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Road rage

"What in the hell?" asks Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb, who has just been put on hold by a goosey receptionist inside the city manager's office and is thoroughly frustrated.

On this Thursday afternoon, Lipscomb and Carol Brandon, his appointee to the city's park and recreation board, are angry as they wait on hold with the city manager's office. There, they suspect, an emergency meeting is taking place that they haven't been invited to but want to crash. Just the day before, Lipscomb received word that dirt was once again flying at Highland Hills Park, which is located off Bonnie View Road near Interstate 20 and is about to become home to a new road.

The situation is intolerable to Lipscomb and Brandon, who is barely resisting the urge to damn the city's managers to hell. "This," she tells Lipscomb, "is a blatant disregard of the everyday customer by the public works department all the way up to the city manager."

Highland Hills Park is an 18-acre haven blessed with groves of old trees and lush grass that thrive on a spring that bubbles from the earth and twists luxuriously through the hilly grounds. For better than 20 years, people of all ages have enjoyed the park's bounty. There are tennis courts and a swimming pool, a baseball diamond and some hoops. A little walkway is sprinkled with barbecue pits, which stand at attention before pairs of knobby picnic benches. At the center of it all is the Tommie M. Allen Recreation Center, where residents can sign up for everything from aerobics classes to courses in wellness and ceramics.

Just weeks ago, dozens of youngsters scurried across the park, combing the grass in a frenzied hunt for Easter eggs. But come this time next year, a strip of those hunting grounds will be paved over, and the kids will have to stay away from the park's entrance, lest they get squashed beneath an 18-wheeler.

The trouble began in early March, when without warning a construction crew appeared and began digging out grass, grading the earth for a road. The new road will share the park's entrance and lead right to the doorstep of a new neighbor, Utility Trailer of Dallas Inc. The company sells semitrailers, and it needs the road so its customers can access its business, which is located behind the park along I-20.

When the residents realized what was happening, the image of big rigs and kids in their minds, they called Lipscomb. The District 8 representative put the brakes on the project, halting construction. Later, two neighborhood meetings took place during which city staff pointed lots of fingers but, according to Lipscomb, offered few explanations. Things were at a standstill. Then, last Wednesday, Lipscomb learned that the construction crews were back on the job. By Thursday, his blood was boiling.

"Those trucks are too close. We've got too many trucks out there," Lipscomb says, exasperated. "We used to hide Easter eggs out there."

Like his constituents, Lipscomb wants to know why the construction resumed and just who thought it was a good idea to build an industrial road through a city park in the first place. And why didn't the city staff let anyone know about this?

On this Thursday afternoon, Lipscomb calls the city manager's office in hopes of catching the responsible city employees, who he believes have gathered to discuss the project. Maybe they can give him some answers. Initially, the receptionist confirms Lipscomb's suspicion that a meeting is going on. But after discovering she's on a three-way call with a reporter, the receptionist puts the call on hold. A few minutes later, she returns and tells Lipscomb that the meeting he's looking for will take place the next morning. People from the city manager's office, public works, and the city attorney's office will be there.

"It's a staff meeting with the directors," she says, explaining that it will be closed to the public. No citizens allowed.

"Nobody even called me," Lipscomb says, sounding astounded and unsatisfied. Lipscomb angrily tells the receptionist that he wants Brandon at that meeting. "There's been too much hanky-panky going on," he growls. "I need someone to level with me."

The receptionist isn't sure whether Brandon can attend. So she takes down Lipscomb's number and offers a line all too familiar to anyone who has ever tried to get a straight answer out of City Hall: "I'll get back to you."

Just like that, the weird conversation is over, and Lipscomb and Brandon are left wondering what in the hell is going on down there.

No one is more perturbed by this situation than Tommie M. Allen. The recreation center bears her name in honor of the fact that it was her idea to build the park. That was back in the late '60s, Allen explains as she cautiously navigates a bumpy stretch of dirt that will soon become the paved road.

 

"Careful," she warns, as she climbs onto a curb to avoid a passing semi, which spews exhaust as it hauls off a load of trees that have been cleared from land behind the park, just past the baseball diamond. Across the street, at the Flying J Travel Plaza truck stop, a big rig backs up, and its beep, beep, beeping echoes through the park, which is void of visitors on this Tuesday afternoon. There won't be any kids running around here during the day for about six weeks, when school lets out. That's also about when the road likely will be finished.

Although Allen has met with city officials twice this month, she says she still doesn't understand why or how this road came to be. All she knows is that it's about to come within spitting distance of the center and picnic tables and within feet of the seniors' garden and tennis courts before connecting to the park entrance. The road will travel from the back of Utility Trailer, allowing trucks to rumble through the park on their way to Bonnie View Road, from which they can hop onto I-20 eastbound.

