City Hall

Half the City Council Showed Guts on Park Giveaway. Half Is Better than None.

District 6 City Council member Omar Narvaez took the interim park director to school.
District 6 City Council member Omar Narvaez took the interim park director to school.
Hallelujah, the angels sing, after all. Well, my version of angels. My better angels are those local public officials who have integrity, intelligence and guts. They’re better than the ones who don’t, right?

Last week a posse of better angels stepped up, including a few who were unelected citizens, and saved us from a preposterously slimy deal to give away one of the city’s oldest and most beloved parks. And please understand. The issue here isn’t exactly the giveaway. It’s more the slimy.

In a surprise tie vote last Wednesday, the City Council failed to pass — which means denied — a deal that would have turned over Reverchon Park a mile north of downtown to a for-profit sports and concert venue company. It’s possible, at least in theory, that the sports and concert company deal may have had some good points.

If it did, however, it’s mighty strange that the deal had to be foisted off on the citizens in such a deeply shady way. There was so much shade you could barely see the deal, which wound up being the point.

The great news is that this deal brought to the fore that posse of sharp-eyed guardians on the City Council. High time for it. Ever since last summer’s election, I and many people I know have been fretting about whether this new council would ever grow a spine.

The seven who voted to kill the Reverchon deal showed grit, a certain show-me skepticism and principled commitment to the public good. As I say, hallelujah, the council sings. Half of it.

Before the council even got its hands on it Wednesday, the Reverchon deal came in for criticism from two Dallas park board members, Tim Dickey and Jesse Moreno, who spoke to the council from the public microphone in the council chamber.

“I do believe that parks are parks.” — David Blewett

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Moreno said, “My duty as a park board member is to be a steward of public land, to protect our parks and to look out for the best interests of our assets.”

He pointed out one of the greater absurdities of the deal — that there was to be no public input or comment until after the deal was signed: “We keep hearing there will be community meetings after it is approved,” he said.

“What happens if the community then says, ‘We don’t want this stadium,’ or ‘The stadium is too big’? What’s the use of having those public meetings?”

Turning the public input process on its head was only one of several truly weird things about the Reverchon deal. Also speaking from the public mic, Carol Bell-Walton, a citizen who has been a leader on White Rock Lake issues, ripped the plan for an entire series of almost inexplicable anomalies, including the measly $30,000 a year rent the operators would pay the city for control of $200 million worth of land near downtown.

“The rents at White Rock Lake and Fair Park are 10% of revenue,” Bell-Walton said. “Why would this deal not be consistent with that of the kayak concession, the White Rock Boat House and the State Fair of Texas? They all have capital investment.

“The White Rock Boat House invested $4 million, and they pay 10% of gross. Why are these people paying $30,000? You just charged Teatro Dallas more than that to rent the Latino Cultural Center.”

Bell-Walton pointed to a much larger issue exposed by the Reverchon deal — that the city apparently has no consistent policy or plan to direct the disposal of public land: “Shouldn’t park contracts be held to a certain standard?” she asked.

“Doesn’t Dallas have a policy to keep those contracts in line? If not, why aren’t there standards? It’s a pretty sloppy way to do business.”

Two members of the council, Omar Narvaez of District 6 in West Dallas and Adam Bazaldua of District 7 in near southeast Dallas, shared in carving this turkey. Narvaez’s questioning of interim parks director John Jenkins was especially wince-inducing. Narvaez and other council members had attempted earlier to get the staff to fill in some of the holes.

“Mr. Jenkins,” Narvaez asked, “when we got briefed on this before, did I ask for an environmental impact study to be presented?”

“Yes, you did,” Jenkins said in his most obsequious tone.

“And where is it?”

“We did have our urban biologist environmental manager to go out and assess the property, I mean conduct the study,” Jenkins said. “Basically, he went out and there was no significant priority as far as any type of impact as relates to the environment. And because he didn’t have it in the official format, I didn’t have that document with me.”

“That’s a shame,” Narvaez said. “What about the traffic impact study that we asked for?”

“As far as the traffic, because, no, we have not completed the traffic study.”

“That’s a shame,” Narvaez said. “That’s a shame as well.”

