Over the last several months a very pointed debate has been forming up behind the scenes over what kind of park the city should build along the Trinity River between the flood control levees downtown.
One camp, made up mainly of younger citizens from varied walks of life, would like to see the floodway left alone as much as possible, allowed to lie quiet and fallow with few manmade intrusions, an expression of the land as it was before the city came upon it.
The other camp, made up more of older very wealthy people, wants to see something very “done” down there, with lots of design work in it. A place more like the Dallas Arboretum, that wears its money on its sleeve.
Yesterday the designer camp tried to steal a march on the fallow-keepers with the announcement of a $50 million gift from the widow of Harold Simmons, a right-wing billionaire who died two years ago leaving behind a fortune estimated at $8 billion. At a press conference to announce the gift, Mayor Mike Rawlings made it plain that the gift comes with serious strings attached.
Speaking from a restaurant deck in the Trinity Groves development in West Dallas, Rawlings said that he or somebody else already agreed to those strings: “The gift comes with contingencies,” Rawlings said “including that the park be managed by a private entity that has secured operation and maintenance funds. The funds needed to build the remainder of the park must be raised within the next three years.”
Deedie Rose, chair of the Trinity Trust, a private fundraising and social organization, spoke at yesterday’s event in terms that sounded distinctly proprietary, as if it were assumed already that her group will become the private master of the park called for in the terms of the Simmons gift.
Announcing that the Trinity Trust is changing its name to the Trinity Park Conservancy, Rose said, “We expect that this new role will require us to broaden our board and leadership as well, securing the technical skill and infrastructure necessary to design build and deliver America’s great next urban park."
Both Rose and the mayor are already calling it, “The Harold Simmons Park.” Simmons made his original fortune in drug stores. He was a principal backer of the Swift Boat Veterans attack on the name of Vietnam war veteran John Kerry in 2004. He later called Barack Obama the most dangerous man in America.
Legally and politically, simply handing the Trinity River Park over to Rose and her organization feels exactly like what the mayor just tried to do with Fair Park, the city’s neglected 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas. There, City Hall and the public wasted a year of effort debating Rawlings’ plan to deliver Fair Park by fiat to his oilman friend, Walt Humann, only for the mayor to learn at the last minute that he couldn’t simply give away large public parks. Or even little bitty ones, for that matter.
Public means public. The public is a real thing. Land owned by the public is owned by somebody. The public. Rich people can’t just take it. Nor can they give it away. They have to ask. There are rules.
In trying to give away Fair Park, the mayor had been operating under a legal opinion he got from a lame-duck city attorney who has since retired. Last month shortly after taking office, the new city attorney gave Rawlings a real legal opinion telling him he couldn’t just give away Fair Park, that if he wanted someone to take it over he had to publicly solicit proposals according to city ordinances and procurement policies.
Apparently it was a bitter pill. Now city staff has embarked on a process of “pre-qualifying” the people who will be allowed even to propose plans for running Fair Park. Council member Philip Kingston, whose objections to the mayor’s original give-away idea brought about the new legal opinion, is telling people that this pre-qualifying business is another scam and a thumb on the scale:
“Pre-qualifying proposers,” Kingston says, “appears designed to do nothing more than limit applicants to favorites.”
It’s amazing how different this issue of steering contracts and public resources seems to be, depending on who’s looking at it and from what perspective. The old white establishment and the FBI have devoted massive resources over the last 20 years to ferreting out black Dallas officials accused of steering public contracts to their own favorites. But even when the establishment people have been explicitly warned themselves, they can’t keep their thumbs off the scale.
Especially with major parks — historically with Fair Park and in the future concerning the Trinity River Park — the public’s interest goes way wider and far deeper than mere property right in the dirt itself. As philanthropist J. McDonald Williams has so effectively conveyed in the case of Fair Park, that park has an enormous economic radiation effect, good or bad, into the whole sector of the city that surrounds it.
No plan can be proposed for the Trinity River Park — it isn’t possible — without mobilizing an entire array of important public consequences connected to the bitterly contested Trinity Toll Road project proposed to occupy the same piece of real estate as the park.
One kind of park plan along the river would accommodate the full eight to ten-lane expressway that the highway-backers have sought for 50 years. At the opposite extreme, some plans for the park may be designed deliberately to kill the road by crowding it out or otherwise making it impossible to build. Between the two extremes we have seen many compromise proposals — smaller parks nestled in against smaller roads.
But here is the red flag that waved so obviously over yesterday’s announcement. They tried to lay claim to the park, to name it and even prescribe the form of governance for it without once mentioning the road. The Trinity River floodway loomed over the heads of Rawlings, Rose and members of the Simmons family as they spoke yesterday, visible through vast windows behind them — the very place where the highway-builders want to erect a forest of fly-overs, ramps, elevated roadbeds and floodwalls.
It was absurd not to mention the highway, absurd to propose a fancy expensive park out there and not talk about the highway that would be built next to it. Absurd and not at all reassuring. It was like people hiding an elephant under a table-cloth.
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Would someone really propose spending that much money on a park that might be ruined by a road? Oh, believe me, where the toll road battle is concerned, nothing is too crazy. The highway has become a thing that we can’t explain rationally.
It has something to do with pride of rule: the highway has been decreed, therefore it shall be built. That’s about as close as I can get to an answer.
Except to say this: the park, the highway, the disposition of the river itself are public issues so important, so heavily freighted with public consequences, that I wouldn’t give away the public’s right to rule on them for $100 million. Or a billion dollars.
Somebody needs to send the mayor and his friends back to that same drawing board they sent them to for Fair Park. And then watch them very closely. Meanwhile, it would be interesting to see how long that $50 million gift stayed good if the city council declared the road dead.