Too many times I tell you how City Hall doesn’t have a single desk where the buck stops, how you can’t get City Hall to do anything for you, and I always forget to mention the exception. There is one thing you can do to make City Hall work like a gumball machine.
Be Robert Decherd.
Decherd, patriarch of the clan of Dallas families behind A.H. Belo Corp. and The Dallas Morning News, is at the center of a City Hall squabble right now over downtown parks. No story could do a better job illustrating how the gumball machine works.
Ron Natinksy, a former Dallas City Council member, is head of a group that wants to develop a 3.6-acre public park on city-owned land toward the east end of downtown behind the Majestic Theatre. Decherd, who is chairman of a private foundation called Parks for Downtown Dallas, also wants to develop a park on that same site. So the two men are competitors for the same project.
What’s in it for them? Things are in it for them. I’ll get to that. For now, just know that both men have plans for that site, which would incorporate a half-block-sized city-owned parking lot and a small existing park called Aston Park.
But there’s a difference between them. Decherd’s plan keeps getting green-lighted for park board briefings, and Decherd even has been granted an exclusive contract to come up with a schematic design for the park, even though neither the board nor the council has voted to give Decherd the job of building a park there.
Natinsky, meanwhile, can’t get Park Department Director Willis Winters to let him even show his plan to the park board. Oh, and I forgot. Natinsky’s plan would deliver the park to the city for free, plus endow it for maintenance for 99 years, plus turn it over to a private group to run.
Decherd’s plan is to provide $7.5 million from Decherd’s foundation and from building-owners abutting the park, but that money must be matched by $7.5 million from the city. So his park is half free, half not.
There’s another big difference. Natinsky’s plan is free to the city only because he and his associates want to dig a great big underground parking garage beneath it which they then want to operate for profit for 99 years. Or sell. Decherd doesn’t want to build a parking garage or do anything else on the site but build a park.
And let me stipulate to something here. I don’t actually have a dog in this hunt in terms of thinking one plan is manifestly superior to the other. They both have pros and cons.
Natinsky’s plan is so-called free to the city except that the city has to give him digging rights to a huge underground parking garage beneath city property, so I guess that’s not free as in free. It is the case, however, that his plan doesn’t ask the city for anything — no matching bond money, no weird tax give-backs — and it does provide operating and maintenance funding, which is a big deal.
Decherd is Decherd, which is no small deal. He has the best track record on parks of anybody in the city. Foundations associated with his family already have contributed $20 million to the creation of several downtown parks including Lubben Plaza, the Dallas Police Memorial, WFAA Plaza and Belo Garden.
But Decherd’s foundations are so deeply involved — one might even say intimately enmeshed — with downtown park planning that the line between Decherd himself and the city’s park department sometimes fades from view. And that can be a minus.
Decherd’s foundations paid to update the city’s official downtown parks master plan two years ago, an act of generosity that received lavish attention and reporting from The Dallas Morning News, surprise-surprise. But when a single private party like Decherd is allowed to develop official policy, may he not then get the idea he owns that policy?
Last June 13 Natinsky and his partners decided they were tired of getting the bum’s rush from Winters, the park department director, every time they asked to show their proposal to the park board or even a committee of the park board. So they asked for and were granted a meeting with Mayor Mike Rawlings.
I checked with the mayor’s office, and his spokesperson Scott Goldstein confirmed for me that Rawlings did meet with the Natinsky group on June 13. Goldstein characterized the mayor’s reaction to the Natinsky proposal as neither a no nor a yes. He said the mayor did tell Natinsky to get with Winters.
I tried several times over two days last week by email and by phone to reach Winters in person and to reach Decherd through a spokesvassal. Neither Decherd nor spokesvassal responded. I missed a call-back from Winters and didn’t see it until too late. It’s my fault we did not talk before my deadline for this piece.
I have copies of correspondence between Natinsky and Decherd and between Decherd and Winters, revealing an anomalous set of circumstances. First, go back with me.
We agree that Natinsky has a plan for Pacific Plaza Park and Decherd has a plan for Pacific Plaza Park. Different guys, different plans for the same thing. So in my book that would make them competitors.
But when Natinsky does what the mayor tells him to do — goes to Winters and gives him his detailed proposal — Winters turns Natinsky’s proposal over to Decherd. Hands it to him, or to his staff vassals. Not only hands it over but asks Decherd to have his vassals write up a critique.
Oh, and they do. They say Natinsky’s plan is no good because the dirt in it would be on top of a parking garage instead of being “at grade on stabilized soil.” They don’t say why that is bad. The dirt in the city’s most successful new park, Klyde Warren, is on top of a freeway bridge.
They say the underground property rights the Natinsky group would gain might be worth more than the value of the park the city would get out of it. Hmm. Could be.
They say there are “no guarantees contemplated with respect to maintenance and long-term, capital repair of the public amenity/park.” Natinsky says that one is flat false: His group is pledging a $342 million endowment to maintain the park.
There were other financial objections, none of which addressed the fact that Natinsky’s deal would be free to the city while Decherd’s would cost the city $7.5 million. I can’t get around the idea that “free” just has a better ring to it than $7.5 million.
The Decherd analysis pointed out that the Natinsky concept was not in keeping with the 2013 update of the city’s Downtown Parks Master Plan, which, as I have already pointed out, is the Robert Decherd Downtown Parks Master Plan.
But here’s the best piece. Within two weeks of Natinsky’s meeting with the mayor, Winters produced a contract appointing Decherd’s group to generate a “schematic” of Decherd’s plan for Pacific Plaza Park. The contract says “all costs … must be underwritten through private sources … with no cost or obligation to the city.”
It’s a point repeated a few times throughout the contract: The city has no financial obligation to Decherd for the schematic no matter what happens next.
On Aug. 24, Decherd writes a two-page letter to Winters telling him that if Decherd loses the competition with Natinsky and the city decides to go with Natinsky’s plan instead of Decherd’s plan, Natinsky must pay Decherd back for the schematic.
Yeah. Pay him back a lot. Half a mil’.
Decherd’s letter states: “Should the Park Department and Park Board choose to pursue Mr. Natinsky’s proposal, [the Decherd group] would expect to be reimbursed by Mr. Natinsky's group for the $476,000 we will have expended … next month under our contract with the Park and Recreation Department.”
Sorry, but this is one of those things that’s hard to grasp, let alone believe, unless I put it back together again. Natinsky and Decherd are competitors. Winters at the park department keeps green-lighting Decherd’s proposal for briefings but won’t show Natinsky’s to the park board. Natinsky’s park is free to the city. Decherd’s costs $7.5 million.
The mayor tells Natinsky to show his prospectus to Winters. He does. Winters gives all Natinsky’s stuff to Decherd. Decherd has his people do an “analysis.” They “analyze” it and find, more-surprise-surprise, that Natinsky’s plan sucks.
Decherd’s plan, meanwhile, is really great, in part because his plan is in keeping with the BIG PLAN, which, we can’t help noticing, is also Decherd’s plan. So the plan is to come up with a plan that will be in keeping with the plan, otherwise known as whatever Robert Decherd dreams about at night.
But we’re still not there. Decherd knows, or we assume he has been informed by his lawyer vassals, that in spite of all his planning there is still some element of competition here and therefore some minute possibility exists that he might lose the competition.
He also knows or has been told by the lawyer vassals that if he does lose, he can’t go back on the city for it, because the city contract that his people signed says eight ways to Sunday that the city is not responsible for any of his costs.
So he comes up with this idea that if Natinsky wins the game he has to pay Decherd for playing. In neighborhood softball terms, that would be like: “I shall take my ball. I shall take my bat and my wicker picnic basket. I shall return home. And I shall charge you $476,000 for the time I spent playing softball with you.”
As I said above, it’s my fault I didn’t get to Winters before my deadline for this piece. A member of the park board who is sympathetic with Winters’ position, speaking to me on a not for attribution basis, told me it was appropriate for Winters to show Natinsky’s proposal to Decherd because both the Park Board and City Council had adopted Decherd’s downtown parks master plan as official policy.
I would argue the master plan ceased to belong to Decherd the instant it was adopted as public policy. The notion that Decherd possesses some right of veto or even of review over anybody else’s proposal is a great example of what’s wrong with letting private persons pay for the development of public policy. The fact that City Hall grants him those privileges is a great example of what’s wrong with City Hall.