The Kingdom of Hunt-Belo in Downtown Dallas Is for Sale, and So Are We
You need a bullet train depot in downtown, possibly at a cost of billions in tax dollars. You didn't know that? You must not have been reading the daily newspaper.
JR East Shinkansen lineup at Niigata Depot 201210" by Rsa - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Finally the land-play at the southwest corner of downtown Dallas has been rendered semi-public and a known fact, with last week’s admission by The Dallas Morning News that the property on which the paper sits may be sort of somewhat on the market.
And by the way, land can be sort of somewhat on the market the way a boat can be sort of somewhat watertight. It means, “Make us an offer.”
Because I have been talking about this particular play for, oh, I don’t know, a dozen years or more, I found the paper’s characterization a little hard to swallow:
“Given the digital age of leaks, [publisher Jim] Moroney and [editor Mike] Wilson decided to make a pre-emptive announcement in a letter to employees,” the paper said last week.
“‘We have such an aggressive, smart and curious newsroom that I’m sure it would get out before long even if we tried to do it sub rosa,’ Moroney said.”
Well, you know, Mr. Moroney, your able staff actually snapped to the fact that something was going on with the building several months ago, according to the ones who called me, and for very pre-digital reasons. The people I talked to (not for attribution so they won’t get killed) said what tipped them off first was the crew of mute strangers measuring the hallways.
Another big hint was when they went down to the basement where the advertising department used to occupy space, found the ad people all gone but replaced by another entirely non-Morning News operation of some sort, like a scene from The Body Snatchers.
Why, you might ask, Mr. Moroney, did someone not come to you? Why would they not have said, “Sir, we found a bunch of body-snatchers running some kind of boiler-room operation in the basement?”
Ah, the luxury of being the boss. Having lived through the final days at another Dallas daily once, I know that when the handwriting is all over the walls, asking the publisher embarrassing questions is tantamount to saying, "Please fire me."
And then there is this: DMN staff actually reported in the newspaper a year ago that apparently something was up with the land, but management denied it. Morning News transportation writer Brandon Formby found a clue in a PowerPoint presentation put together by DART, the regional transit agency, in which a map of the newspaper's entire corner of downtown was depicted under the label, “POTENTIAL REDEVELOPMENT BLOCKS.” A.H. Belo VP Dan Blizzard told Formby that as far as those ideas were concerned, "We've had zero involvement in those."
Much as I respect Formby’s reporting skills — and I do — it didn’t really take a Sherlock Holmes, did it? In fact I would even suggest that the notion of any secrecy or even a lack of public awareness on this topic was always a fiction preserved only in the minds of top management at the A.H. Belo Corp., owner of the paper and of several parcels of land surrounding the headquarters.
Is it any of my damn business? No and yes. What Belo does with its property is Belo’s business. But it is my business and the public’s business to know what Belo has sought to do and continues to seek to do to enhance the value of that property by manipulating billions of dollars worth of public infrastructure. That’s why I’m so glad to have it all out on the picnic table.
How much land are we talking about? Let’s go to the Dallas Central Appraisal District’s property map and add up all of the acreage under the ownership or control of A.H. Belo and its affiliates, then add that acreage to the land at the southwest corner of downtown owned or controlled by Hunt Realty Investments, the company owned and run by oilman Ray Hunt, a close ally of the Beloans in downtown real estate matters.
You needed a massive convention center expansion in the southwest corner of downtown at your own expense. Didn't know that? Read the paper!
I came up with about 39 acres in total. How much is that in relation to the rest of downtown? For comparison, let’s fence off an equivalent area of downtown. We’ll start at the corner of Ross Avenue and North St. Paul Street up in the northeast corner of downtown by the Dallas Museum of Art.
OK, come down Ross with me southwest about 12 blocks almost all the way to the Interstate 35E expressway, but we will stop at Houston Street. Now let’s turn left on Houston Street and cut across about seven blocks due south toward Reunion Station. At Reunion, we will turn left again or east, more or less, on Young Street, go by the Morning News and proceed on about 15 blocks back up to the elevated I-75/I-45 freeway between downtown and Deep Ellum. Then we have to turn left again and cut across next to the freeway about nine blocks to get back to our starting point.
