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When Tom Lardner drives his burgundy Chevy Suburban around the historic State-Thomas district these days, you'd expect the real estate speculator to marvel at his own handiwork.

Just 10 years ago, the neighborhood north of downtown was little more than a cluster of deteriorating dwellings, home to a dwindling, impoverished, largely African-American population. Since then, Lardner and other developers have structured public-private partnerships that have transformed this area into "Uptown," a vibrant mix of historic homes, shops, restaurants, and newly constructed apartments that has taken on a city life of its own. The new apartment units alone represent an increase of 187 percent to the tax rolls since 1989, some $89 million in additional revenue to the city.

But you won't find Lardner, a former college football player at University of Detroit, now 57, bragging about his accomplishments. He's too busy bickering. His current point of contention: a proposed park to be placed in the heart of Uptown.

Post Properties, an Atlanta-based real estate company that owns the majority of existing apartments in the area, has proposed using city funds to create a 20,000-square-foot green space, a diminutive "pocket park," near the intersection of State and Worthington streets.

For Post, the proposal offers several immediate advantages. The company owns the land at the proposed site. It would sell it to the city for $41 a square foot, a hefty price according to Lardner, who is quick to point out that the site just so happens to be situated near Meridian, an existing Post apartment complex, and is adjacent to two other residential developments that the company plans to construct. If the park proposal succeeds, residents in Post-owned buildings would get, at the city's expense, a lovely, manicured park just outside their doors.

What disturbs Lardner is the way Post plans on financing the park. The company has suggested that the funds to establish and maintain the park be taken from revenues allotted to the State-Thomas Tax Increment Financing District (TIF), a partnership between the city and the neighborhood's taxpayers that earmarks future tax revenues specifically for improvements in that neighborhood. Lardner claims this violates the TIF agreement as originally approved by the Dallas City Council. And he says he should know: Since the TIF's inception, he has been a member of the State-Thomas TIF board of directors. That is, until his recent removal.


In 1989, when few businessmen could envision any opportunities in the downtrodden State-Thomas neighborhood, a handful of real estate developers, including Lardner and Robert Shaw, a principal in Columbus Realty Trust, which was eventually acquired by Post, helped establish the State-Thomas TIF.

The TIF represented the first such taxing district of its kind in Dallas. Initially the city put up $3 million to get the TIF started. As property values increased with new development in the area, additional tax revenues generated more funds for the TIF. Unlike other taxes, this money never went into the general fund. Rather, it was spent on improving sidewalks, erecting attractive streetlights, and widening roads -- but only in the State-Thomas district.

Originally, the State-Thomas plan called for the TIF to expend some $20 million over a 20-year period, but the plan also included a park as part of those proposed improvements.

Lardner, who sat on the TIF board of directors beginning in 1989, believes that Post's park should not be paid for by earmarked TIF funds. Instead of spending money on a park, he wants the TIF funds to go to more road improvements, streetlights, and underground telephone lines (instead of the unsightly ones overhead).

Moreover, Lardner doesn't want land in the TIF district that could be developed and added to the tax base to be transformed into a park just because Post wants it that way.

He contends that even though a park was included in the original plan for the TIF district -- and some $2 million in funds were designated -- the 1989 plan represented something entirely different from the current Post proposal.

That plan called for the city to build a larger park, more than double the size of the pocket park, about a block and a half away from the proposed site. It also called for the TIF to allow the city to develop a park in that area only after swapping other land from nearby Griggs Park -- a four-acre, largely ignored field four blocks away from the pocket park. Under the original plan, the TIF district would have had a larger park, and it wouldn't have lost any potentially taxable land from the area.

Lardner, who still owns either directly or through limited partnerships more than four acres in the State-Thomas district, believes a larger question is at stake. "The grander issue is, How do we make public policy in the State-Thomas TIF?" he says. He wants to make sure Post doesn't exclusively set the agenda.

 

John Allums, a senior vice president at Post, hopes to avoid an all-out brawl with Lardner.

