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Park Friends Group Wants To Be Development Czar Along the River

Park Board member Timothy Dickey calls the Trinity Park Conservancy document "a Trojan horse."
Park Board member Timothy Dickey calls the Trinity Park Conservancy document "a Trojan horse."
HRA and Trinity Park Conservancy

This is a story about the dangers posed by spunky people. In these terrible times, this story should offer comic relief. But, uh … nah. Probably not too comic.

The Trinity Park Conservancy, a very spunky private group charged with raising money for a fancy new city park on the river downtown, has created a document proposing that it be made the czar (my term) of real estate development along the Trinity River. That is some spunk.

Hear this first, however, please: the conservancy tells me in no uncertain terms they never said that.

They deny that their document, which I have before me on my desk, says anything like what I just said — czar. But I do read English. And I say it says exactly that. I have attached the full thing below, so you can take a look for yourself.

The 64-page document, called the “Harold Simmons Park Equitable Development Toolkit and Roadmap,” says in one part, “The Conservancy should explore the legal and organizational implications of Conservancy involvement in community development and consider the creation of a subsidiary, partner, or umbrella development corporation to lead real estate and other community development activities consistent with the Park’s mission and successful implementation.”

It says the city should create a new “TIF,” or tax increment finance district, around the park and its environs capable of generating a billion dollars in tax revenue. If that idea won’t fly, the document suggests the city could redirect revenue from all of the existing special tax districts downtown to support the conservancy’s new proposed role.

The document suggests the conservancy, a nonprofit group formed four years ago to design and raise money for a single park, should seek a new role, “investing in, financing, and executing site preparation and infrastructure … executing ground-up development or renovation … managing public spaces and/or public facilities associated with new development.”

The document lists a raft of city bond funds, city fee revenues and other pockets of city cash that it deems to be “Existing and Proposed Funding Sources.” And it shows a map of damn near all of downtown Dallas that it calls, “Potential Trinity TIF boundary.”

I asked the conservancy about all these points, citing specific paragraphs in the document. Walter Elcock, interim president and CEO of the conservancy, was nice enough to answer all but a couple of my questions. Elcock called the document a “toolkit” and said, “It is not a strategic plan for our organization.”

I don’t know what a toolkit is. I would call it more of a strategic wish list.

I asked him if the graphic called “potential TIF boundary” was a depiction of the potential TIF boundary. He wrote back, “No, and so there are no proposed boundaries.”

One paragraph in the document says, “The TIF could combine and refocus resources from existing TIFs that surround the park. Those TIFs include Fort Worth Avenue, Victory/Sports Arena/West Dallas, Design District, Oak Cliff Gateway … these TIFs should be required to adopt the conservancy’s proposed equitable development approach.”

I asked Elcock if the document was suggesting that money from existing TIF districts could be redirected to the new TIF and also if it said the older already existing TIFs should be required to adopt the conservancy’s proposed equitable development approach.

He said, "No to both questions.”

I asked, “Am I correct in interpreting the language above as proposing a broad new role for the conservancy in land acquisition, development and planning?”

He said, “No.”

I admit that my next question was not all that professional, and I regret it now, and I apologize. I referenced the long list of city bond funds and other public revenues that the document described as “Existing and Proposed Funding Sources.” Based on that, my question was, “Is this for real?”

He didn’t answer, and I don’t blame him a bit. I think I just lost control there for a second.

The city right now faces massive revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic. The Trinity Conservancy is a private group led by wealthy Park Cities socialites. With the City Council looking under sofa cushions for money just to keep the lights on at City Hall, this whole proposal would be a harmless joke were it not for the socialites’ troubling history with this sort of thing.

The conservancy has promised again and again (falsely) over four years that the extremely fancy park it wants to build on city land at the Trinity River downtown will not cost the taxpayers a dime. Their FAQ (frequently asked questions) page includes this: “Will the Conservancy use public funds to finance the Park?”

“No,” the page answers itself, “the Conservancy is fundraising for Harold Simmons Park from private funds, foundations, individuals and corporations to successfully complete the Park. The community around Harold Simmons Park will not be asked to close any funding gap.”

First of all, that version of the facts seems a tad ungrateful to us city taxpayers. When he announced the Simmons gift four years ago, former Mayor Mike Rawlings said we taxpayers were also going to chip in $27 million toward the park from a 1998 bond package.

The park is supposed to cost $250 million. It was kick-started by a promise from the wealthy widow of nuclear waste king Harold Simmons to contribute the first $50 million. But that was an I-O-U, not cash American. The cash that Annette Simmons kicked in was more like $10 million. The rest was to show up after the conservancy scared up the balance of the cost of the park, with a deadline set by Simmons at Sep. 15, 2019.

So if anybody’s counting, the full $250 million cost minus the Simmons gift would leave $200 million to be scared up. The $200 million minus the $27 million in taxpayer money would make $173 million for the conservancy to raise by last September.

March 20, fully six months after the September 2019 deadline, the conservancy announced with bizarre fanfare that it had raised all of $50 million. That would put the organization at less than 30% of of its goal and $123 million short six months past the due date. For a lot of us, that would be called “please vacate the premises.”

Conservancy acting CEO Walter Elcock says this graphic in the Conservancy document proposing a new tax district does not show a boundary.
Conservancy acting CEO Walter Elcock says this graphic in the Conservancy document proposing a new tax district does not show a boundary.
HRA and Trinity Park Conservancy

But not the very spunky Trinity Park Conservancy. Instead, the conservancy said it was celebrating this milestone by parting ways with its original executive director, architect Brent Brown. Deedie Rose, chair of the board of directors, said: “We are grateful to Brent for his leadership and for helping us shape a vision for Harold Simmons Park that is, in many ways, bigger than we ever thought possible.”

