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.

Then there was the matter of the property next door. City documents show that Nasher had long demanded that the city acquire the property east of his proposed garden site, presumably in order to guard against tacky development. (As usual, Nasher did not respond to Dallas Observer requests for comment on this or other matters.) The city quietly ignored Nasher's request until the fall of 1997, when Nasher went ballistic over a marketing brochure showing a 50-story "monstrosity" towering just east of his beloved garden.

According to Suhm, that snafu has now been smoothed over. "I think he's content with the [development] proposal that's there now," Suhm says. But just as that issue was resolved, the question over whether to close Harwood was coming to a boil.

City documents show that the city, the museum, and Nasher had been talking about closing Harwood for some time to accommodate pedestrians walking from the DMA to Nasher's garden. At various times, the DMA's and the city's draft plans for the garden site have included a walkway, along with an estimate of $100,000 to build it. (It has never been clear who would pick up the tab.) An early pitch to Nasher included among the city's duties a promise to "construct a pedestrian connection across Harwood street"--a provision that was replaced by a vague promise to "modify Harwood and Olive streets."

Once more, however, neighboring downtown property owners were apparently not brought in on the plan. (Indeed, city officials had long tried to soft-peddle the news. "There may be some small street closures, but nothing major," Mayor Pro Tem Mary Poss told the Observer last year.)

Although Nasher has yet to complete the design for his garden, the overhead walkway plan apparently has been scrapped, as have subsequent plans to create a tunnel. "There are big utilities easements under Harwood Street, so you can't do that," Suhm says. If the Harwood closing doesn't work, she adds, there is one more possibility: a "berm," or little hill of dirt that motorists would drive under.

According to Suhm, the Central Dallas Association's big concern is access to buildings from Harwood Street. CDA officials did not return calls for this story, but there may be another, unspoken factor here. City documents show that the CDA did its own economic impact study of the proposed garden--and the numbers show that the boon to Dallas from Nasher's garden may be small.

The upshot: between the real estate and street-closing snarls, it is now 23 three months after the big announcement--and the first bulldozer has yet to dig its maw into the first mound of dirt on the proposed garden site.

Though the deal could yet change, the city's study assumes that the relevant stretch of Harwood from Woodall Rodgers to Flora Street will be open from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. Monday through Friday only. To study the effect this schedule would have on downtown traffic, employees from the city's Department of Public Works and Transportation counted the number of cars using each of four major downtown traffic arteries. From January 7 until January 18, they counted vehicles traveling the north-south arteries of Pearl, Olive, St. Paul, and Harwood. They found that Harwood carries the least traffic of the four--about 6,000 cars a day, compared with about 7,100 a day for St. Paul. Pearl is the workhorse, carrying an average of 9,790 motorists southbound and another 12,853 northbound each day.

As proposed, a two-lane Harwood open for three hours would carry 856 vehicles a day between Woodall Rodgers and Ross Avenue--leaving some 5,100 commuters to find another route. The city estimates that 80 percent of those--some 4,000 or more--would be diverted onto St. Paul Street. In other words, St. Paul would resemble Pearl Street at rush hour, only worse. (The report alludes to another study done by the North Texas Council of Governments, which suggests that traffic would tend to disperse over a far wider variety of alternative routes.)

As the report concedes, running the morning and afternoon gantlet down Pearl is no simple task. Yet under the proposed Harwood closure plan, 1,000 vehicles a day would be diverted onto Pearl. Engineers assigned each intersection an "LOS" ("Level of Service") rating--in their own words, a "standardized attempt to define in terms of delay the discomfort, frustration, and lost travel time experienced by a motorist." They created an A-F grading system, with A being "an intersection with very low delays" and F being "delays in excess of 60 seconds per vehicle, considered unacceptable to most motorists." Using this system, at peak times, portions of Pearl already receive Ds and Fs. Woodall Rodgers' eastbound service lane gets similarly failing grades.

So, the report concludes, why not overload these key intersections further? "Poor intersection Level of Service are [sic] forecasted for Pearl and the eastbound service road of Woodall Rodgers but this occurs with or without the Harwood closure taking place." (To ease matters somewhat, the report suggests, the city will construct new, widened turn lanes at Pearl and Woodall Rodgers.)

It isn't the only place where the report chooses to look on the bright side. "Recent presentations by some urban planners suggest that low levels of service, and their associated lower vehicle speeds, may actually be beneficial to promoting ground-floor retail in the downtown environment of cities and should be encouraged." Of course, about the only retail in those blocks is the occasional guy on the median hawking Tyler roses. But Dallas was a city built on optimism, so who knows? Someday we could get squeegees too.

The report contains other interesting assumptions. For one, it estimates that traffic to the Nasher garden itself should not cause any significant problem for downtown streets. In doing so, it seems to confirm the CDA's economic impact numbers. As a source of estimated attendance figures, city planners looked to the Dallas Arboretum, which gets 400 people each weekday. (The DMA has 250,000 weekday visitors per year.)

A serious disparity exists between the Nasher attendance figures the city and the DMA have been floating and those city employees are using. Borrowing the 400 person-a-day figure from the Arboretum and assuming the garden would be open four days a week, the annual weekday visitor tally works out to 83,000 a year--a number that looks awfully close to the CDA's "incremental new attendance figures" of "approximately 100,000 to 200,000 patrons per year above the [DMA's] current level of attendance." (The CDA's figures include weekend visitors.) These numbers are much lower than the figure of "1 million people experiencing the [Nasher] collection annually" that DMA officials have been known to suggest.

Among the other report highlights: the part about St. Paul being able to handle the doubling of its load without significantly downgrading its LOS--an assessment based in part on St. Paul having four lanes at some point. Currently, most mornings, St. Paul has two and a half lanes--one lane being taken up by cars parked illegally on the east side, and the west lane being taken up by the occasional trolley.

The report also contains some unintended humor. At one point, city planners use the infamous Young Street steer sculptures as a comparison, but later note that the steer park "was deemed not the same type of attraction as would be the proposed sculpture garden." ("But that's only an engineer's opinion," the report's author notes.)

To no one's surprise, the report concludes that "closing Harwood to through traffic at this location, except for the morning peak period with the number of lanes reduced from four to two, can be accommodated without significant impact to the street system while maintaining essential circulation and access requirements."

The closing must yet go through what Suhm describes as a "whole process" of city plan subcommittees, which will approve, disapprove, or modify and send it to the full planning committees, which will approve, disapprove, or modify and then send it to the full city council for a vote.

And then, finally, we may get what we asked for--for better and for worse.

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Christine Biederman