As Allen wandered angrily through the cloud of non-information from the city, she grew suspicious that some shenanigans were going on between the city and the company.

"This is a hush-hush deal, and somebody is responsible for it," she says, staring in disbelief at the freshly exposed dirt. "That was the kids' playground. Now there's a road there. We don't understand how they kept it from us."

Despite Allen's suspicions, there's little chance that anything underhanded is going on between the city and the company. More's the pity. In fact, the road is part of a joint venture between the city and the company that, until now, both sides considered a success. What Allen is experiencing is the ill effects of a bureaucratic cocktail that's one part lack of foresight, one part absence of common sense, and a twist of butt-covering. Many Dallas residents will confirm that City Hall has been mixing these concoctions for some time, but this is Allen's first taste.

To Allen, whose body appears frail in contrast to her spirit, the purpose of this park is as simple as its origin. Allen has lived here for 40 years and says this whole area was mostly rural until around the 1950s, when houses started popping up like bluebonnets. With the houses came families, like Allen's, whose children needed a place to play.

"The kids would be playing all out in the street like my kids were. It was dangerous," Allen says, exchanging looks with a passing construction worker.

Allen thought the wooded land across the street from her house would be the perfect place for a park. So she opened the phone book, called the city, and found out how one goes about getting a public park. Allen soon gathered enough signatures to support the idea, and the city called a bond election. The issue passed, and on September 9, 1976, the Highland Hills Park and Recreation Center was officially dedicated. The center was renamed in 1994 to honor Allen's work.

Even in 1994, Allen says, nobody thought much about the future--at least in terms of what it held for the park and the undeveloped land around it. All anybody thought about was how happy they were that their kids had a safe place to play.

"We never had the slightest dream that anything like this would tear us up. But you just don't think about [things] like that. Now look what's up here," Allen says, pointing to the Flying J truck stop across the street. "Everything under the sun."

Although cows still graze less than a mile from the park, development is finally making its way to the working-class Highland Hills neighborhood. Because the neighborhood sits adjacent to I-20, sandwiched between I-45 and I-35, it's the ideal place for businesses catering to truckers. That's why the truck stop recently moved in across the street from a truck wash and a Ramada Inn. And that's why Utility Trailer of Dallas Inc. is moving in too. Certainly, they won't be the last.

Linda Brown sits at a round table inside her City Hall office at 10:30 a.m. on April 9. Earlier this morning, the meeting that Lipscomb found out about convened up on the seventh floor, but Brown isn't talking.

"Can't say," she says, shaking her head as she ignores a plea for hints about what, if anything, happened up there. "Why would I want to tell you? I like my job."

 

Brown has bosses in the city manager's office she must report to and, since this road has become so sensitive, she's going to let them speak for the city. For now, they're not talking.

As the director of the city's Economic Development Department, Brown oversees programs designed to encourage companies to move to Dallas or, more often, to stay here. Brown offers a long explanation of the history of these programs, which begins with something about the devaluation of the peso that devastated border towns, but the gist of it is this: To attract companies, the city lets them skip out on paying some of their taxes and, sometimes, gives them other breaks, like waiving the fees they charge for permits and helping them build things like roads.

In October 1996, the city cut such a deal with Utility Trailer of Dallas Inc., which had outgrown its Irving location and wanted to relocate along I-20. Under the agreement, over the next 10 years Utility Trailer doesn't have to pay 90 percent of its property taxes on improvements it makes to the location; it received up to $6,000 in rebates; and the city agreed to pitch in $164,000, or 30 percent of the money the company was going to spend for a new road.

Utility Trailer plans to use the site to sell and repair truck trailers. The privately held company is an authorized dealer of trailers built by Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co., a California-based giant that sells about a half-billion dollars' worth of trailers every year. The company makes all types of trailers, but it is the world's No. 1 maker of refrigerated units known as "reefers."

Patrick Watson, Utility Trailer of Dallas' president, says he is frustrated at the sudden controversy over his company, and he fails to understand why the city would delay a project after more than two years of planning because of a belated public outcry.

"There's been a lot of push to develop this area down here," Watson says, referring to southern Dallas. "You get down here, and they're fighting you. We want to be good neighbors, and we're willing to work with [residents] any way we can."

Brown says that until now, the joint venture has gone smoothly and that, as it nears completion, she considers it another step toward accomplishing the city's goal of developing its southern sector.

"From an economic-development standpoint, I've never had a problem like this before, and I've been here nine years," says Brown, who is also frustrated that the project has hit a bump in the road. "Why does it always have to come this far before it becomes an issue?"

Good question. Like Watson, Brown wonders why residents are only now expressing complaints about a project that was approved two years ago. After all, she says, her department did everything it was supposed to do: Before the project was approved, a public hearing was held to give residents the chance to express any concerns they might have.

"I don't remember there being any issue on this," says Brown, who doesn't recall any residents showing up for the hearing.

