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How does the garden grow?

It is late on the last Friday evening in February, and most employees on the fourth floor at City Hall have long since gone home. But Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm is still bouncing from one crisis to the next. Not only is a city councilman camped in her office, causing her to miss a phone call, but a Dallas Observer reporter is lurking about, waiting to inquire about difficulties with the project she's spent five years carefully nurturing: Ray Nasher's proposed sculpture garden.

"It's all been one long, continuing conversation," she explains. "Back and forth, back and forth." She's been doing this routine since she became an assistant city manager in 1993. Consequently, she doesn't get too excited about anything--including Nasher's latest threat, just over three months ago, to call the whole thing off.

Still, 11 months have passed since Nasher and beaming city officials announced that the city had landed the art-world prize of the decade: the modern and contemporary sculpture collection formed by Nasher and his late wife, Patsy. And the most amazing part was, supposedly it won't cost the city a dime. Nasher's foundation would do it all--acquire the real estate from its owners, hold an international design competition, oversee construction of the garden itself as well as a planned educational facility, even oversee rotation of the 66 sculptures. And the project was on a fast track; the garden, Nasher said, would open in the fall of 1999.

Little has happened since to move the project forward. No formal design competition has been launched. No traffic studies or proceedings toward long-discussed street closings have begun.

Most importantly, no real estate contracts have been signed. In certain circles, faint worry lines have begun to appear. On December 31, Stanley Marcus posed a startling question in The Dallas Morning News. Marcus asked whether "the mayor and the City Council [will] support condemnation proceedings to acquire land for the Nasher Sculpture garden without a [firm] contract.

Though subtle, the message was clear. Someone was being threatened with having their prime acreage in the downtown arts district condemned. And it didn't take too much effort to learn who those persons were. The first was none other than Harlan Crow, son of the man who masterminded the arts district nearly two decades ago. The second was Michael Minzer, son of a longtime Crow family friend and business associate.

In the 11 months since the city's announcement, Nasher, the city, Crow, and Minzer have been entangled in a delicate dance of real estate, hubris, and history--specifically, a history of nasty litigation between Nasher and the Crows. And so far, they've yet to reach an agreement that will get Nasher the property he needs to plant his garden.

For their part, city officials insist that the garden is in no danger. "I think that you've got two of the best deal-makers in the city on either side of this deal, and I think that ultimately they're just interested in the good of the city, and they'll get this deal done," says Suhm.

Sources involved with the ongoing tug-of-war between Nasher and Minzer/Crow are somewhat less sanguine. Though both Crow and Minzer declined to talk for the record, those close to the deal say that negotiations have been close to breaking down any number of times, and that the city's talk of condemnation did nothing to move the deal along.

Still, those sources remain optimistic that a deal will be reached--perhaps even by the time you read this story.

As always, Nasher is playing his cards close to the vest. Reached at home over the weekend, he sidestepped questions about the difficulties. "I'm in the middle of a meeting right now, and there are a bunch of people here," he said. "Could you call me at the office Monday morning?" (Nasher then failed to return the Observer's calls.)

But those who are talking, as well as city and county records, reveal that, at best, Nasher's timetable has been delayed; at worst, they show that the garden of Ray is far from a done deal. In the course of watching titans battle over a prime patch of downtown real estate, the Observer discovered an even larger potential problem.

Late last November, city documents show, Nasher threatened to call off his garden when he learned that the owners of an adjacent property were sending out a marketing brochure pitching plans for a 50-story office tower across Olive Street from the proposed garden. The building would loom over the sculptures, and Nasher wanted the city to halt the development. City officials apparently reassured him with the observation that the structure may not be built. "Marketing brochures get sent all the time," Suhm says.

The upshot, though, is that Dallas isn't halting development of the neighboring property, and Nasher isn't buying it either. Someone else is.  

Even as city employees downplayed the notion that anything is wrong in the garden, the lot at Olive and Pearl was in the process of being sold to an out-of-state investment partnership. And that partnership is paying a for-commercial-development price for the property. A letter of intent for the sale fixes the price somewhere near $60 a square foot, say sources, who wouldn't identify the purchaser.

Dallas may have negotiated one hump, only to face another. For even if the ink is drying on a contract for sale of the Nasher garden-site acreage itself, it also may be drying on a second real estate contract that contemplates development of the property next door.

There has never been any disagreement about where Nasher's collection would go, if it went to Dallas at all.

Since 1994, the chosen land has been a 2.1-acre parking lot in the western half of city blocks 527 and 528. The site sits just north of Trammell Crow Center and directly across Harwood from the Dallas Museum of Art.

