City Hall

Let's Make Dallas Look Like Barcelona, Then Give Pigs Flying Lessons

Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The old Dallas oligarchy wants Dallas to look more like this. What are the chances?
Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The old Dallas oligarchy wants Dallas to look more like this. What are the chances? Bernard Gagnon Wikimedia Commons
I told you Monday about the possibility — probably remote — that the new Margaret McDermott (Santiago Calatrava) Bridge over the Trinity River downtown might wind up being demolished before it can open for its first day of traffic. In some of the responses I got, I think I was awarded some credit I didn’t deserve.

I’m not the first person to tell you that this strange confection of art and engineering may have been a bad concept from the beginning. In the story of who expressed doubt early on and who shouted down the doubt, there is a really interesting window on questions that have plagued me for years:

Who are the conservatives in this picture? Who are the zany flibbertigibbets, the ones tossing tax money out City Hall windows by the bale as if we don’t have anything better to do with our cash?

There is also a tale to tell, maybe kind of an insider thing within my business, about who broke the story of the McDermott Bridge being a costly fake. Who first said it was not a real suspension bridge the way it was being billed?

"Those outriggers [the arches] are more like sticking on Calatrava decals. Or sewing a designer label onto something from a dollar store. Or putting lipstick on a mutt." — Scott Cantrell

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Look, I’m proud of my work on this story and the work of the Dallas Observer, but the truth is that this was never a secret. Early in construction, some astute onlookers around town spotted the con: The huge Calatrava arches on both sides of the new Interstate 30 freeway bridge between downtown and Oak Cliff were not designed or intended to provide support to the freeway bridge. Now that the bridge is up in the air, we all can see.

Two standard pier-and-beam freeway bridges, one eastbound and one west, carry 10 lanes of traffic across the river. Two enormous Calatrava arches, 340 feet high and more than 1,200 feet broad at their bases, stand next to the outsides of these bridges but are only trivially connected — sort of tacked on. The arches are there for a visual effect, intended to make the whole business look like a giant suspension bridge from a distance. Which it is not.

That’s totally crazy, right, a make-believe suspension bridge? But not only am I not the only person to say it out loud, I don’t think I was even the first. In 2013, in a story now strangely hard to find on The Dallas Morning News website, Scott Cantrell, then the paper’s architecture critic, cried loud and clear that the emperor was wearing no clothes:

“Those outriggers [the arches] are more like sticking on Calatrava decals,” Cantrell wrote. “Or sewing a designer label onto something from a dollar store. Or putting lipstick on a mutt. Pick your metaphor.”

My metaphor would have been lipstick on a pig, but everybody’s different, and there were reasons at the time to be a little careful about this one. The late Margaret McDermott, whose name is on the bridge, was still living — a much-respected philanthropist and maven of the arts. It can’t have been easy for Cantrell to say what he did in the normally fawning pages of the city’s only daily newspaper.

But other people did not fawn. On the Dallas City Council, Scott Griggs, representing North Oak Cliff, and Angela Hunt, who represented East Dallas at the time, were scalding and angry in their objections. They were especially put out about the money.

Whenever the City Council asked about the money for the bridge, city staff fell somewhere between tongue-tied and pig Latin. The council was told originally that the McDermott would cost $102.6 million. That figure morphed overnight to $114.9 million.

What the council was not told by staff — no one was — was that the $114.9 million was for the arches only. The impression deliberately given by staff was that $114.9 million was for the whole thing, the arches and the pier-and-beam bridges. In fact, no one was eager to talk about the fact that the arches and the freeway bridges were separate structures.

We told you here just four months ago that the actual freeway bridges, the ones carrying the traffic, cost an additional $120 million, a cost that had been fudged into the overall number for the state’s huge rebuild of all of the major downtown freeway intersections.

It took some time to persuade the state to pluck the $120 million back out of the fudge and show it to us. As for where it came from, it is generally described as having come from state, regional and federal funds, which means, “Oh, don’t worry about that.”

At least we now can see this much: Five years ago, Griggs and Hunt were fighting furiously to get the city manager to pony up the real cost of the McDermott because they smelled a rat. They suspected that the $114.9 million number being offered to them as the cost of “the bridge” was not the true cost at all.

They were dead right. It was the cost of the arches. Only. And think about that: What if the public had been told at the time that we were about to commit that much tax money for decorations?

The other story the staff liked to tell at the time was that “a great deal of this cost is being absorbed by the private sector.” Well, let’s break that down.