Maybe that's because none of the residents knew about the hearing.
In the popular '70s science-fiction spoof The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the earth is destroyed by a thick-skinned race of intergalactic bureaucrats called the Vogons to make way for a space highway. When earthlings complain that no one told them about plans for the road, the Vogons say that a notice was published for all to see--on Alpha Centauri, four light years away.

In Dallas, the local Vogons have their own version of Alpha Centauri: the back pages of The Dallas Morning News.

According to Brown, the city met the minimum requirements of the law for giving neighborhoods warning about the road, which means it posted a "public notice" of the hearing. These public notices are those narrow advertisements that are written in legal mumbo jumbo and buried deep inside the Morning News, where few people read them. Brown doesn't, and she reluctantly concedes that it's reasonable to say that the residents were effectively kept in the dark about the project.

Even so, Brown says she never anticipated that the proposed road would have created a conflict with the park, since city maps show that the place where the road is being built was already platted for a road. That was done back when the park was built, according to David Dybala, the director of the Public Works and Transportation Department, who is responsible for overseeing the road's construction.

"When the [park] plans were developed, the road was part of the overall plan," Dybala says. "Of course, that was back in the '70s, and the uses we have today weren't there."

 

To avoid the present mess, all residents needed to know was that what they thought was a playground was actually an undeveloped road, according to a plat tucked away in some government office. Those slackers who don't regularly check their neighborhood plats could have easily kept track of the park simply by squinting at the tiny type of the legal notices in the Morning News every day for the past 20 years.

At least they didn't have to travel to Alpha Centauri.

This answers Lipscomb's question about whose idea it was to put a road there, but it doesn't explain who thought it was a good idea to let the road be used for truck traffic when it shares an entrance to a city park where kids play.

"If this plat was done 20 years ago," Lipscomb asks, "wouldn't it stand to reason [that someone should] review the plats?"

Evidently not.
This project originated in Brown's office, but as she points out, her staff specializes in marketing, not urban planning, so the details of the construction were not their concern. In fact, her department didn't even review a map of the land surrounding the proposed road in search of possible conflicts. "The company would do that," says Brown, who adds that "when it came time to build the road, then public works takes over, and economic development is out of the picture."

Left hand, meet the right hand.
Because the road was already platted and not officially part of the park, Dybala says, he didn't see a need for a review. He also says that based on the company's business volume, he doesn't think more than 50 trucks will use the road on any given day. But the truth is, he really doesn't know how the road will be used. "We haven't done detailed studies on volumes of traffic," he says. Watson declined to provide any numbers.

So, more than two years after the project was approved, the city employees are just now beginning to think that maybe there is a problem with the road's proximity to the park. And this is only because of the outcry of people like Allen, who point out that if they had been reasonably notified in the first place, none of this would be happening.

Nonetheless, in early March, Dybala's staff ordered the company to halt construction so the two sides could discuss possible solutions to the problem, once again to the exclusion of the residents. So far, the company has agreed to use the road for one-way traffic only, and it is developing plans to build a fence along the road to shield the park-goers from the traffic. "The details are still to be worked out with the property owners in the area," Dybala says. "At this point there's not a final solution to the problem."

There's no solution because Allen, for one, doesn't want to hear any talk about fences and one-way signs. She doesn't want the road. Period. "We'll fight it to the end," she says.

When asked if there's a chance that the road will be canceled, as Allen hopes, Dybala says, "Yes, that's being discussed." But when asked to explain why, after several weeks of discussion, the city has allowed the company to resume construction, Dybala grows quiet.

The explanation is sitting on top of Brown's table back at City Hall.
As part of the city-company agreement, the terms of the project can't be altered once construction begins, which, of course, it already has. If the city were to renege on its end of the deal now, the company would have pretty good grounds on which to sue the city for breach of contract. This much Lipscomb knows. If it were up to him, Lipscomb says, he'd like to see the road completed, but he wouldn't allow any trucks to use it. Of course, this would go against the very purpose of the road.

"We," Lipscomb says, "are in such a nebulous position."
As of Tuesday, Lipscomb was still waiting for someone in the city manager's office to tell him what was going on.

What's especially annoying to Allen about all of this is what she sees as the city's cavalier attitude.

"The only time when you hear from this city is election time and taxes time," Allen says.

To prove her point, Allen turns her back to the center that bears her name and points across Bonnie View Road toward her house. There, a car is forced to pull off the road to make way for a school bus, which lurches to the left and to the right as the driver attempts to avoid hitting the potholes that crater the road. There are no sidewalks there, much less curbs, and the road barely qualifies as a road.

 

"They don't even fix our street; half of it is gone," she says. "It's really sad when you've been here almost 40 years, paying taxes, and you have to cater to someone who just got here. It's pitiful they do us like this.


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