OK.

According to documents filed with the IRS one year ago, the organization had a 2018 income of $1,786,314 and expenses of $3,311,264. Its expenses included $250,000 a year in salary paid to Brown and $103,846 to Sarah C. Fletcher, the chief financial officer.

Significant cost items included $407,848 paid to a New York park designer for conceptual drawings and other work and $137,078 to a public relations firm for “community engagement.” They threw a wonderful party last year in a warehouse in the Cedars which I attended (had a terrific time), where the new design was previewed on giant silk panels.

It was breathtaking. Wouldn’t have missed it. If I have learned one thing over the years, it’s that wherever the Park Cities socialites go, terrific parties cannot be far behind.

Sadly, as I reported a year ago, the $407,848 concept for the park was not well-received by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has final say-so over any construction that might affect flood safety on the river. Andrew Quicksall, who had been the city’s main envoy presenting the plan to the Corps, said after the meeting that the Corps had deemed the plan “a no-go.”

Brown, still CEO of the conservancy at that point, dismissed the federal no-go as a mere kerfuffle and said the whole thing was “an iterative process.” I still don’t know what that means. I have had my ear to the ground ever since. I have not heard a go-go.

The Trinity Park Conservancy is the direct descendant of a now extinct very spunky group — extremely spunky — that called itself The Trinity Trust, created to promote construction of a multi-billion dollar expressway that was to be built along the river out between the flood-control levees where it floods twice a year.

The expressway on the river was not the world’s most brilliant idea. Three years ago after a bruising 20-year battle, the Dallas City Council finally killed the unbuilt project, in part out of a concern that, if the expressway were placed out where it floods, when it flooded, it would flood.

I always argued that the basic engineering problem was one any citizen with a bathtub could have modeled in the safety and convenience of his own bathroom. Put toy cars on bottom of tub. Insert plug in drain. Turn on taps.

But the so-called Trinity Toll Road project was not killed before the Trinity Trust and other backers of the project had pressured the city into wasting hundreds of millions of tax dollars on engineering, geological and hydrological studies and years of costly litigation, all for a thing that never got built because when it floods it floods.

There are other places where the influential spunky socialites have left their lightly leaping toes-only footprints on the sands of history. They succeeded in persuading the city to build a $4 million dam in the river as a recreational feature for kayakers, only to have the Corps of Engineers order it torn out as a navigational hazard at an additional cost of $2 million.

The conservancy still very perplexingly brags on its web page about having sponsored the Margaret McDermott Bridge over the Trinity River. Construction of the McDermott, named for a Dallas socialite, was completed five years ago at a cost to taxpayers of $109.5 million.

The bridge, which has an exotic design insisted on by the socialites, has never been opened to its intended foot and bicycle traffic because the supervising engineering firm refuses to certify its safety. It’s a dead decoration that cannot be used for traffic.

Listen. You don’t need to be any more alarmed about life than you already are at the moment, so I should tell you the good news. Unless the devil herself comes up out of the river bottom and casts a spell on the city, this new set of proposals is destined to be the conservancy’s biggest no-go ever — the no-go a-go-go of all time.

The document passed on to me by a watchful activist absolutely oozes the vocabulary of equity, sensitivity, diversity, minority set-asides and all the other unctuous language of 21st century steam control. But one bit of equity the authors apparently forgot to take care of was running it by West Dallas City Council member Omar Narvaez, whose district abuts the unbuilt Simmons Park.

Narvaez’s election to the District 6 council seat in 2017 followed a brutal battle over issues of real-life equity and integrity, as opposed to unctuous promises of equity written by consultants. District 6 voters tossed out Narvaez’s predecessor specifically because she was perceived to be the vassal of rich developers and socialites. At least consulting him would have been nice.

Instead, I was the one who brought the document to him last week, six months after the publication date on its cover. He said he had heard rumors but had not been graced with a look at the actual document.

I told him about the parts where the document suggests money from all of the city’s existing bond and tax funds could be tapped to fund the new role the conservancy proposes for itself as development czar on the river.

First, he laughed. Then he said, “Wow.” Then he said, “What I can tell you is, that’s not going to happen.”

Dallas Park Board member Timothy Dickey told me he views the document as “a Trojan horse.” He fears it is part of a design to remove control of development along the river from the City Council and deliver it to the same group that spent 20 years fighting for the unbuilt expressway. Dickey called the idea “ludicrous.”

I also showed the document to landscape architect and urban planner Kevin Sloan, who has proposed the re-wilding of the river bottom through the city. Sloan’s eye went directly to the money. He cited multiple occasions on which the conservancy has vowed never to seek public funds.

“My concern,” he said in an email, “is that this new direction could appear to be more a public bailout than a funding campaign.”

As Narvaez said, it’s really not going to happen. In fact, I guess I could have done us all a favor and just not even brought it up. But the problem is that these people never go away. They never stop, and they never seem to get it.

Given their unbuilt expressway, given the kayak thing and the bridge that can’t be opened and especially given that they’ve raised less than 30% of the money for their park six months after the due date, if it were me, I would keep very quiet, stay out of public view and concentrate on my tennis game, if only I had one.

Ah, but not the socialites. They’ve got more spunk than I do. Much more spunk. There is no telling how much spunk they’ve got. There also is no telling how many hundreds of millions of dollars their spunk has already cost the Dallas taxpayer. If this is a joke, it is a joke to be carefully watched.

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