The total cost of the arches was approximately $115 million. Private donors provided $5.5 million of that. So it’s true: five and a half million bucks ain’t peanuts. But that still left $109.5 million to come from the public pocket.

Then there was the whole Coney Island shell game the staff kept trying to do with Hunt and Griggs about whether the $109.5 million was our money — money paid by Dallas taxpayers — or just play money, as in funds from the regional planning agency or money from some state or federal XYZ fund.

Here’s the point. If they were able to lay their hands on money from the regional planning agency or some quasi-federal XYZ fund to build two decorative arches, then they certainly could have laid their hands on that same money and spent it on something a little less frivolous.

That’s the point City Council member Philip Kingston was making earlier this week when he said the price tag for the city’s two decorative Calatrava bridges downtown was about what it would have cost the city to replace its egregiously outdated and obsolete traffic signal system, which is now a constant source of cost, frustration, delay and pollution.

click to enlarge It's still against the law to set foot on the completed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge because the engineer in charge won't certify its safety. - JIM SCHUTZE
It's still against the law to set foot on the completed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge because the engineer in charge won't certify its safety.
Jim Schutze
That’s what the conversation should have been: “OK, Team One, you would like to spend $300 million in taxpayer money to replace all of the city’s worn-out 1970s traffic signals with the new, high-tech ‘smart’ signals that are transforming surface street traffic in smart cities the world over.

“Team Two, you would like to spend this same $300 million building two designer bridges to make downtown Dallas look more like Barcelona, Spain, if Barcelona were on the Trinity River instead of the Mediterranean Sea.”

How do we think that one might have come out? But that wasn’t the debate we had. Instead, the rest of the City Council kept calling Hunt a bitch for asking men questions.

Something happens to some of the council members when they get elected. It’s like they’re high all the time. I heard one of them say one time that he “wasn’t going to be nickel-and-dimed over a million dollars.”

I’m sitting in the peanut gallery, fighting an impulse to stand up and shout, “No, please, sir, I beg of you, be nickel-and-dimed. That’s a lot of nickels and dimes, for God’s sake. You need to be very nickel-and-dimed about it.”

The city maintains a list of everything Dallas needs in deferred maintenance alone. Not new stuff. Stuff we already have that’s either falling apart or needs work of some kind. It’s $10.3 billion worth of needs. This might sound kind of boring, but you should keep this link somewhere. Next time you hear the council not being nickel-and-dimed about something, take a run through the list.

We have 24 fire stations in Dallas so worn out and obsolete that they need major rehabilitation or replacement at a cost between $5 million and $9 million each. I counted 18 fire stations on the list that we could have brought up to date for the cost of the McDermott arches.

Consistently, it’s the new element on the council who ask all the tough questions. For want of a better title and only temporarily, I promise, I will call their team the Bitches.

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I don’t know how many of you were around when Laura Miller ran for mayor in 2002. She ran on a platform of redirecting City Hall toward the city’s basic needs and away from the so-called “signature projects” favored by the city’s old downtown oligarchy, especially the private Dallas Citizens Council.

The Citizens Council’s richly funded ad campaign against her painted her as a troublemaker and a person of small vision, unable to dream big — basically a bitch who asks men questions. She was elected. Their guy lost. But she was alone, isolated on the City Council, one vote against a bought-off majority, and nothing changed.

Now the times have changed. We have a solid base of question-askers on the council — Griggs, Kingston, Adam Medrano and Omar Narvaez, who are joined on some issues by Mark Clayton, Kevin Felder and Sandy Greyson. That’s one vote away from a majority of the full council’s 15 votes.

And that brings me to that question I mentioned at the top. Who’s a conservative in this picture and who is a flibbertigibbet? Who is minding the store, counting the money, watching the budget? Who is high all the time?

Consistently, it’s the new element on the council who ask all the tough questions. For want of a better title and only temporarily, I promise, I will call their team the Bitches.

On the other side, we have the Flibbertigibbets, which is too long a word, so I’ll call them the Flibberties for short. They are the ones who say, “Oh, who cares about a bunch of dingy old fire stations? Let’s decorate!”

Everything they do, no matter what it is, they always have a party. Big party. Huge party. It’s like they only do something so they can have the party.

I don’t know which side is the conservative one or what that word even means any more. But I think the Bitches love and care about the city. The Flibberties love the party. In 2019, the next mayoral and council election, we may finally have to choose.
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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