"I don't know the history of all that," he says when asked about Lardner's contentions about the original plan's intent. But Allums stands firm behind his company's belief that State-Thomas needs some green space interspersed with its buildings and that the pocket park represents the best solution. "It's a scenario we've suggested. It's there. We would like to see it go forward."


Ultimately, the city council will have to approve the expenditure of any TIF funds for a park. Lardner knows he has one city council member in his corner. Laura Miller opposes the pocket park as it is currently proposed.

Although Lardner admits he is good friends with Miller's father, Philip Miller, the councilwoman denies that relationship has anything to do with her support. "My father worked in Dallas," she says. "He knows tons of people down here. It is irrelevant to everything I do."

Miller says she simply doesn't want a developer exploiting the city just because the State-Thomas TIF has been a success. "Post overbuilt," Miller says. "Now the taxpayers have to buy the company green space because it overdeveloped."

Miller is particularly irked at the notion that the city would buy a park space from Post when the nearby Griggs Park has been ignored. "We don't we take care of Griggs?" Miller says. "Why in the world would we buy a park?" Griggs Park offers visitors nothing more than a dried-out landscape dotted with a few scruffy trees and the constant sound of automobiles whizzing by on nearby Central Expressway.

Veletta Lill, the councilwoman who represents the State-Thomas neighborhood, has probably done more to advance Post's position on the pocket park than any other council member. Lill recently removed Lardner from the 12-member TIF board of directors, the panel that would have to approve a pocket park plan before it was sent to the city council. She didn't reappoint Lardner, Lill says, because he requested that he be removed from the board, although Lardner says he subsequently withdrew that request. In addition to dropping Lardner, Lill appointed (or re-appointed) three other members with Post ties to the TIF board.

Joining Post's Vice President Allums on the TIF board is its newest member Earl Latimer, a principal in the Monitor Company, a real estate firm that rents office space from the Post company. Councilwoman Lill says she is considering removing Latimer from the board and putting him on another TIF board. "I may just flip Earl," she says. "I didn't realize he officed with Post." The third person is Anne Crews, the wife of a former public relations consultant for Columbus. Crews, who was reappointed last year, says her link to the company won't affect her vote.

Lill says she hasn't made up her mind about the pocket park. She definitely wants a park built in the area in the next 18 months, she says. "I don't think anyone is particularly wedded to this site." Long ago, she got used to Lardner and Post representatives fighting. She recalls that Columbus Realty's Robert Shaw once said publicly at a meeting, "We're a big family in Uptown. We're just a big dysfunctional family."

In the summer 1997, long before their current fray over the pocket park, Lardner and Post found themselves on opposite sides of a zoning dispute over a plan to build an apartment complex on the historic Greenwood Cemetery.

At that point, Lardner notes somewhat ironically, he was the one who wanted to preserve the green space, and Post wanted to develop the cemetery. Post had bought land from the cemetery association only to discover later that historic paupers' graves were under the prospective building location. Lardner paid more than $100,000 for studies and lawyers, he says, in an effort to prevent Post from getting the area rezoned to build a high-rise. About eight months later, in what Lill touted as a compromise, Post reduced the size of its proposed complex (which it still hasn't built) and agreed to give back land to the cemetery association.

Lardner also has another beef with Post: The company gets all the credit. In the national media, Post and, more particularly, Shaw, a former football player (who played a year for the Cowboys) often receive credit for the revitalization of the State-Thomas district. Shaw had even won points for devising the catchy "Uptown" name.

As a result, Lardner has gone to great pains -- sending a long letter to a writer at The Wall Street Journal and forwarding copies to Mayor Ron Kirk, among others -- to point out the inaccuracies of that impression. There was a meeting, he says, where a group of interested State-Thomas parties concocted the name "Uptown." Lardner says he was part of that group.

 

On November 12, the TIF's design review board is scheduled to look over the pocket park proposal. The Dallas city staff won't enter the Lardner-Post battle before then. Karl Stundins, the manager of the Area Redevelopment Division in Dallas' Economic Development Department, says, "Most of what I do is pretty dull. But when it has come to questions about this pocket park," says Stundins, "I get lots of calls."


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