The Inside Story Behind the Bitter Fight For Dallas' Pacific Plaza Park
Pacific Plaza park will be built on the site of a parking lot in downtown Dallas.
The 3.2-acre lot bracketed by Pacific Avenue and St. Paul and Harwood streets has become an eyesore. To say it’s poorly maintained is an understatement. The uneven layer of asphalt is littered with freshly broken glass and shards from an earlier generation of destroyed beer bottles.
Walking the perimeter on a workday afternoon means taking in the symphony of trash and sadness that characterize it: Djarum Black packages, ancient, crushed Dr Pepper and Colt 45 cans, half a Trojan wrapper, and, beside it, the used condom. There’s a nonpopulated attendant booth covered in graffiti.
Since 1921, the space has been a parking lot. Now it’s surrounded by prime real estate, and the lot will soon transform into a $15 million urban oasis belonging to Parks for Downtown Dallas, a nonprofit group spearheaded by Robert Decherd, the former president and CEO of A.H. Belo Corp. Since leaving the company, which owns The Dallas Morning News, the reclusive Dealey family scion has devoted himself to philanthropic public park projects.
The park Decherd’s foundation plans to build is called Pacific Plaza. The history of the site has been anything but peaceful. A contentious, almost Shakespearean fight ensued when two groups proposed plans for a different park at the same site.
A group called 4P Partners, headed by former Dallas City Council member Ron Natinksy, came forward with a plan to build a 1,526-space subterranean parking structure with a 3.6-acre park on top. The group had already created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that would enter into a lease agreement with the city of Dallas. Natinsky says his plan would be free to Dallas taxpayers, and the parking lot revenue would generate income for his group and the city.
But in March, the City Council greenlighted Decherd’s plans for a new downtown park called Pacific Plaza, using a $15 million donation from his foundation. The deal is part of a wider offer of $44 million in cash and land to build four downtown parks, provided the city add $35 million to an upcoming bond package to help pay for it.
A park is supposed to be a peaceful place for reflection. This one was born amid a conflict that says as much about how the city conducts its business as it does about the future of downtown Dallas.
Parks for Downtown Dallas
There’s an acute awareness that an outsider is walking into Robert Decherd’s sprawling offices at the Bank of America building. Vickie King, Decherd’s assistant, and Amy Meadows, president of Parks for Downtown Dallas, are waiting at the double glass doors.
“Did you find everything OK? How was parking?” they ask, over-the-top cheerful. It's a rare occasion; reporters are simply not allowed here.
“Mr. Decherd will see you in a moment,” King says.
A certain amount of hype surrounds Decherd. His actions have spoken louder than his words, leading Forbes to list him as one of the nation's most powerful people and D Magazine to compare him to Howard Hughes "because he’s unapproachable."
Since retiring from A.H. Belo Corp. in 2013, Decherd has carved out a new niche as the godfather of parks in downtown Dallas. When it comes to green spaces, his track record is probably better than anyone else's in Dallas. He took an old parking lot across from the federal building and turned it into Belo Garden at Griffin and Main streets. Foundations associated with Decherd have contributed around $20 million to create places like Dallas Police Memorial, WFAA Plaza and Lubben Plaza.
When Decherd walks out a few minutes later, the vibe is less Howard Hughes swagger and more a 66-year-old wearing loafers. Decherd, once the most powerful man in Texas journalism, is unflaggingly polite and serious, except when asked about the large paper giraffe statue displayed on the desk in his office.
“That’s an important piece of folk art my daughter did when she was 6,” he says, smiling.
His office is understated, with no evidence of lavish vacations or his weighty professional accomplishments. The décor is minimal: A popsicle-hued photograph of Mr. Frosty, a fast-food place in Denton, hangs on the wall, and to the right of his bookcase is a framed sketch of his great-grandfather, George Bannerman Dealey.
Decherd pointedly admits he usually doesn’t do interviews. What made him want to do this one?
“We have a contract with the city of Dallas to build a public park,” Decherd says. “In that context, we need to be available and approachable to everyone.”
The city of Dallas hired the Carter & Burgess planning firm to create a master plan for its downtown public parks in 2004, and it was updated in 2013.
“Now is the time for collaborative synergy,” its authors declared. “Instead of the dynamics of mixed-use venues stimulating business and entertainment, the downtown has become a place of individual destinations serving single activities.”
The plan calls for four “priority parks” to be built: Pacific Plaza, one in West End, one under North Central Expressway and one near the Dallas Farmers Market at Harwood and Young streets.
“Parks for Downtown Dallas prepared to invest substantially all of our financial assets, helping the city of Dallas build these four priority parks,” Decherd says. “Any shape, form or fashion the park board and City Council deemed to be appropriate, so long as we agree that we're going to have a great outcome. We're going to build great parks. We don't want to just go invest money on whims or bad ideas.”
Breaking down the financing from his group and its sponsors, Decherd says: “We put $30 million of our assets into the parks program. We have firm commitments from two groups who will put in another $5 million, so there's $35 million. If the city will match with another $35 million, it gives you $70 million, and that's sufficient to build these four parks.” The Pacific Plaza park alone will cost $15 million.
