No parking

When Tom Lardner drives his burgundy Chevy Suburban around the historic State-Thomas district these days, you'd expect the real estate speculator to marvel at his own handiwork.

Just 10 years ago, the neighborhood north of downtown was little more than a cluster of deteriorating dwellings, home to a dwindling, impoverished, largely African-American population. Since then, Lardner and other developers have structured public-private partnerships that have transformed this area into "Uptown," a vibrant mix of historic homes, shops, restaurants, and newly constructed apartments that has taken on a city life of its own. The new apartment units alone represent an increase of 187 percent to the tax rolls since 1989, some $89 million in additional revenue to the city.

But you won't find Lardner, a former college football player at University of Detroit, now 57, bragging about his accomplishments. He's too busy bickering. His current point of contention: a proposed park to be placed in the heart of Uptown.

Post Properties, an Atlanta-based real estate company that owns the majority of existing apartments in the area, has proposed using city funds to create a 20,000-square-foot green space, a diminutive "pocket park," near the intersection of State and Worthington streets.

For Post, the proposal offers several immediate advantages. The company owns the land at the proposed site. It would sell it to the city for $41 a square foot, a hefty price according to Lardner, who is quick to point out that the site just so happens to be situated near Meridian, an existing Post apartment complex, and is adjacent to two other residential developments that the company plans to construct. If the park proposal succeeds, residents in Post-owned buildings would get, at the city's expense, a lovely, manicured park just outside their doors.

What disturbs Lardner is the way Post plans on financing the park. The company has suggested that the funds to establish and maintain the park be taken from revenues allotted to the State-Thomas Tax Increment Financing District (TIF), a partnership between the city and the neighborhood's taxpayers that earmarks future tax revenues specifically for improvements in that neighborhood. Lardner claims this violates the TIF agreement as originally approved by the Dallas City Council. And he says he should know: Since the TIF's inception, he has been a member of the State-Thomas TIF board of directors. That is, until his recent removal.

In 1989, when few businessmen could envision any opportunities in the downtrodden State-Thomas neighborhood, a handful of real estate developers, including Lardner and Robert Shaw, a principal in Columbus Realty Trust, which was eventually acquired by Post, helped establish the State-Thomas TIF.

The TIF represented the first such taxing district of its kind in Dallas. Initially the city put up $3 million to get the TIF started. As property values increased with new development in the area, additional tax revenues generated more funds for the TIF. Unlike other taxes, this money never went into the general fund. Rather, it was spent on improving sidewalks, erecting attractive streetlights, and widening roads -- but only in the State-Thomas district.

Originally, the State-Thomas plan called for the TIF to expend some $20 million over a 20-year period, but the plan also included a park as part of those proposed improvements.

Lardner, who sat on the TIF board of directors beginning in 1989, believes that Post's park should not be paid for by earmarked TIF funds. Instead of spending money on a park, he wants the TIF funds to go to more road improvements, streetlights, and underground telephone lines (instead of the unsightly ones overhead).

Moreover, Lardner doesn't want land in the TIF district that could be developed and added to the tax base to be transformed into a park just because Post wants it that way.

He contends that even though a park was included in the original plan for the TIF district -- and some $2 million in funds were designated -- the 1989 plan represented something entirely different from the current Post proposal.

That plan called for the city to build a larger park, more than double the size of the pocket park, about a block and a half away from the proposed site. It also called for the TIF to allow the city to develop a park in that area only after swapping other land from nearby Griggs Park -- a four-acre, largely ignored field four blocks away from the pocket park. Under the original plan, the TIF district would have had a larger park, and it wouldn't have lost any potentially taxable land from the area.

Lardner, who still owns either directly or through limited partnerships more than four acres in the State-Thomas district, believes a larger question is at stake. "The grander issue is, How do we make public policy in the State-Thomas TIF?" he says. He wants to make sure Post doesn't exclusively set the agenda.