Look on the bright side

Some people have been known to sniff that when it comes to culture, Dallas ain't New York or Washington, D.C., or Chicago. But a new traffic study undertaken by the city suggests that may soon change--for better and for worse.

The good news is that if a city-proposed deal to close part of Harwood Street for 21 hours a day is acceptable to all parties, work on the much-anticipated Nasher sculpture garden could soon get under way.

The bad news is contained in a study completed last week by the city's Department of Public Works and Transportation. The study, which purports to measure the effect of partially closing Harwood Street, contains the outlines of a compromise between Nasher and property owners in the area.

Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm, who has been working for five years to bring the Nasher sculpture garden to pass, is quick to emphasize that the compromise discussed in the plan isn't a done deal. "We're still discussing options. I don't think anything's real final right now," Suhm says.

But the compromise is far enough along to start counting cars and alternative traffic routes. As outlined in the study, the plan would narrow Harwood Street just south of Woodall Rodgers Freeway from four to two lanes and make those two lanes available only during a three-hour morning-rush-hour period.

The proposed alterations would eliminate Harwood as a major artery for commuter traffic. That, in turn, has caused some grumbling over at the Central Dallas Association, a group that includes property owners whose buildings are directly accessed via Harwood Street.

As the city's report shows, they aren't the only ones who would be affected. The 81-page report suggests that closing Harwood would nearly double traffic on St. Paul Street during rush hour. Worse, the report also suggests that the closing--which Nasher is said to have demanded as the latest condition for his project--would further overload nearby Pearl Street, which the report admits "currently operate[s] at a low level of service during peak traffic times."

Nevertheless, the report concludes that closing Harwood "can be accommodated without significant impact to the street system while maintaining essential circulation and access requirements."

The document reads like what it is: an attempt by a city desperate for Nasher's collection to convince property owners and merchants that the changes will cause very little disruption. The next few weeks will tell exactly how convinced readers are.

Nearly two years have passed since a beaming Mayor Ron Kirk and Dallas Museum of Art officials stood beside Nasher, announcing that the coveted Nasher sculpture collection would stay in Dallas.

Back then, everyone was happy. Nasher had spent the better part of the decade being courted by museums, and he was anxious to get his garden under way. At 75, he didn't have a whole lot of time to spare if he was going to oversee his legacy, and if there was one thing that was clear, it was that Nasher was determined to oversee the project. "Whole issue with Ray is who will control after he gives it," Suhm scrawled on one early draft proposal to Nasher. Nasher wanted complete artistic control of everything, from design to construction to rotating the sculptures. For that reason, he'd turned down substantial money offers from the city, opting to fund the estimated $32 million project himself.

The city and the DMA were ecstatic. The city was getting a collection pursued by far more sophisticated burgs and an opportunity to brag that it was the "world class" metropolis it has always hankered to be. Best of all, City Hall types noted that it wouldn't cost the city a dime--a promise that, as the new report shows, is somewhat misleading.

Nasher and the city were moving at lightning speed, tentatively projecting that the garden would open in September 1999. It wasn't much time, but documents obtained through open-records requests show that the city and the museum had been preparing for a while. Indeed, they had lovingly detailed plans for press coverage of the opening: lists of art-world dignitaries to receive invitations, important (read: New York) media to invite, global plans for promoting the city and its new prize.

Alas, they had gotten a bit ahead of themselves. The first faux pas: Nobody had bothered to check with the owners of the prime downtown Arts District property that would have to be acquired. Given that the owners were Harlan Crow and longtime Crow-family associate Michael Minzer, this turned out to be more than just a regrettable bit of bad manners. There was, after all, a history of nasty litigation between the Crows and Nasher over another prime patch of real estate--the one across from Nasher's prized NorthPark Center. Contentious negotiations stretched out for a year, with the city weighing in on Nasher's side, even threatening to condemn the property before a deal was finally struck last spring.