Decherd committed these resources with one condition: The city would put a dollar-for-dollar match in its next bond program. The City Council has hesitated to schedule one; some on the council wanted one this spring, primarily to fix Dallas’ roads.
How much will the park cost Dallas taxpayers? “Ultimately, the city has to pay back the bonds, so if the city has $35 million in this bond program, you would think of it as a $35 million investment by the taxpayers into these parks,” Decherd says. “That's where you have to go back to the equation … between both the social benefits and the resultant energy in the economic impact, which is quite significant.”
4P investors Ron Lusk (left) and Rob Sarver couldn't build a subterranean parking garage on the Pacific Plaza land.
By June 2016, Natinsky and his partners had tried numerous times to get Willis Winters, the park department director, to show their proposal to the park board. So they met with Mayor Mike Rawlings, who told them to get back with Winters.
In August 2016, Natinsky received a phone call from someone at TravisWolff LLP, now part of Armanino, whose principal, Ken Travis, is Parks for Downtown Dallas’ longtime accountant.
“They said, we’ve been asked by the park department to talk to you about your plan for Pacific Plaza," Natinsky says. "I didn't know that I was going in for root canal.”
He says that about an hour into the meeting, someone started asking Natinsky how 4P was capable of pulling off its plan financially. “At that point, I drew the line. I said, 'I'm not about to reveal that to you,'" Natinsky says. "I said, 'We've got a financial commitment; we have the money. What does it matter how we made it work?’ And the answer I got was, ‘We studied it, and we don't think it works.’”
At the time of the meeting, Natinsky says, he didn’t know Parks for Downtown Dallas was ready to build the park. He soon learned that weeks before the meeting the parks group had requested, wherein 4P was asked how it was able to build, the park board had signed an administrative action creating a formal relationship between Parks for Downtown Dallas and Pacific Plaza.
Ron Lusk, a 4P Partners investor, and his employee Rob Sarver met with Max Wells, then-president of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, and Winters, the department director on Sept. 29, 2016, at an office at 1500 Marilla St.
4P had spent 18 months fine-tuning its plan for Pacific Plaza. It would build a seven-story subterranean parking garage with a city park at ground level at no cost to the city. It had created a nonprofit, independent of 4P Partners, that would enter into a lease agreement with the city of Dallas for the parcel of land. 4P's bank, JPMorgan Chase, wrote a letter on the group's behalf confirming that it had all the money in place, Sarver says.
As is the case with Klyde Warren Park, the newly formed nonprofit would be the owner, manager and operator of the park and would have an independent board of directors. In accordance with IRS guidelines, Lusk and Sarver were required to occupy the board. But once the project was funded, they’d resign and turn over control to the independent board, after which 4P Partners would continue as operator. The revenue from the parking garage would support operations, and 4P had set aside $342 million dedicated to maintenance costs.
Wells asked Lusk and Sarver what experience they had in parking. Lusk walked through all the key investors in the project: 5G, Hill & Wilkinson, JPMorgan and Norton Rose Fulbright. Principal investors included a former president of ABM Parking, the second-largest parking company in the United States, and a 30-year executive at Standard Parking, the largest parking company in the U.S.
The meeting seemed stacked against Lusk and Sarver and turned nasty, they said. According to a sworn affidavit signed by Sarver, Wells told them he would not allow “an obnoxious park with fumes coming out to be built; that would harm children.”
In response, Lusk “described the confluence of less parking and high vacancy rates that are depreciating the core of downtown, encumbering economic growth and foretelling of a continued economic declivity that will cripple downtown for decades,” according to Sarver’s statement.
Lusk offered to coordinate a meeting – without him – with an expert on downtown Dallas submarkets. Phil Puckett, executive vice president at CB Richard Ellis, was in 4P’s corner, Lusk told them, and could give Wells and Winters a presentation with metrics to back up why and how the project would benefit downtown.
According to the statement, when Wells declined the meeting, Lusk said, “I feel you have a fiduciary duty to allow the public to hear about a proposal that is free to the taxpayers and to not obligate them with part of a $35 million bond debt to pay for this park.”
Wells declined to meet with 4P's supporters, including Puckett, and maintained that what 4P was proposing was not free, according to the affidavit. Lusk reiterated the financial structure and why it would cost the city nothing. “Mr. Wells then stated that Decherd was not going to just give you a free park,” the statement reads, and Lusk responded, “The taxpayers of Dallas own it. It’s not Decherd’s to give.”
Wells denied 4P a chance to put the plan before the park board. According to Sarver’s statement, Wells said, “If you continue to pursue this, you will not like the outcome. I will fight you every step of the way, and you will regret it.”
In 2015, residents of an Oklahoma City nursing home that Lusk owned won a $1.6 million civil jury verdict. It's currently on appeal.
"An aid at the facility stuck a rubber glove in the mouth of a patient, and somehow I became the Antichrist," he says. "I owned that facility for 22 years. Never had a problem until those guys blew everything way out of proportion."
