in fact they are calling up the contractors who designed and built the thing and asking them if they would mind taking the blame and eating the cost of completely rebuilding it.
The answer is no, surprise, surprise. So there it sits, an ugly mound of concrete and steel rebar in the middle of the river, looking less like the white elephant itself than the white elephant's petrified doo-doo.
The News reported that the Trinity River Audubon Center is drawing visitors at far lower are than the expected rate when the center opened four years ago. The story included a softly revisionist statement from center director Ben Jones about those expectations: "The mission of this center is to restore and protect this site and to engage people in conservation."
Yeah, well, what Jones and the story sort of neglected to tell readers is that the expectations and the mission for the center are a lot more specific than that, having been reduced to writing in a management agreement based on promises made to the city by National Audubon Society, which runs the place, and an outside consultant when the center was being proposed in 2005. Those promises and that agreement are important to you and me because you and I are pumping about 350 grand a year into the center as a subsidy straight out of the city's general fund, and those payments are supposed to be tied to very specific performance goals.
The Morning News story quotes city park department officials saying what the center needs is more money for marketing, above and beyond the current $100,000 a year marketing budget. But, wait. Wait. Here comes the creep. I'm talking about budget creep.
We need to know, please, exactly where the Audubon Center stands in terms of the goals it agreed to in the original management agreement. Hey, I'm not proposing that the city cut them off or abandon them. We just need to count the money before we spend more money. That's all. Just count the damned money.
If there was deception, deliberate or not, at the very beginning in terms of how this place could perform, that may not have been Audubon's doing. I have a dim memory that the Audubon people were more conservative in their own projections, but city staff brought in one of those 10-clowns-in-a-Studebaker economic consultants to jazz up the numbers for the briefing given to the City Council.
If we take a hard look at what's going on, the answer may be that Audubon got pressured by staff to hype the numbers. But that's something we need to know before we agree to let staff start writing new six-figure checks out of the property and sales tax revenues.
The larger parallel with the Trinity River Elephant Doo-Doo project is this: The centerpiece of the Trinity River project is or ought to be the 6,000-acre urban hardwood forest at the center of it. But Dallas has never called in a real park designer to come up with an overall concept for the forest. Instead we keep getting these little dollops of bling plunked down here and there -- the Calatrava bridges, the Audubon Center, the Elephant Doo-Doo -- as bread and circuses for the masses, which would be you and me.
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Why? Because the real purpose and goal of the whole damned thing is still that crazy underwater toll road that the old power elite wants to build down the banks of the river because they believe inanely that a new highway will enhance their land values along the river downtown. The complete absence of an overall design or even an overall theory of the park is a direct reflection of a ferocious determination to keep the land free and clear for the toll road.
The toll road has always been, is now and will continue to be a cancer threatening the viability of the entire project and as such a serious threat to the well-being of the city. Only when the toll road has been ripped out from the project root and branch will we be able to proceed with what we voted for in 1998 -- a park.
Until then we will continue to see the Park Cities bling thing -- the little sparklies sprinkled here and there to rouge the corpse while a few selfish and not very smart interests maneuver behind the scenes for that very dumb road they want to build out where it floods.
OK, just for now, how about this? How about having the staff revisit the original agreement with the Audubon Center and then show the council point by point how that agreement is faring? Or is that not cool? If we ask to count the money, will that make us look like poor people? Then will we not get invited to parties?