Too often all we get from City Hall is the spin, never the map.
Too often all we get from City Hall is the spin, never the map.
Gemma Ferrando via Shutterstock

Covenants for Fair Park Offer Something Better Than the Usual Fidget Spinner

Because the Dallas municipal system of government is this kind of headless, directionless fidget spinner, we may lose sight of something: There is a right way to go. Somewhere. A right direction.

Take Fair Park, our decaying exposition park in the center of the city. Maybe you don’t want to take Fair Park. I wouldn’t blame you. The project of cleaning up and turning around a 277-acre collection of rotten buildings isn’t exactly inviting on its face.

But what if you really could? What if there were a way to accomplish a communal miracle at Fair Park? Other cities have done it.

Balboa Park in San Diego was so scary in the ‘80s that Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it (“Past the salvage yard, 'cross the train tracks, and in through the storm drain, they stretched their blankets out 'neath the freeway”). He wasn’t singing about a picnic.

Now, rescued and turned around through a joint public-private effort, Balboa Park is a global destination visited by more than 10 million people a year. Why couldn’t we do that? There has to be a way. If we could find that right way to go with Fair Park, maybe we could remember the right way for a lot more of what City Hall is supposed to do.

At present, the Fair Park turnaround project is in deepest fidget-spin mode, embedded in a labyrinth of arcane bidding procedures so opaque that even the people trying to watch closely can’t really tell what’s going on. That just can’t be an accident.

The plan is to turn the park over to a private or semiprivate operator. A year ago, the mayor tried to give it to a friend of his, retired oil executive Walt Humann, without a public bid process. City Council member Philip Kingston forced the city to halt that process and invite bidders.

The bidding process is so inscrutable, it’s hard to know even what the would-be bidders will wind up bidding on. Some interested parties worry that the process has been deliberately layered, tangled and embedded in order to fix the game. The point of that would be to throw the deal to two players — Humann and the park’s lead tenant, the State Fair of Texas.

Earlier this week, I told you about some behind-the-scenes negotiations going on between the State Fair of Texas and the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. A “memorandum of understanding” between the two parties, briefed to the Park Board last week but not yet adopted, would lock in place several contractual arrangements that would severely limit the ability of a successful bidder to alter the basic use of the park.

None of that seems like the right way to go. Why work on agreements behind closed doors? Why try to hamstring potential new operators of the park before we know what they may propose to do with the park? The fidget spinner goes 'round and 'round, and where it stops nobody knows.

Today, one of the bidders, Fair Park Redevelopment Group, is releasing what it calls a list of “covenants” — promises it says it will honor in any plan or operation it may put into effect in Fair Park (copy below). The covenants are broad and lack specificity. The other two bidders, Humann and a consortium headed by Trammell Crow Co., might, if invited, want to offer different thoughts.

The list of covenants or promises released today by FPRG provides a challenging starting point for an open discussion on a long, clear direction for the Fair Park project. At the very least, anybody else who wants to be taken seriously as a bidder ought to speak to this list of promises, in disagreement, in agreement or to suggest other ideas. The product of that conversation should be reflected in whatever arrangement City Hall finally comes up with in its request for proposals.

The first promise is that the neighborhoods around Fair Park will be the priority in any plan, activity or enterprise carried out by FPRG in Fair Park. Nothing could be a more powerful agent of change than this idea.

As Fair Park stands and rots today, it is a symbol, a fortress and a weapon of racial separation. It shows the terrible economic disparity that will eat this city like a cancer if it goes unresolved. By committing to making the human beings who live around Fair Park the priority, FPRG strikes a challenge that every other bidder ought to have to answer.

The second promise veers 90 degrees away from social idealism to hard-nosed business sense. While the mayor’s plan with Humann has the city paying $20 million a year forever to maintain and repair the park, with a cap somewhere in the billion-dollar range, FPRG says it will propose a plan that will take Fair Park off the city’s tab in 10 years.

Ten years to total fiscal sustainability — that’s quite a contrast with a billion dollars forever. Monte Anderson, the lead principal in FPRG, says he has a track record in sustainable, organic development to back up the promise. It doesn’t hurt that another principal, former Dallas Summer Musicals director Michael Jenkins, has one of the best track records in the country for making money in an exposition park.

It’s just a promise. Obviously we’d have to hear more. But it’s a good promise. And it would be intriguing to hear what the other bidders have to say about it.

The third, fourth and fifth promises on FPRG’s list are related and have to do with creating a true signature park, like Balboa Park, wedded to a beautiful community park serving as a bridge and entry, all linked with surrounding neighborhoods by a reworking of streets and transportation infrastructure.

That might sound like blah-blah-blah until you come to the group’s transportation principal. Patrick Kennedy is one of the city’s brightest planning minds and has a growing national reputation for just this sort of thinking.

Again, in the weeks ahead when FPRG puts more flesh on these bones with added detail, we should expect other bidders, along with the city staffers and consultants working on the bid process, to comment. Once we can see details of what Kennedy is talking about — and we will, Anderson tells me — then it will be absurd for the bidding process to ignore these ideas.

The next three promises — local entrepreneurs, year-round operation and education — are linked by a concept Anderson brings from his career as an organic adaptive developer. The core idea is that everything his group would do at Fair Park would be scaled, subdivided and rooted to provide sustainable, permanent money-making opportunities for people in the community, including those who can’t go out and borrow half a million bucks in order to play.

For example, rather than creating one huge contract for the landscape maintenance of the entire park, FPRG would subdivide the park into small zones that could be maintained by pickup-truck contractors from the community. Does that sound inefficient? How efficient is it to try to run a fancy park in a sea of brutal poverty? How much more efficient is shared ownership?

Part of making that work would be keeping the park open for business all year instead of allowing large portions of it to be shut down for months, as is done now.

The education piece kills more birds with one stone than anybody can count — providing income for the park from rentals to schools and educational programs but also creating a magnet to draw young people into the park all year, making the park their home away from home.

A set of covenants may let us see the longer direction of things at Fair Park and maybe even at City Hall.
A set of covenants may let us see the longer direction of things at Fair Park and maybe even at City Hall.
Fair Park Redevelopment Group

The ninth promise, historic preservation, headed up by architect and preservationist Alicia Quintans, recognizes the status of Fair Park as the world’s largest collection of art deco exhibition buildings. The park’s architectural value is a legacy that needs to be treated as an asset, not an obstacle. Every bidder should speak to that challenge.

My favorite covenant is the last one, called “Regular Meetings.” Anderson tells me this is about much more than just meetings. This promise is a deliberate, clear, definite, 180-degree reversal of the longstanding culture of secrecy surrounding Fair Park and the State Fair of Texas. The fair, for example, has been embroiled in an expensive, years-long court battle to resist producing public information and financial data. That would have to change.

Anderson tells me his target here is not the fair. He says he doesn’t have an argument with that. OK. I do. I would love to see some kind of very specific written statement from each bidder about the kind of information it intends to release or not release concerning its operations and those of its principal tenants.

I don’t want to start comparing FPRG’s 10 Fair Park covenants to Martin Luther’s 95 theses or anything, but it is sort of revolutionary for a participant in an important public process in Dallas to start with a clear statement of ideals. We should view these covenants as very long lines drawn on the map of the future.

And here’s the thing: the people who have always handled these matters in Dallas according to their interests and behind the scenes? They draw long lines, too. But they only let us see the fidget spinner.

Anderson’s group is offering us long lines we can see, directions from A to B, not just spinning circles. Sounds like a plan.

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