The lawsuit has never been cited publicly by Winters or the park board as a reason for problems with 4P's plan. Lusk says that behind the scenes, though, supporters of the Decherd plan tried to "throw it in his face" before Lusk's lawyers intervened.
When Ron Natinsky talks about Pacific Plaza, you can almost hear his blood pressure rising. “The proposal we made is something the city should have been jumping up and down about, saying, 'This costs us nothing; it brings us a revenue stream; we have no maintenance obligation.’” Natinsky says. “And it’s a public park. Nobody can say Klyde Warren wasn’t the most exciting thing to happen to Dallas. And this was modeled to be another Klyde Warren.”
Neither Wells nor Winters responded to the Observer's phone calls. Decherd also refuses to talk about 4P's plan and the way the city handled it.
Meadows, the Parks for Downtown Dallas president, also won’t discuss 4P Partners, but she defends the deal her organization cut with the city. She points out that the park board signed off on it, as is proper.
“The city didn't have the funding to do it. We did, and the park board asked us to fund it in its entirety,” she says. “We said we would and that we’d give them an endowment to help maintenance costs. They chose to work with us given that they had a long track record working on several other park projects.”
Meadows presents the organization’s deal as a way to break a logjam.
“Citizens were told that was going to be a park, and they voted for it, and then the city worked with Trust Republic Land to buy that property,” she says. “They had a sign up for years on that site. It's still there today, saying, 'This will become a park.’"
A rendering shows the vision for Pacific Plaza downtown.
The way SWA Group, Pacific Plaza’s design firm, describes the park makes it sound like a Robert Frost poem.
“A halo-shaped pavilion dominates the southwest corner while a large grove of mature, healthy live oaks” will create a heat sink to help cool the area, according to a statement. The plan calls for a “dramatic stone seat wall” named the Thread that stretches 670 feet.
The sidewalks are described as “a series of curvilinear paths that circle a vast acre of open space and meander through an alley of shade trees that soften the edges of the site and buffer the street activity.” This means visitors will be circling the park, which is nearly four acres, on curved sidewalks.
Kevin Sloan is the Dallas landscape architect who, on a pro-bono basis, designed 4P Partners’ blueprints for its park. He says Pacific Plaza is a landscape architecture project in a downtown setting, not a prescription for what downtown actually needs.
"This is where it gets interesting," he says. "An urban park should be a city thing, not art solving a problem."
He says SWA Group's design is a one-trick pony.
"To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a park is not a park is not a park. The key thing is an urban park is designed to be a programmable space," Sloan says. "It’s organized enough so that ad hoc occurrences happen. It can accommodate basically anything, and the design doesn’t get in the way."
Chuck McDaniel, SWA’s managing principal, says he doesn’t know when construction of Pacific Plaza will commence. He ended a phone call with the Observer when Sloan was mentioned.
Natinsky says that the envisioned park isn’t maximizing the space.
“The park by itself, yes, the land value’s going to go up a little bit,” he says. “But not much because you still don’t have parking.”
Traditional downtown park visitors – such as homeless people at The Stewpot shelter at Young Street and Park Avenue – express a different perspective. Looking at images of Pacific Plaza, a military veteran named Whip points out that there are no public bathrooms. He says he appreciates the ones at Klyde Warren Park because “they are usually clean" and says Pacific Plaza’s curvilinear sidewalks are “stupid.”
Joe from Duncanville questions the price tag, saying $15 million "is too much to spend on a park.” He’s not a fan of the halo-shaped pavilion or the sidewalks. “I would not want to spend time there,” he says.
For Robert Decherd, this is all background noise. He reveals himself to be an advocate for downtown Dallas, fixated on its future and seemingly disinterested in the fighting and political rancor that surround making this vision a reality. People in Dallas will interpret his unfeigned enthusiasm as sincere or ironic, depending on their views of the Pacific Plaza deal.
“I think the things that are most important in the next 10 years are for the city to continue to invest heavily in this core,” he says, “and to encourage the private sector to engage in partnerships like the one Parks for Downtown Dallas has with the city, to find a way to do the things that create a permanent state of dynamism in the downtown core.”
Encouraging these partnerships may be difficult given the lesson of Pacific Plaza. A group of businesspeople invested – and lost – two years and millions of dollars into a project it felt would help Dallas taxpayers. The city instead fast-tracked a project headed by the heir to a multigenerational dynasty. No one wants to talk about the details.
Will the city suffer greatly because Decherd’s vision of Pacific Plaza is going forward? Probably not. But the lesson is there for other businesses hoping to get involved with the city: This is how Dallas works.
Decherd's optimism is on clear display, and why not? After all, he won the fight for Pacific Plaza.
“If you told me that what you experienced walking and driving around the center city, Uptown, Deep Ellum, Cedars, South Lamar and so on would look like this in 2017, I would say it's impossible,” he says. “This is amazing acceleration. It has good aspects. It has some negative aspects, but we need to make sure we get this right. That's why these parks, among many reasons, are so important. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.”