What? Forget That Group's New Name; How Did They Get Our Park?

If we're going to take New York's Central Park as our model, let's make sure we understand New York's Central Park.EXPAND
If we're going to take New York's Central Park as our model, let's make sure we understand New York's Central Park.
Ed Yourdon Creative Commons

Based on the evidence of a mayoral media event Monday, somebody already has told a small private organization called The Trinity Trust Foundation that they will be taking the lead role in designing, developing and then running the city’s long-awaited new linear park along the Trinity River.

What?

In fact, talk about whats. Mayor Mike Rawlings’ brief speech atop a restaurant in West Dallas was replete with what we in the writing trade might call ellipses – things missing. As in: What? You’re giving away the park?

What? You’ve already picked the group you’re giving it to? What? They already have plans for it?

The trick with ellipses is that we tend to focus on the last what. We often forget the whats that lead up to it. For example, the head of the Trinity Trust, Deedie Rose, who also spoke at the mayor’s event, announced that her group is going to change its name from Trinity Trust to Trinity Park Conservancy.

What? They already have a new name?

So this is my big caution and advice: don’t ask about the last what. Who cares why they are changing their name? Who the hell are they? How’d they get our park?

The press conference was to announce a $50 million gift to the park from the widow of Harold Simmons, a Dallas billionaire financier. That’s pretty sweet, is it not? By the way, the mayor also announced the park is now called Harold Simmons Park.

What?

Oh, relax. Harold Simmons Park is better than Wyly Brothers Park which would have been better than Allen Stanford Park. If we can live with a deck park named for the son of a destroyer of sacred native lands, we can stand to have a park named for a guy who wanted to poison West Texas with nuclear waste. Nobody’s perfect. And, you know, it’s Dallas. We’re not going to get a lot of $50 million gifts from George Clooney.

I personally wish we could work our way back down the what-tree and find out who decided to give away the Trinity River, but, again, it’s Dallas, and we’re often not allowed to know those things. We have to hope and pray they don’t give away the air, or more likely, to sell it.

And we don’t know that Deedie Rose and her conservancy-whatever are necessarily the worst group somebody could have given the river to. I’m trying to be positive. Maybe we should look a little more closely at the details in what Rose said Monday.

Speaking as if she already owns the river, Rose said: “In order to be good stewards of this gift and future gifts, the Trinity Trust studied best practices around the country, including the success of Houston, San Antonio and Tulsa park models. We also went to New York and studied models there. We are continuing to research best practices of delivering this sort of large public space.”

New York, we can assume, is where they came up with their new name, taken from the Central Park Conservancy. That entity is pretty much the gold standard nationally and around the world for what have become known as P3s – public private partnerships. Good choice. Central Park, the 843-acre park in the heart of Manhattan in New York City, is one of the world’s greatest.

But, what? The Trinity Trust or Conservancy or whatever it’s called today, they’re the ones to go to New York? They already did the study of best practices? Now they’re going to tell us what they are? Shouldn’t we go to New York? Surely we can afford to ship a few council members up there to study Central Park a bit and maybe even let them have a weekend in Tulsa, too.

You might ask why. If Ms. Rose and her fellow members of the Whatever-Whatever are willing to tell us what the best practices are, why do we have to go find out all over again for ourselves?

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I don’t worry about anybody misrepresenting anything. Not at all. But I do worry about the ellipses. For example, when the members of her group tell us about the best practices in New York, will they remember to tell us everything?

The Central Park Conservancy raises 75 percent of Central Park’s annual $67 million annual operating budget. It has invested $875 million in capital improvements to the park since its founding in 1980. It operates on a 10-year $90 million contract with the city to run the park.

Here is the ellipsis I worry about, however: The Central Park Conservancy is not the boss. Will the Trinity Park Conservancy remember to tell us that part when they give us our seminar on best practices? Will the mayor?

Dallas Deputy Mayor Erik Wilson and Mayor Mike Rawlings on Monday announcing the $50 million Annette Simmons gift to the proposed Trinity River park.EXPAND
Dallas Deputy Mayor Erik Wilson and Mayor Mike Rawlings on Monday announcing the $50 million Annette Simmons gift to the proposed Trinity River park.
Jim Schutze

Central Park is a complex cooperative effort run by two main partners, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the conservancy, along with a dense web-work of junior partners including many other city departments and a slew of private institutions and interest groups.

But the boss is the New York City Parks Commissioner. The Central Park Conservancy’s contract with the city makes it plain that the commissioner is the ultimate authority on anything and everything that can happen in Central Park. Whatever the conservancy does in Central Park must be done “to the reasonable satisfaction of the commissioner,” according to the contract.

New York City never gave away Central Park to anybody. The city allowed a consortium of concerned citizens and longtime friends of the park to come into the park as an auxiliary to the park department. In 36 years the work of the conservancy has been brilliant, and we can only pray we might see something as successful here.

But the city owns the park. The city decides what the park should look like. The city decides who has access, when and why. That basic hegemony over the park was never ceded to anyone outside city government, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars well-meaning people may have brought to the table.

It would be unfair for me to suggest that the new Trinity Park Conservancy has any other sort of arrangement than that in mind, so I am not suggesting it. But the mayor sure does.

The mayor’s track record is clear, as evidenced in his recent failed attempt to give away Fair Park, our beleaguered 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas. In that case, on ice now because it turned out to be illegal, the formulation put forward by the mayor’s group not only took ultimate control away from the parks department. If anything, that deal would have barricaded the new private lords of Fair Park from almost any public control at all on a day-to-day operating basis.

The city’s choice would have been to kill the contract. Short of that, the new private Fair Park entity would have been able to tell the Dallas parks director to butt out.

In all of this, there is a fine line dividing guiding philosophies. In New York, clearly the conservancy was formed because the private sector perceived – and the city agreed – that the city needed help. But that was a case of the city opening its gate and allowing the conservancy to enter the park as its tenant and on-site manager.

In the mayor’s Fair Park effort there was a much stronger anti-government animus, as if the whole game was to wrest the asset away from public control forever, to slam the gate and make the park director a trespasser.

The thing is, the park director is our guy. Your guy. My guy. You and I are not members of the conservancy and, no offense, but we’re not likely to be invited. But we do own that land. That land is your land. That land is my land. Twang-twang.

In all of the ellipses so far, the whats, that’s the one what that is consistently missing. The mayor was a proud peacock Monday, telling us all about the $50 million gift and reciting all of the conditions and contingencies to which he had already agreed to get it.

But where was the part about what we keep? Where were the assurances of our continued ownership and control over the park?

What? We want a $50 million gift, and then we want to talk about how we will continue to control the park? Yes! Exactly! That is one big what.


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