Park Department Selling White Rock Lake Down the River

The Highland Park White Rock Lake Carnival Cruise Ship story comes into tighter focus with each passing hour, and so far the real story looks a little worse with every new detail.

Not to take the onus off the Parkies at all, but I've been getting strong indications that another major player in this latest plot to despoil the city's best park may be none other than the director of the city's park department, Paul Dyer. Of course I have a message in to Dyer, and of course I eagerly await his call, as always.

This is all about new plans for a $4 million party barge the Highland Park Rowing Club wants to build at the north end of the lake. Activists in the White Rock area have known of the plans at last since February, but the plans didn't receive widespread public attention until the intrepid Barker brothers got onto them two days ago.

The Barkers are the same sleuths who caught Paul Dyer trying to give away Winfrey Point, a sensitive natural area on White Rock Lake, to the Dallas Arboretum for a concrete parking structure. In response to a demand for open records from Dyer, they received emails showing that the Highland Park Rowing Club had been pressuring Dyer to hurry up with a contract to allow them to build a new club house on White Rock.

But in a conversation I had yesterday with Michael Jung, a 30-year White Rock activist and member of the White Rock Lake Task Force, I learned that Dyer probably has been at least a fully consenting adult and maybe even the aggressor in whatever has been the relationship between him and the Park Cities rowers.

In fact, Jung told me that the current plan for a floating private clubhouse on the lake has been scaled down from an even grander version shown to the task force, an informal coalition of neighborhood and user groups, last February.

"The plan originally included a 3,500 to 4,000 square feet 'function space' on the upper level," Jung said, explaining the second level would be a ballroom-like facility that could be rented for social events. Jung said it was his impression from that meeting that the Highland Park Rowing Club, which has since changed its name to Dallas United Rowing, had been pressured by Dyer to include the ballroom on top.

"The task force took a very dim view of that," Jung said. He said after the meeting he was approached by members of the rowing club who told him, "'This wasn't our idea'" and said they had been pressured by the park department to blow out the plans to include the second-level facility.

The second-level of the proposed barge has been squeezed down a bit in more recent renderings. But that's something a graphic artist can do and undo with a click and a drag.

I have calls in to the club, hoping to get their side of it.

Jung, an attorney who often represents neighborhood groups, sees parallels between the rowing club issue and Winfrey Point. In both instances, he says, the park department has departed from an older tradition of using the lake task force as a sounding board before committing to major new uses at the lake. He cited numerous instances in which the task force has received multiple briefings on new ideas before the park department ever approached the City Council with a formal proposal.

But in both the Winfrey Point and the rowing club instances, Jung said Dyer and his department have gone far down the road of planning and negotiation with private entities before giving the public stakeholders even a hint of what's going on. He says getting these things dumped on them full-blown has put the task force in a difficult position.

"Now people are asking me if we are stooges for the park department or dupes." He said he knows he's not a stooge but he's not so sure about dupe.

The larger picture looming over both the Winfrey Point story and the new boat club, Jung said, is one in which the park department seems determined to push development and commercialization of the lake. "I am convinced they would grant a license for strip-mining of the lake if they could," he said.

Jung puts the recent blow-up over Winfrey Point in a particularly disturbing historical light. He was involved in difficult negotiations in the late 1980s when H. Ross Perot, apparently just back from a trip to Washington during the cherry blossom season, wanted to donate a million cherry trees to be planted around the lake and turn the entire lake over to the Dallas Arboretum as a cultivated show garden.

Jung was part of a successful effort to hammer out a sort of truce by which, as he puts it, "The arboretum was told it could do whatever it wanted inside its own fence, but it had to stay inside the fence" and leave the rest of the lake alone.

The Winfrey Point gambit, he suggests, could have been about more than just parking. It could have been an a trial attempt by the arboretum to break out of those confines and begin a long march into White Rock Lake Park.

Dallas. You just can't close both eyes when you go to sleep in this town.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze