Schutze

What a Woonerful World

Woonerfs have appeared to me, and now I understand the universe. Even more amazing, for the first time I understand Ed Oakley. Sort of.

Ed Oakley. Dallas City Council member. Candidate for mayor. Chairman of the Trinity River committee. Mr. Woonerful.

Let me say this about that: At least symbolically, the woonerf is at the core of everything that's screwed up about the Trinity River project. And I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that my obsession with the Trinity River project has finally taken a tragic toll on my sanity. You know what I say to that?

What sanity?

There I was a week ago one evening at City Hall sitting through yet another endless PowerPoint presentation, feeling as I always do when subjected to PowerPoint—like I had chugged a family-size bottle of Children's Benadryl. How sane would you be? And then the young city staff gentleman making the presentation said it:

"Woonerf."

David Whitley, a city planner for the Trinity project, was telling a subcommittee of the Dallas Plan Commission about steps the city is taking to improve a "PD," or planned development district, for design showrooms down near the river on the other side of Stemmons Freeway from American Airlines Center. I was trying to think scary thoughts to keep myself from taking a swan dive into the carpet.

And then Whitley said, "Another interesting concept that the PD deals with is this woonerf concept, which is a Dutch word meaning living streets. It's re-imagining the rail beds and creating a new zone that would be a lot more suitable for multi-modal transportation."

Rail beds! Woonerfs! Oakley!

I have been trying for three years to figure out why Oakley was buying up bits and pieces of abandoned rail spur in this area.

Even though Oakley doesn't represent the Trinity Design District area on the council, he has used his role as chairman of the council's powerful Trinity River committee to keep himself intimately involved in the legal and zoning changes made to the Design District area over the last several years.

Ed Darrouzet, chairman of the Trinity Association ("merchants, businesses, landlords and tenants of the Trinity Industrial District and The Design District") says on his personal Web site that Oakley "deserves the most credit for having the foresight and knowledge to push us ahead and keep us on the right track these past years. He is without a doubt, [the district's] greatest asset."

On its official Web site, the association touts as its No. 1 organizational goal "the election of Councilman Ed Oakley to be Mayor of Dallas."

The association also declares on its Web page that it "vehemently opposes Councilwoman Angela Hunt's ill-conceived and politically motivated idea to place the Trinity Reliever Toll Way outside the already approved Alternate 3-B design."

The association opposes Hunt's call for a referendum to get the proposed high-speed toll road out of the Trinity River park now being developed. It says putting the toll road on Industrial Boulevard through their district would mess up their deal.

The area is occupied mainly by one-story masonry-block buildings on concrete slabs built in the 1950s as warehouses. The plan, already well under way, is to redevelop it as a stylish center for commercial arts and wholesale showroom spaces, among other things.

Nowadays most warehousing is done by truck. Back in the '50s the little warehouses in this district all had their own rail spurs in back. Those spurs haven't been used in decades, and the tracks are gone. So now the area is honeycombed with narrow grass alleys where the tracks used to be.

I could never figure out why Oakley was buying them. Several years ago when I first looked at this, he owned a couple rag-ends of the old rail spurs. Now he owns four pieces, and he has traded others in the meantime.

I was always sort of bothered anyway that Oakley was buying other real estate for himself in the district, right at the point of most impact for the Trinity River project, of which he is the single most vocal and uncritical champion on the city council.

He owns or has owned three buildings in the area. He sold one property two to three years ago at a value at least 70 percent higher than it was on the tax rolls the previous year. He holds two more properties in the district—warehouses for his construction company—that have gone up about 21 percent in value in the last couple years.

But Oakley has been scrupulous, I must say, in abstaining from council votes that bore directly on those properties, and he says he bought the properties for his business.

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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