According to city deed records, the tract has three owners. The Dallas Museum of Art owns an L-shaped parcel that fronts Flora Street and extends partway up Olive. But the bulk of the property is owned by entities controlled by Harlan Crow and Minzer.

All three began acquiring their pieces in the late '70s and early '80s, when the arts district was a mere gleam in the eyes of city planners and developers, especially Trammell Crow.

When the arts district was created in the early '80s, its creators envisioned not art but commercial development at its core. Although a 1982 report wistfully hoped for a "second or third visual arts facility" in addition to the DMA, it had nothing more ambitious than the Dallas Historical Society in mind. Instead, the report discusses restaurants and retail, envisioning a mini-mall of West Endish merchants and outdoor bistros on the bottom floor of hotels and office towers.

During the early '80s, Crow and Minzer bought their plots, clearly contemplating commercial development of some sort. Though the combined plot isn't very large, it could support a small development.

Nearly 20 years later, commercial development has taken a backseat. Ironically, instead of an arts district modeled after shopping malls, Ray Nasher--developer of NorthPark Center, the shopping mall as art museum--has offered to turn the planned ersatz arts district into a real one.

Indeed, if Nasher's proposed garden materializes, only one prime plot will remain for commercial development: the eastern half of city blocks 527 and 528, across Olive street adjacent to Nasher's proposed garden.

And this fact may yet kill Nasher's project. Last December, Howard Hallam, Mayor Ron Kirk's Arts District Coordinator, wrote a panicked letter advising the mayor that "we have a problem with Ray Nasher.

"Ray is upset--to say the least--that we are not seeking to acquire the parking lot across Olive Street from his proposed sculpture garden," Hallam reported. "What put Ray over the edge is the attached marketing brochure for this tract, which depicts...a 50-story office tower looming over his sculpture garden. He said that if the city does not do something to prevent such a monstrosity from being built, he is calling off his plans for the sculpture garden."

That might have been bluster, or it could be a real sticking point. Only Nasher knows for sure, and he isn't talking. Neither is Elliot Cattarulla, his right-hand man at the Nasher Foundation. "I don't think I'm going to comment," Cattarulla said. "Thank you anyway."

Either way, Nasher could pull out at any time. At this point, the city has no signed commitment. Although the DMA could convey its property to Nasher with some sort of covenant restricting its use to a sculpture garden, there is no contract for sale--and there won't be, insiders say, until Nasher reaches an agreement with Crow and Minzer. It's a state of affairs that has a number of influential people privately grumbling. But that's the way it has to be, since Nasher has insisted upon complete artistic and financial control.

In his defense, city documents reveal that the issue of whether the city would acquire the property next door has been a potential problem for some time.

In June 1994, the city presented Nasher with the first of several written proposals "to create...a partnership" to develop a Nasher Sculpture Garden on city blocks 527 and 528. The general terms then were much the same as the terms proposed in January 1997: The DMA would donate the DMA's .78 of an acre (worth, according to city estimates, somewhere between $670,000 to $1 million). The DMA also would name its barrel vault after Nasher and his late wife and raise private money to help finance the garden (at a cost of $15 million-$22 million). The city would publicly finance acquisition of the rest of the tract. In exchange, the city would receive all Nasher's sculpture (worth an estimated $200-$300 million) and a substantial endowment from Nasher (perhaps $20 million).  

Suhm's handwritten notes on the proposal indicate Nasher's response. "Whole issue with Ray is who will control after he gives it," Suhm scribbled. But there is another sticking point. While the city had proposed that it "acquire the remainder of the land in City Blocks 527 and 528 [if] needed for development of the sculpture garden," Suhm's notes indicate that "Ray won't agree to that." Rather, "City has to say [it] will do both blocks, not 'if needed.'"

Discussions seem to have lagged until 1996. By September 1996, the DMA and the city clearly believed that Nasher was prepared to donate the bulk of his collection to Dallas and the DMA. The number crunching and public relations campaign began in earnest. In December 1996, city and DMA officials briefed Kirk on the proposal they planned to present to Nasher in January 1997. Chief among the goals outlined in the talking points: "Firm commitment from Raymond Nasher."

On January 29, 1997, museum and city officials gathered in a private room at the DMA's restaurant to present a full-blown city proposal to Nasher and Elliot Cattarulla. The officials made their formal pitch presenting their vision for the landmark, which they predicted would lure more than 1 million people annually.

The terms of the deal itself take up only five pages out of the 75-page proposal. The city and the DMA wanted "all of Nasher's modern and contemporary art collection, including sculpture, painting, and works on paper"--even the stuff "currently on loan to other museums or institutions." It wanted an endowment sufficient to provide for $600,000 in maintenance costs a year ($20 million, they estimated). They wanted Nasher to reimburse them for the cost of a feasibility study ($250,000) if for some reason he eventually pulled out of the deal. They demanded he promise to "work exclusively with the city and the DMA to complete the details of this gift and not to negotiate with any other art museum or city." And they wanted an answer within 30 days.

Thirty days passed without an answer from Nasher.
In the interim, Nasher was busy accompanying his sculpture to shows in San Francisco and New York. He attended the February art auctions in New York. He attended social events in his honor. And he even granted occasional interviews, including one that appeared in the Sunday New York Times on March 16.

The article depicted Nasher at a New York dinner party, being feted and pitched by the Guggenheim Museum's director. Yet Nasher remained sly as ever. "Will the sumptuous Raymond D. Nasher collection go to Dallas?" queried the story. "To Washington? To New York? If he has decided, he's not telling."

It even quoted a cocky-sounding Kirk predicting that "it will be very easy for [Dallas] to come to terms with him." But while the mayor was all bluster in print, behind the scenes he sounded more like a jealous suitor. "Dear Ray," began the mayor's letter of March 19. "During our presentation, we requested a response from you within 30 days...[and] also requested that, until such time as we mutually agreed to end the discussions, you would not 'shop a deal' with others. As I remember, we received your commitment to meet both these requests.

"Ray, I have had no formal response from you...Additionally, it is painfully obvious from the Sunday, March 16, 1997 New York Times that there are other conversations ongoing...I look forward to hearing from you before the close of business Friday. If I have not heard from you by that time, we regretfully will consider our current offer 'off the table' and discussions at an end."

Three weeks later, on April 8, at a hastily arranged news conference held in Dallas, Nasher and Kirk announced that Nasher would finance and oversee the whole shebang.

Amid the huzzahs and hosannas, there was only one problem: apparently no one had bothered talking to Minzer or Crow.

Among the many ironies in this tale is that both Crow and Minzer have artistic interests themselves.

Michael Minzer is the executive director of a tiny record label, Paris Records, that distributes spoken-word recordings of Beat poets, among others.

According to a number of people who know Harlan Crow, the scion of the Crow family fortune has intellectual interests himself. Scattered about the grounds of Trammell Crow center are more than two dozen sculptures that Harlan Crow selected on European art-buying sprees.  

Whether this makes Crow, Minzer, and Nasher allies or rivals is unclear.
Yet county records and the recollections of Crow partners reveal that for many years Harlan's father Trammell and Ray Nasher were not on the best of terms. In 1980 they filed a set of lawsuits against each other over property across from NorthPark. Both men wanted to develop the property commercially; indeed, Crow held a series of options that were supposedly contingent upon getting it re-zoned for development. Crow never could, and then, somehow, in 1980 Nasher purchased the plot. Crow sued Nasher and the property's former owner, claiming they had conspired in bad faith to deed the property to Nasher. Nasher counter-sued, alleging myriad sorts of dastardly behavior on Crow's part.

The case was settled on the eve of trial in 1981. Nasher kept the property and, according to several former Crow partners, Trammell kept a grudge. "He didn't take to Ray Nasher," recalls one erstwhile insider. "It was pretty much an emotional reaction.""

Nasher didn't have any chits in the Crow family favor bank. And so, when the city failed to consult either Crow or Minzer before offering to sell their property to Nasher, it was a grave error--not to mention an expensive one. While Kirk declined to be interviewed for this article, he did, however, grumble to an intermediary that "the day before the announcement [the property] was worth one figure, and the day after it was worth five times that."

Indeed, although the city had estimated the value of the dirt under Nasher's garden at $20 to $30 a foot, a number of commercial brokers say that $40 to $50 a foot is more realistic.

And the city's own estimates last September indicate that Minzer and Crow might not settle for even that. In a document prepared late last summer, the city assumed the land would cost $55 to $75 per foot.

It was around this time, insiders say, that the city began to threaten condemnation.

Crow and Minzer apparently countered with their own threats--namely, to tie up the property in litigation until 2000 and beyond, producing the one thing the 76-year-old Nasher does not want: interminable delay.

Six months later, Mary Suhm is very low-key about it all. She can't remember when condemnation was last mentioned, though it hasn't been for some time, she says. And anyway, she's confident it won't come to that. Things are moving along smoothly. And as she looks out over the city she loves, she's all optimism.

"I don't think anyone realizes yet what this is going to mean for Dallas," she says. "It will be important long after [the arena] has been forgotten.


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