Stuck by DART

Troy Gardner stands inside Exposition Park Café for the last time after battling DART for two years.
Brandon Thibodeaux

For years, building a Dallas Area Rapid Transit rail line in Fair Park has been viewed a big step toward breathing life into the area and boosting businesses when it opens in September 2009. In the meantime, the construction over the past two years has been a hardship for the neighborhood, causing some business owners to relocate or close.

The most recent casualty near Fair Park is Exposition Park Café, which closed its doors July 21 after just two years in business. Sitting on the corner of Exposition and Parry avenues, the café became one of many businesses at that location to wave the white flag, with the previous tenant—Crayton's Restaurant and Bar—leaving after two-and-a-half years because of flood damage.

"It wasn't even a decision to close down business," says Troy Gardner, owner of Exposition Park Café. "It was out of necessity because we can't pay anything or anyone, and we're receiving zero compensation from the city or DART for our loss. And it's a direct result of being literally cut off from the rest of town by construction."


Fair Park

Gardner says the simultaneous construction on Exposition Avenue, Parry Avenue and First Avenue created a "perfect triangle" around his café that made it incredibly difficult for customers to find parking. More important, the café was a non-smoking facility that thrived on using its outdoor patio, but the construction made eating outside a chore because patrons "were getting bombarded with a ridiculous amount of dust, debris and particles."

When he opened his doors in July 2006, Gardner says he had no idea that the construction was scheduled, eventually hearing about it one month later. DART began its work shortly afterward, and Gardner exchanged e-mails and spoke with representatives from DART, including community affairs representative Willene Watson, about the problems that the construction was causing to his patio business.

Gardner claims that DART agreed to pay to enclose his patio with plastic and asked him to seek bids for the project. After soliciting several bids over a four-month period that ranged from $1,150 to $4,500, Gardner says he chose a bid of $1,300, but DART never took action, and Watson told him about a year later that the enclosure was no longer needed because the major part of the construction was complete.

"The people building the rail out there or designing the rail are aware of him, and they've gone out there to meet with him," says DART spokesman Mark Ball. "There's no denying that, but there was never anything official agreed upon or a handshake to decide what was going to occur."

Watson, who is on leave from DART because of a recent surgery, confirmed, however, that DART agreed to build a patio enclosure at the café. "That is correct. He [Gardner] was promised some things—and I'm going to say he and others—that have not happened."

Watson adds that she cannot elaborate because she is dealing with her own issues with DART, as it is denying her some medical benefits. Watson, who has worked 18 years for DART, also says her job would be in jeopardy if she went into detail because "DART says everything has to go through Morgan Lyons [DART's senior manager of media relations]."

Gardner's frustration with DART extends beyond its refusal to pay for a patio enclosure. He says the construction reduced parking to the point where he was unable to have his vendors unload food and beverages without getting tickets. Gardner estimates that he paid approximately $2,000 in parking fines in his two years there. He also says when trees were cut down during construction, they were placed in front of his café for almost a month.

"I'm not the only person suffering," Gardner says, referring to other businesses near his café.

Nancy Summerlin, leasing agent for Exposition Park Partners, says she has communicated with DART on numerous occasions on behalf of her tenants, asking for compensation to the businesses. She received no response and calls DART "a part of the city of Dallas that can do whatever they want to do and not be accountable for it."

Summerlin says DART conducted several meetings with the business owners, but "the meetings are absolutely a joke." She says at least 20 of the businesses she represents have been harmed by the construction.

"Those businesses have suffered so badly," Summerlin says. "It was going to be brain surgery without the anesthesia, and no one told us to get a bottle of vodka."

Even with his sales falling from $1,200 per day at this time last year down to days regularly under $100, none of the construction issues affected Gardner as much as getting struck by a DART bus on December 27. After parking his car across the street from his café at the corner of Exposition and Parry avenues, Gardner says he carried a box of alcohol along a crosswalk and was hit by a DART bus taking a right-hand turn onto Exposition.

"The bus hit me so hard that the alcohol exploded in the box and onto the front of the bus," he says.

The bus hit Gardner at 8:13 p.m., according to the report filed by DART police. The report states that DART police were notified at 8:16 and arrived at the scene at 8:30. It also notes that Gardner was hit approximately 60 feet from the street corner and that Gardner was treated and released at the scene. The driver of the bus, 57-year-old Herb Wilson, still works for DART but did not return phone calls from the Observer.

Gardner says he was in shock after getting struck, picked himself up, grabbed the lone bottle of alcohol that survived the collision and brought it into the café. He noticed a traffic officer outside and asked her to take an accident report, but Gardner was told DART police would be handling it. At that point, an ambulance was called after the bus driver asked Gardner if he needed one.

Gardner says he waited in his café until DART police arrived, and after spending a short amount of time with him, the officer left to speak with the driver. When the ambulance arrived, Gardner says, the paramedics spoke with the driver for approximately 10 minutes before speaking with him, and he was told that the accident was comparable to getting hit by a football player. No written statement was taken from Gardner, and he was left at the scene.

Gardner's mother arrived after the ambulance left and took him to the hospital, where he says he accumulated more than $20,000 in medical bills to treat severe whiplash and injuries to his back, left knee, right shoulder and left forearm. He says simply shaking someone's hand and lifting heavy objects is painful, and he is no longer able to work long hours as he did before.

"I broke nothing, but it jacked me up. I'm gonna be jacked up for my whole life," Gardner says. "I'm a sturdy guy. Had I been less sturdy, I would have been screwed up more. I can't do stuff like I did before."

Ball, citing DART records, says Gardner was jaywalking and didn't see the bus because of the box on his shoulder. Ball also says records show the bus "either hit or bumped him," and there was a report from the driver saying Gardner stepped in front of the bus. Additionally, Ball says Gardner never filed a claim to seek reimbursement for his medical bills.

"Obviously we can't be expected to consider paying for any medical bills when we know nothing about it," Ball says.

Gardner says he contacted DART shortly after the accident, but he never heard back from them. After he was told about Ball's comments, he filed an official claim and maintains that the DART reports are incorrect accounts of the accident. Gardner says he contacted 11 lawyers to handle his case, but none of them accepted it because they feared fighting a powerful city entity backed by high-priced lawyers.

After spending approximately $18,000 on plumbing and other issues in the building along with selling his TV, guitars and other personal items to keep his café afloat, Gardner found himself owing $4,500 in back rent and could no longer justify keeping the café open. "It's been a long, arduous process," he says, but he hopes eventually to relocate his café to Mockingbird Station, where, ironically, DART is thriving.

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