Winfrey Point Fallout Shows City Hall Still Doesn't Know How to Listen

Dallas City Hall. Enough to drive a sane person crazy on any given day. What is it they don't get -- other than everything?

In today's Dallas Morning News, Paul Dyer, the very decent man who is director of the Park Department, gives an absolutely honest and totally infuriating explanation of the way stuff gets done at City Hall.

"When we finish the consulting process and we come up with some viable options," he tells the News, "then we'll engage the community."

That's upside down. Backwards. Inside out. But it's how they do.

Dyer is trying to explain how he and his department got caught planning for a sea of pavement and a possible parking garage on a patch of lakeside parkland at White Rock Lake -- green space treasured by the residents of Dallas for its innocence of manmade structure.

And I think he gives a candid description of the process. First, before you even tell anybody you're thinking about it, you hire a "consultant," meaning some commercial entity that makes its money off building stuff. They recommend building stuff.

Then you pay the same people to come up with a list of alternatives for the public to choose among, which always wind up amounting to: A) build stuff, or B) be stupid.

Then you hold one of these "community input" meetings that City Hall excels in, where you somehow choose the perfect time, venue and means of public notice to guarantee that nobody from the community will show up. To the 14 wayward souls who do show up because they they saw somebody else going in the door and thought it was an AA meeting, you hand out cards asking people to check off whether they are in favor of, A) building stuff, or B) being stupid. By a narrow vote "the public" endorses building stuff.

The battle over building a parking lot for the Dallas Arboretum at Winfrey Point is absolutely parallel and of a fabric with recent battles over community gardens and neighborhood farmers markets. All anybody at City Hall ever had to do was just walk out of City Hall one time, one day, just go outdoors, and they would have seen an overwhelming cultural trend in favor of safe food, community gardens and farmers markets, not to mention a reverence for open park land not sullied by concrete.

Instead they are locked within this tiny tunnel of input made up almost entirely of their own bureaucratic brethren, where the only pinpoints of daylight are from pearl-dripping dowager committees and public works contractors. Welcome to the city manager system and "professional" government.

If city government were less professional and more political, they would have started out with community input, not ended up there. And guess what? The community in the Winfrey Point battle is smart and creative, and many of them love the Dallas Arboretum, which wound up instead being cast as their deadly foe in this battle.

The community would have suggested lots of places up and down Garland Road with zoning and infrastructure already in place to accommodate the arboretum's parking needs without raping a park.

There's what this comes down to. The community is not bad. The community is good. The community is not stupid. The community is smart. The community is not NIMBY selfish. The community wants to see institutions like the arboretum flourish. But the culture of Dallas City Hall sees the community upside down, backwards and inside out from all of that.

So instead of creative resolutions of conflict you get big fat messes like this battle over parking at Winfrey Point. I wish the community could march down to City Hall at night with Charles Dickens torches, assemble the entire management team and hand them cards to check off. The choices would be, "Do you want to, A) ask us first after this, or, B) continue being stupid?"

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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