That’s about the same acreage. Oh my gosh, look, it’s the entire center of downtown! And to do it, I’ll be darned if we didn’t include some scattered Beloan and Hunt parcels in spite of ourselves.
So my point i
s that the land we are talking about at the southwest corner of downtown — the Hunt/Belo land — is another downtown. But not downtown. And why?
I don’t know why. In all of the cycles of growth and expansion that downtown has experienced over the last 40 years, redevelopment has consistently pushed north and east, toward Uptown and East Dallas, not south and west. The only new spark in that direction is the Jack Matthews development farther south on Lamar Street, outside the freeway ring, but that’s a hop and a skip beyond Hunt/Belo land. I guess we could sit around and spin yarns all day about why that might be.
Other than the relative lack of market interest, what other characteristic can we see on the ground in the Hunt/Beloan corner that might distinguish it from the more energetic core of downtown?
I see relentless pressure from Hunt and the Beloans over decades to expand the money-losing, demonstrably obsolete adventure called the Dallas convention center. I see a city-owned convention hotel.
I see pressure to deform the second DART rail alignment through downtown — what should have been the single biggest transit-oriented development opportunity in the history of the city — away from the center of downtown where it could have achieved synergy with the first line and helped create a car-less community, bent instead to come into the Hunt/Belo turf where it will serve as a saloon jitney for drunk conventioneers.
Then we see the strong pressure being brought to bear on City Hall now to sanction a massive rail depot for a Dallas-Houston bullet train smack in the kingdom of Hunt-Belo. And then let’s not forget the high-speed multi-lane highway the newspaper has sought for so long inside the flood control levees along the Trinity River.
According to the design, if they ever build it, the most notable feature of that highway along the river will be a massive bird’s nest of fly-overs, cross-unders and weave-throughs designed to take traffic off and on the highway, bring it straight into the Hunt property through the backdoor off Industrial (Riverfront) Boulevard and connect it with the rest of Hunt-Belo.
I don’t mean to be patronizing, but this is a hard thing for people to see sometimes. Most people have better things to watch than curbs and gutters. I don’t.
Infrastructure in this region is not a function of government. It is a function of families. Very powerful families.
In 2008 Ross Perot Jr., scion of the powerful Perot family, called the Dallas “inland port” shipping center project in southern Dallas a “direct threat” to the Perot family’s Alliance freight and rail center near Fort Worth. In the years immediately after that declaration of war, the Perot family carried out a fairly open, frank and effective lobbying campaign to bring massive new highways and other public infrastructure to Alliance.
Drive northwest of DFW airport, if you haven’t in a while, and you will find yourself in a sea of new concrete that even your GPS won’t be able to keep up with unless it’s brand-new. You may tell me, sure, they had to build all of that new infrastructure up there because of the growth. Believe me, the Perots didn’t follow the infrastructure. The infrastructure followed the Perots.
Back in downtown Dallas, the pressure to steer enormous amounts of public infrastructure into Hunt-Belo territory at the southwest corner of downtown goes back decades. But there’s a big difference between the way that campaign has been carried out and the way the Perots did it.
It never occurred to the Perots to lie about it. At the very beginning, when the Dallas Inland Port first came into view, the Perot people said they already had a big investment in the ground at Alliance. It wasn’t built out yet. The Dallas project was a mortal threat. Getting or not getting the public infrastructure they needed to defend themselves would be a political dog-fight and a competition. They didn’t intend to lose.
Instead in Dallas we’ve had a daily newspaper telling us for decades that the bent light rail line, the yoooge convention center, convention hotel, bullet train depot and the expressway built on top of the river were all for our benefit. Just what the doctor ordered. For us.
So what I hope, now that the Belo land is openly on the auction block, is that we can say, “No, that’s what the doctor ordered for you. Not us. And now we want our own doctor.”