City Hall

The X-Files Come to Downtown Dallas, and This Time It's Really True Maybe

Dallas City Hall X-Files. OMG. I am so ready. Wednesday Eric Nicholson had a story here which seemed to confirm at least in part a conspiracy theory I have been touting for about 50 years. It’s about a secret under-the-radar City Hall effort to steer major resources into land at the southwest corner of downtown controlled by oilman Ray Hunt and the families who control The Dallas Morning News and A.H. Belo Corp.

For me, Nicholson’s story was Christmas in August, especially the name of the secret program — “Project X.”  Perfect.

The deal is this. Southwest has always been the direction in which downtown does not want to go. Whenever we have seen downtown growth or major rehab, the energy has pushed downtown north and northeast toward Uptown and Baylor Hospital.

Hunt and the Beloans (ownership families in the Belo companies) are heavily invested in the moribund southwest corner. For decades they have played various public sector subsidy cards for their corner — expansion of the stubbornly money-losing Dallas convention center, creation of a taxpayer-subsidized hotel, and their most dearly and closely held card, construction of a toll road along the Trinity River even though traffic studies consistently have shown nobody much wants to go there.

But that’s not even the X-Files yet. More recently, stories have been floating around City Hall’s back corridors about grand public projects on the scale of the Taj Mahal — a new national league-level sports arena and maybe even a casino — designed to suck traffic into the southwest corner and defy the natural tendency of downtown to move in the opposite direction.

We could talk about problems with that concept. First of all, downtown has been moving in the opposite direction as it develops into more of an organic high-rise neighborhood, becoming, albeit very slowly, a place where people live as well as work. That transformation needs a ton of public infrastructure in transit, communications, schools, cops, all of it.

Project X seems to be about to sink a huge amount of public resources into the opposite kind of direction, in what feels like a very retro, 20th-century, hub-and-spoke concept designed to draw suburbanites into downtown for quick lucrative visits. There’s no law that says the ownership in the southwest corner can’t decide that’s the kind of development it wants. But that does take us back to the name. Project X.
Clearly the kind of development the landowners are seeking in the southwest corner will operate in a fierce competition for resources with the type of development taking place in the more market-driven sectors of downtown that lie north and northeast. So before we nail down a huge amount of public debt for baseball stadiums, toll roads and the like in the southwest corner, maybe the people in the rest of downtown should have a fair opportunity to see all the issues and have them framed and explained in a public discourse.

So what do we have instead? Project X. Nicholson discovered the name of the project in time sheets filled out by city planner Brent Brown. Brown explained to Nicholson he had just picked the name out of the blue and really was engaged in reaching out to many neighborhoods beyond the narrow confines of the Hunt/Beloan holdings. But all of the neighborhood leaders on Brown’s time sheets seemed to be named Hunt. Serendipity?

I should give you a little of the inside Dallas Observer back-story on this. If this were the X-Files on TV, you could think of me as Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), the one who believes in extra-terrestrials, and Nicholson as Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), the skeptic. Think of our boss, Patrick Williams, as The Smoking Man. You can never really figure out his game.

Think of our story meetings as FBI headquarters. Fox Mulder (me) starts telling the rest of them how every time he drives to the southwest corner, all kinds of flashing lights go off and then he looks at his watch and nine minutes have disappeared. Scully is rolling her eyes and making little windmill motions by her head, and the Smoking Man suggests softly that maybe I took a nap.

But then an agent runs into the room and says local police have found a city planner, Brent Brown, wandering downtown in his boxer shorts, covered with a hideous rash and spouting gibberish, with some kind of metal probe sticking out of his nostril or, as Donald Trump might say, his wherever.

The Brent Brown time sheets don’t offer indisputable proof that the Hunt/Beloans, whom we shall call “The Colonists,” have taken over City Hall, but the evidence is good enough to keep us watching. By the way, back at FBI headquarters Fox Mulder is prancing around the table jabbing his finger at Scully and The Smoking Man and making those little crazy-head whirling motions with his finger in front of his wherever.