“We wouldn’t have got the study back in time, but my apology,” Jenkins said.

“Then at that point,” Narvaez said, “I would expect the staff would at least let me know, send me an email, text message, phone call, knock on the door, I’m in this building every day. I’m not going to accept that as an excuse, Mr. Jenkins, not this time.”

No kidding. It would have taken too long? Is that like, it would have been too much work? So we just didn’t do it? And we didn’t tell anybody we weren’t going to do it?

In fact, so much has been so slipshod and slimy from the very beginning about this deal that it becomes impossible at some point to believe all of these errors and omissions were accidental. The original paternity of the deal falls to former Park Board President Bobby Abtahi, who has made an entire career of pleasing powerful patrons.

I wrote about this last September, when Abtahi was still president of the park board. Abtahi pushed to lump the park board’s vote on the for-profit Reverchon takeover proposal with its vote on an entirely unrelated proposal to develop another part of the park as an area for disabled children.

We will see the proof of that pudding soon. I suspect, based on things said last week after the for-profit deal failed, that the disabled kids’ park will go away, too. If it does, then we will know for sure that the disabled kids were being used as empathy bait for the for-profit thing.

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District 7 City Council member Adam Bazaldua unearthed some slimy history in the Reverchon Park proposal.
Council member Bazaldua went back to some of the early history, when the Reverchon proposal was before the park board under Abtahi. Bazaldua pointed out that the deal began very differently as a much more modest concept, restoring existing structures, not tearing them down, and using the park more lightly, so that public use would not be severely limited.

"I’m not going to accept that as an excuse, Mr. Jenkins, not this time.” — Omar Narvaez

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When the city sent out a request for proposals or “RFP” for that deal, a bidder won it and was assigned the contract. But that group was unable to raise the money it needed. That’s when a second brand-new RFP appeared, loaded with new features like semipro sports and concerts, none of which had been in the first RFP. But gone from the second RFP — stripped out — were all of the community input meetings that had been required in the first RFP, along with traffic, noise and environmental impact studies.

The origin of the second RFP under Abtahi is a matter of mystery and skepticism, as Wednesday’s council meeting revealed. “An RFP was put out, and someone won the bid, and someone wasn’t funded,” Bazaldua said. He suggested that the sole bidder on the second RFP, the group whose deal was shot down Wednesday, had been able to “negotiate what the next RFP came forward to.”

David Blewett, who represents District 14 in East Dallas, questioned Jenkins at some length about why and when the ball diamond at Reverchon would be locked and not accessible to the public. Blewett, who wound up voting against the Reverchon deal, may have stated the heart and soul of the whole issue when he said, “I do believe that parks are parks.”

Yes. Public parks are supposed to be places where all of the city’s people, rich and poor, can play and find solace in the green quiet of nature. The core idea expressed by a park is that nature and the earth’s beauty are not to be owned and controlled by the wealthy alone.

No one is saying that the for-profit operators couldn’t have done a lot of dazzling things at Reverchon. In fact, anybody who is granted $200 million worth of land virtually rent-free ought to be able to get something going that’s above average. But how do we measure the value of all that expensive high-dollar dazzle against the cost of poor kids from the neighborhood showing up with bats and mitts on Saturday to find the gates locked against them?

In a certain quarter in Dallas, there is a reflexive tendency for people to collapse to their knees and begin doing salaams whenever they hear the bugle call of celebrity and glamour, especially if celebrity athletes of any kind are involved. It’s painful to watch. You want to rush to them, lift them to their feet, brush them off and say, “For God’s sake, they’re just rich people.”

The thing I found so moving and so gratifying about watching those better angels on the council last week was that they seemed to have that same fall-to-the-knees reverence for the kids from the neighborhood with the bats and gloves.

Those who voted against the kids and for the slime were Tennell Atkins, Paula Blackmon, Jennifer Gates, Eric Johnson, Lee Kleinman, Adam McGough and Chad West.

Voting against the slime and for the kids were Carolyn King Arnold, Adam Bazaldua, David Blewett, Adam Medrano, Omar Narvaez, Jaime Resendez and Casey Thomas II.

Cara Mendelsohn was absent.