City Hall

Here's "Project X," the City Hall Conspiracy to Boost Downtown's SW Corner

There has long been fevered speculation in certain circles that a cabal of rich businessmen is conspiring with high-level city staffers to funnel taxpayer dollars into the southwestern corner of downtown Dallas in a massive secret real estate play. As evidence, these conspiracy theorists point to the strange confluence of public projects that keep getting pushed there, their cost to taxpayers and their transparent imbecility be damned.

Here's the thing: The conspiracy is real, and it's called "Project X." 

Evidence of this conspiracy comes from time sheets submitted to the city manager's office by Brent Brown, who heads the City Design Studio, City Hall's in-house font of urban-design wisdom. Brown, who also heads the nonprofit bcworkshop, submits the time sheets as documentation of the work he does for the studio under his $85,000-per-year personal services agreement.

Brown, the records show, works on a wide variety of projects. Lots to do with the Trinity River project, as would be expected of the head of an outfit that was seeded by the Trinity Trust, but also smaller-bore projects, like developing plans for neighborhoods in Oak Cliff. But then, on November 6, 2014, Brown logged a rather curious entry, spending two hours on something slugged as "tcc - project x":
Six days later, on November 12, he is working on this "project x" again, only this time with a mention of "hunt," presumably a reference to some member or corporate outgrowth of the Hunt family, which has sizable holdings in southwest downtown.
In subsequent filings, possibly recognizing that naming something "Project X" is bulletproof evidence of something nefarious, Brown tweaks the references, first calling the initiative simply "x":
And then referring to it by the only slightly less sinister "Area X," an appellation he stuck with at least through June: Between November of last year and this past June, Brown has logged more than 60 hours working on Project/Area X. And if the shady name and involvement of the Hunts isn't enough to set off alarm bells, then how about we throw in multiple meetings with North Central Texas Council of Governments transportation director Michael Morris, a man so comically villainous and anti-urban that he put I-35 vanity plates on his Volvo? Other names pop up. There's a couple of meetings with a Dale Foster, presumably the developer with a large plot of land along Riverfront Boulevard just below the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. This included a five-hour tête-à-tête with Foster and TxDOT.Sprinkled here and there are references to high-speed rail, Loewst Stemmons, and someone/thing named either Bitagglia or Bitaglia.

Clearly, the city, Foster, the Hunts and Morris have something cooking.

In an interview Wednesday evening, Brown described Project X as "somewhere between a Marvel hideout" and a space pad. Then, no doubt realizing he'd divulged too much, he quickly backtracked. Project X was actually just a placeholder phrase to describe several neighborhoods to the south and west of the Central Business District — SW downtown, the Cedars, Riverfront, etc. He and city staffers had been brainstorming strategies to help spur intelligent growth in the area last year but there was no handy shorthand for referring to that particular geographic expanse, so Brown scrawled Project X on the white board, which did the job well enough. So it stuck. It's really of a piece with a broader effort, Brown says, to knit together neighborhoods on both sides of the Trinity, which will naturally involve meeting with property owners, developers and others (like private companies who want to run a bullet train into downtown) who have skin in the game and can effect change.
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson