How to renovate Reunion

Jack Yardley has been waiting a year for the phone to ring.
Three weeks ago, it finally happened.
"Bob Stimson called me one day," says Yardley, referring to the Dallas city councilman from Oak Cliff.
"He said, 'I don't know how much you know about Reunion Arena, but why can't we just renovate this thing somehow?'"

As it turned out, Stimson had called the right person. Yardley is the architect who designed Reunion Arena--the person who put pen to paper 18 years ago and came up with 20-foot-long concession stands, and 17,015 seats, and a 24-foot-wide band of bronze-tinted glass that wraps all the way around the top of the building.

"It was such minimalist architecture that we were looking for something to give it warmth--we wanted Reunion to glow," recalls Yardley. "And when the lights are on inside the building, it does just that."

Yardley is not some faceless designer of buildings, pressed to wax nostalgic about a project he hasn't seen or thought about in years. He isn't speaking via a long-distance telephone connection from some far-flung office in Chicago or L.A. or Singapore.

Yardley is sitting in a small, 11th-floor meeting room at HKS Inc., the Dallas architectural firm where he has worked for 24 years and is a partner. The firm's offices take up four floors of the Plaza of the Americas in downtown Dallas--another local landmark that Yardley designed.

When Yardley stands in the enormous central atrium of the Plaza of the Americas complex during a busy lunch hour, surveying the buzz of activity--the shimmer of the ice-skating rink, the maze of walkways and staircases and glass elevators--he is quietly proud. And it is no different with Reunion Arena--a place he not only conceived but has frequented on a regular basis ever since, from a Rod Stewart concert several years ago, to last year's post-Olympics all-star ice-skating show, to seven years of Sidekicks soccer games.

"I noticed it immediately when they replaced the seats last year because for the first time my knees were up against the seat in front of me," says Yardley, who towers in at 6-feet-4-inches. "I had designed the seating with a person like me in mind so there'd be extra leg room--about an inch more than the standard--between the rows. But the new seats have backs that are thicker and more curved, and that extra inch of room is gone."

Listening to Yardley talk, one thing is certain: this man knows this building. He knows it better than any other person in this city.

So when Jack Yardley snatched his newspaper off his lawn in the Bluffview area of North Dallas one morning last October and saw a big front-page story announcing that city staff and a team of hired consultants want to demolish his beloved arena, Yardley felt bad. To put it mildly.

Mostly, though, he just wanted somebody to call him and ask him the magic question--the one Stimson, and only Stimson, finally asked.

"Sure, you can renovate it," Yardley says he responded when the phone rang. "There's a real easy way to do it."

Bob Stimson (and, to a lesser degree, Domingo Garcia and Paul Fielding) are the only council members who seem to understand what the citizens of Dallas want and don't want--and are making an effort to give it to them.

This is what the citizens don't want: to pay for a new arena.
The citizens say so at town hall meetings with their councilmembers. And they say so when they're asked to submit a wish list of capital improvements--as they were at a series of public hearings on priorities for an upcoming bond election. In a fat spiral notebook filled with those citizen wish lists and recently given to each councilmember, there are plenty of pages that implore: "No sports arena."

What the citizens do want, according to those lists, is White Rock Lake dredged, potholes filled, Fair Park preserved, better flood control in neighborhoods that get swamped far too often when it rains, sidewalks, bike paths, and better libraries.

Reasonable things. Affordable things. Quality-of-life things.
And those who submitted such lists are not alone. In fact, as it turns out, they are in the majority.

Two weeks ago, Nancy Kennedy, who heads the local office of a Cincinnati-based marketing research firm, called the Observer. Kennedy explained that her firm, Alliance Research, had some free telephone polling time because a job had unexpectedly fallen through. And she was offering to do a poll on the arena, as an unpaid public service--though Alliance, which was new to the area, was also clearly in search of a little publicity.

Would the Observer be interested in the results of such a poll?
Alliance mostly conducts marketing studies and customer service polling for corporations. It counts Clorox, U.S. Shoe, and McKinsey Consulting, among its clients. In 1992, though, Alliance did an arena-type telephone poll in its hometown after Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was accused of slurring blacks, Jews, and Asians. Alliance's results--that 70 percent of Cincinnati residents believed she should remain as team owner, as opposed to 46 percent nationally--made headlines in several newspapers, including USA Today.  

Well, the Observer was interested--and helped Alliance draft questions. So on the Saturday that Lewisville voters decided they didn't want their sales tax raised to pay for a new arena, Alliance began polling the citizens of Dallas about their city's arena crusade. It was, by the way, the first time anybody has sought the views of the citizens of Dallas on the subject.

Alliance polled 500 Dallas residents--half men, half women, all over the age of 21, 86 percent registered voters--about their willingness to spend public dollars to build a new arena. The survey also asked what people thought about funding other capital-improvement projects.

The results of the two-day poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent, were dramatic--which is precisely why the Dallas city council and City Manager John Ware have been rushing the new arena through, unwilling to give the citizens an opportunity to express their views on the subject.

The citizens of Dallas do not want public funds spent on a new arena.
But they are willing to spend public money to renovate Reunion--which Mavericks owner Don Carter and Dallas Stars owner Norm Green claim is obsolete because it doesn't have luxury suites, premium seating, or restaurants.

A full 92 percent of those surveyed know that the city is considering building a new sports arena. That compares to 80 percent who know about the proposal to build a race track in Oak Cliff; 68 percent awareness of the upcoming May bond election; 62 percent who know about the proposal to dredge White Rock Lake; and 48 percent who know that city officials are flirting with expansion of the downtown Arts District.

But awareness does not translate to acceptance.
Asked "are you in favor of or opposed to using public funds for building a new sports arena for the Dallas Mavericks and the Dallas Stars," only 30 percent of those surveyed said they support doing so; 64 percent said they are opposed. Just 6 percent are undecided. The auto speedway fares even worse. Only 21 percent favor spending public money on a race track; 73 percent are opposed, and 6 percent undecided.

There is support for other public projects. Of those surveyed, 57 percent back public funding to expand the arts district (38 percent are opposed, with 5 percent undecided). Cleaning up and dredging White Rock Lake, which has been strongly supported at bond hearings and has generated significant mail at city hall, receives the support of 78 percent of those polled (17 percent are opposed, five percent undecided.)

But the clearest mandate for spending money came on the issue of using public funds for "repairs and improvements to city streets, roads, and public buildings." Those projects, slated for a vote in the upcoming May bond program, received a whopping 92 percent approval. Just 8 percent are opposed, 2 percent undecided.

Chris Behr, a 76-year-old retired tax accountant who lives a half-mile from White Rock Lake, wasn't included in the Alliance survey. But he is one of 700 citizens who attended bond hearings this winter--and on his wish list he asked for a right-turn lane at Williamson Road and Mockingbird Lane. And "no new sports arena."

"To tear an arena down that's not even paid for--all to build a new arena--is just ridiculous," he told me last week. "It's crazy. I want White Rock Lake dredged and streets fixed. If they want a new arena, let them do it with private money and raise the ticket prices."

Unfortunately for Mr. Behr, his city councilman couldn't disagree more. Glenn Box is one of the biggest cheerleaders on the new sports arena--and he's one of five council members who are now negotiating directly with Don Carter to cut a deal as soon as possible. "He's a good councilman," says Behr. "But he's so sports-minded, and he's just really pushing this new arena on us."

The "negotiating" committee, whose members were chosen by new-arena zealot Mayor Steve Bartlett, is made up of Box, Stimson, Barbara Mallory, Don Hicks, and Chris Luna. With Box in the lead, it's a stacked deck; Stimson's the only one in the group seeking an alternative to building a gold-plated new arena.

That alternative is renovating Reunion.
And it is an alternative Dallas citizens want.
The Alliance poll found that given a choice between building a new arena, renovating Reunion, or doing neither, 59 percent favor renovation. Only 19 percent back a new arena, 18 percent favor spending public funds on neither, and four percent are undecided. (Even sports fans--people who have been to Reunion at least once in the past year for a hockey or basketball game--prefer renovation: 53 percent of Stars attendees and 55 percent of Mavs attendees, respectively.)  

Such numbers are, of course, music to Jack Yardley's ears.
Yardley has drawn up preliminary plans for a Reunion renovation that would meet most of Don Carter's professed needs, but cost taxpayers only $18.5 million (as opposed to a new arena, estimated to cost between $140 million and $200 million).

The architect's plan is simple: replace Reunion's concession stands and rest rooms with 46 luxury suites. Build new, larger concession stands and rest rooms on the outside of the existing arena, at its four corners, where the existing concourse is the widest. Then remove the existing outside wall on the first level to incorporate the new concession areas into the building. This requires reshaping the outside of the arena--widening the bottom and perhaps giving it an hourglass shape.

Yardley's plan, which he drew up free of charge for councilman Stimson, includes other amenities. At the two rear corners of the building, where the Dallas Stars hospitality tent and the Reunion parking garage are located, Yardley proposes adding a second story on top of the new concession areas. One of the additions he envisions would be a restaurant with 265 seats that would look down over the arena floor; the other would be 7,200 square feet of office space for the sports teams.

The $18.5 million renovation would also include new larger and better retractable seating (something the Dallas Stars had promised to do when they moved to town but didn't) for the first nine rows off the floor, adding 438 seats at the lowest level. Including the 412 seats in the 46 luxury boxes, that would give the renovated Reunion Arena a total of 850 new seats, raising its seating capacity for basketball from 17,502 to 18,352.

In contrast, a new arena, according to a $500,000 city-commissioned consulting study, would contain 60 luxury suites and 22,000 seats, at a cost of $140 million. (This doesn't include the cost of tearing down Reunion, paying off its remaining debt, or debt service on the new arena.)

Yardley acknowledges that there is one potentially significant drawback to his plan--one that might make business people looking to lease private luxury suites balk. "The down side of this is that suite holders would not have a private concourse," says Yardley. "You don't want the great unwashed opening your suite door and coming in--or rapping on your door on the way to get a beer. The people in the suites would also have to use the same toilets as everybody else and stand in the same lines for concessions."

For a savings of at least $121.5 million, that doesn't sound like a tremendous sacrifice. Plus, there's no reason an architect couldn't find a way to build a partition of some sort around the entrances to the luxury suites.

That architect won't be Jack Yardley.
Because of the strange ways of Dallas politics, where the private interest of businessmen Don Carter and Ray Hunt (whose property is slated for the site of the new arena)--rather than the public interest--is dictating events, HKS last year was flatly ruled out as the architectural consultant on the arena project.

HKS applied last June for the job of working on the new-arena feasibility study, along with more than 300 other architectural and construction management firms. But the Kansas City firm of Ellerbe Becket was chosen instead.

HKS lost after making it to the final five--and performing $140,000 in pro bono work for a private panel put together by a group of businessmen promoting a new arena.

City documents show that on April 26 of last year, while HKS was doing the free work and no one at city hall was even soliciting paid consultants yet, it was already clear HKS wouldn't get any future work. Handwritten notes taken by interim Public Works Director Jill Jordan during a one-on-one meeting with First Assistant City Manager Cliff Keheley reveal that Keheley wanted HKS eliminated--because the Mavericks didn't like the firm. "HKS--will not design," Jordan wrote.

The Mavericks' dislike for HKS stems from a five-year-old incident in which the firm declined to oversee, and take responsibility for, installation of a new, heavier scoreboard at Reunion that the Mavericks had purchased. A New York firm that HKS had hired as a subcontractor in 1978 had done the original engineering work on the arena roof--and felt confident the roof would hold the new scoreboard. But HKS didn't feel it was worth "one day's fee for all that liability," says Yardley. Yardley had to personally give the bad news to Mavs president Norm Sonju, who didn't take it well.  

Consequently, the Mavs don't talk to--never mind like--HKS. (The Mavericks do not dispute this.)

They do, however, like Ellerbe Becket, with which they developed a relationship last year when Ellerbe was advising Lewisville on how to build an arena. So Ellerbe got the consultant work. And HKS didn't.

"People are going to say this is just sour grapes," comments Yardley, of his renovation plans. "But we are not vying for any arena work because the city already has an architect--and a good one, I might add. Stimson just asked us to do this, so we did.

"And there is a real simple way to do this without spending a whole lot of money that will keep Reunion going for some more years. I don't think anyone's naive enough to think Reunion's going to be here another 50 years--the sports world is changing too much for that. But five, or 10? No problem."

That is, if the citizens--not Carter and Hunt--get their way.

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