Double Decherd

On the other hand, what's good about Dallas? There has to be something cool. Otherwise, you know, let's just go.

I know, I know. I told you City Hall was going to hell in a hand basket. But did you ever stop and ask yourself, what exactly is a hand basket?

And every place has problems, right? Let's say I make it to heaven. I'll be up there two days tops before I find significant issues with their storm water management system. And that will raise very serious questions about the competence of top-level leadership. It's what I do.


Robert Decherd

But how do we put Dallas in perspective with other places and against the scale of time? Is this a good place to be? For you and me?

Got me. But I did attend a thing last week where academics who study this kind of stuff teamed up with prominent local business types to talk about what's going on here now and what will happen to you and me in the near future if we stay. And I guess I'd have to say for now I'm gonna stay. Plans for moving to Austin on hold. Again.

Here's the pop-up on it: Dallas is part of one of a handful of areas in the United States where most of the growth of the next half-century will happen, making this one of the great mega-regions of the future. All of these regions will require massive rebuilding in order to accommodate the growth ahead. But the sloppiness and low density of development in Dallas in the past (my terms) may make it easier to redevelop Dallas on a grand scale than in other cities where somebody actually thought about what they were doing.

Just for example, the Trinity River--nothing but a big broad sewer through downtown for most of this century--offers the single biggest, best opportunity in America for change in the landscape of a major downtown, according to Mary Margaret Jones, president of Hargreaves Associates, international landscape planning consultants with offices in San Francisco, Cambridge and New York.

"The scale and the potential of the Trinity River is unrivaled nationally--and internationally, for that matter," she told a rapt house. Jones, who is on a peer-review panel looking at proposals for reclaiming the Los Angeles River, compared what could happen here with prospects in Los Angeles:

"It was really very sad to see how many constraints there are on the possibilities along that river," she said. "There are many more opportunities for transformation on the Trinity River, and yet everyone seems to think of the L.A. River as being the great potential of our country."

Jones said the sheer expanse of the Trinity--its length and breadth and the amount of undeveloped space--provide Dallas with a blank canvas older cities can only envy. "The Trinity has a far greater potential," she said.


And here's the other thing. She was one of a few speakers at the thing who spoke very positively of our mayor and her commitment to the Trinity and downtown. I was kind of squirming in my seat. You know, I just can't stand those cowabunga suspension bridges they want to build over the river, and the very idea of jamming a toll road down on top of the levees makes my skin crawl.

I was surprised to hear Jones offer what sounded like sincere praise for Laura Miller's efforts to shape the Trinity River project, especially because Jones also spoke out forcefully against the tollway on the river.

Other people had been at the mike talking about how great the tollway was, but she said: "When I hear tollways being described as the answer to many transportation problems, this is one of the places where a tollway is not the answer."

All right! I was in the back of the room with a figurative fist in the air. We don't need no stinking tollways on the river!

But at two different points Jones gave Miller credit for helping to reshape the Trinity Plan. Of course, I could be cynical and point out that Miller helped get Jones' company hired a couple years ago to help develop the new Trinity River "Vision Plan."

But Jones wasn't the only one singing Miller's name. Robert Decherd, CEO of Belo Corp., which owns The Dallas Morning News, also spoke well of her.

Decherd was the main reason I attended this thing. In 28 years in Dallas I had never heard him speak. I may have laid eyes on him twice across a crowded room darkly. When he went to the podium and opened his mouth I was expecting and maybe even hoping for the demon voice that came out of Regan Teresa MacNeil, the Linda Blair character in The Exorcist.

To my enormous disappointment, Decherd was genial and smart when he talked about downtown. I even wondered at one point if they may have a double they send out when they need him to sound intelligent, like with Bush.

Decherd, too, went on about Miller. He said huge change is possible for downtown thanks to planning efforts that "wouldn't have been even possible without someone remaining as focused as Mayor Miller has been on the center of our city."

Decherd told the crowd that, "In 25 years we have never had a road map like this, and it is to her credit and the council's credit that we have stayed focused on the center city."

I was so troubled by all of this sticky stuff about the mayor, I even dipped out of the all-day event toward late afternoon and called her to ask if she knew why these people like her. So let me explain here: Whatever else we may have between us, I can say safely that the mayor and I share a spirit of mutual candor. She knows I hate the toll road and the cowabungas. I'm sure she understands why I am puzzled when Robert Decherd says nice things about her in public. She used to do my job. I can see her stomping around heaven calling everybody up there "clueless!"

I wasn't taking notes, and I know better than to quote our mayor directly without bulletproof documentation in my pocket. But basically she told me the same thing she's said in past conversations. Paraphrasing (remember this word), she said:

1) They're right about the Trinity and downtown. Dallas is on the verge of huge changes that will make it a very cool place to be.

2) I, Jim Schutze, was right once, when I said the original Trinity River Plan was all highway, no ranch. What I didn't get then and still don't get now, she said, is that there is no way to take the highway out. It's greased; it's set in concrete; it's politically wired; a done deal.

3) She's right now, she said, because she's the one who took the big fat eight-lane honker of a highway, got it off the downtown bank of the river and squeezed it down to six lanes north of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway and four lanes south of it.

4) She gets praised by people at seminars, she said, because some people are smart enough to know that if she's not around the whole thing goes straight back to eight lanes all the way and forget about white water and meanders and wetlands and all that mossy hugger-mugger.

I went back inside a bit dazed and found myself listening to, of all people, H. Ross Perot Jr. I told myself, "OK, if H. Ross Perot Jr. is charming and intelligent, I'll just grab this dessert fork and put my eyes out right here at the table."

You know why I can see today? Saved by cowardice. My guardian angel.

First he was charming. The moderator had announced confidently that we were about to hear from H. Ross Perot Sr. The person sitting next to me groaned and said, "Oh, no! Charts!"

When Junior took the podium, he said, "I have gone to many speeches where people thought my dad was showing up instead. At many of those speeches about half the people got up to leave."

So first he's funny. Then he's smart. The dessert fork was quivering in my right hand. He went to that same theme the Hargreaves lady had been banging earlier in the day, before he even showed up--that the open space, wasted space and neglected space in and around downtown can create opportunities in Dallas that couldn't occur in most cities. He talked about how the property on which the American Airlines Center arena now stands, a shuttered and heavily polluted TXU power plant, was a no-man's land for almost half a century. But it was the black hole that gave birth to a stunning new universe of glitz and action on the edge of downtown.

Reciting a forgivably apocryphal-sounding anecdote, he said some real estate consultants are telling mayors of other cities who want new arenas, "Don't even come to Dallas. Don't even look at their building, because if you see the American Airlines Center, you'll be very disappointed, because you'll never be able to build a building like that in your community."

The seminar was called "Envisioning Dallas." I was impressed that someone had the merciful good sense not to call it "Visioning Dallas." I believe that if you start visioning things, it's time for the Wellbutrin.

All this envisioning was part of the "Future of Texas City-Regions Symposium," produced by the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. UT is launching a thing called the Dallas Urban Laboratory, which will bring faculty and students here from Austin on a regular basis to help us figure out what to do. Of course, I used to know. Move to Austin.

Maybe that's why they're coming. A plot to keep us here.

So what's good about Dallas? The future, I guess. I'm sure glad they didn't say the past.


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