Parks for Downtown Dallas managed to generate some positive press in its campaign to provide downtowners with four new urban parks, but it remains to be seen if the non-profit foundation will be able to win over City Council.
This was no more evident than in September when the Dallas Morning News posted a glass-half-full report on the foundation’s campaign to get a $35 million match from taxpayers through the proposed 2017 bond package.
It was reported that the Park Board was “very enthusiastic and supportive” of a match funding request. And downtown Councilman Philip Kingston was quoted as believing Parks for Downtown Dallas Chairman Robert Decherd was right to be confident.
On Dec. 1, the PDD sweetened its deal by offering to pay the full cost for Pacific Plaza, $15 million. The total PDD proposal is to provide $44 million in cash and land. But the new offer has been seen as an effort to kill a competing offer from a developer that wants an underground garage in exchange for a surface park above it; the Parks Board isn’t interested, since that is city land and the city would have to forfeit tax revenue from the garage for 99 years.
Parks for Downtown Dallas (PDD) is, of course, the rebranded name for The Belo Foundation, which is a philanthropic arm of A.H. Belo Corporation, owner of the Dallas Morning News. And Kingston’s district includes half of downtown, so he has his own reasons for putting the most favorable spin on the PDD’s projects.
Others see it different. Park and Recreation Director Willis Winters gave City Council its first briefing on the PDD proposal at a Nov. 15 morning session. In a nutshell, it did not go well. After Winters explained the grand plan, one council member after another criticized the division of the pie and a process that neglected the needs of their districts.
Councilman Adam Medrano, District 2, said flatly he didn’t believe he would be able to support the PDD plan. Medrano reiterated a point raised by Councilman Lee Kleinman, District 11, who questioned how potential bond projects were categorized by city staff as “District” or “Citywide.”
All downtown park proposals fall into the Citywide designation, which effectively puts them ahead of district projects. As with the other districts, Medrano’s is in line to receive about $25 million for streets and $4 million for everything else.
“That $4 million is not going to get us anything,” Medrano said. “We need to wake up. This money needs to be split evenly.”
Another issue Kleinman raised that resonated was the ability of PDD and other well-heeled foundations to offer private funds as an incentive to attract matching public funds. These foundations generally favor downtown projects.
“Not all projects have the ability to raise capital that way,” Kleinman said. “I’m struggling with that. I’m not against these (PDD projects). I just would like to see this more spread around.”
Kleinman took this a step further and argued that the central business district, which he referred to as the city’s “core,” had become self-sustainable and no longer needed help from the rest of the city. He based his argument on the fact that the downtown area had significantly increased its residential population, and had accomplished this with high-end luxury communities.
Picking apart the four projects, Kleinman gave special treatment to West End Plaza, a proposed park of less than an acre. He argued it failed the test of being a “Citywide” destination park.
Councilman Mark Clayton, District 9, had another compelling argument. White Rock Lake is in his district and no one disputed that with a million visitors a year it is one of the premier destination parks of the city. In years’ past, it has been designated, for funding purposes, a Citywide asset. Yet, this year, staff designated it a District asset.
“Medrano and the others make a fair point,” Clayton said. “If the lake has 1 million people and it’s a ‘neighborhood’ park, and something else get 20,000 people and is ‘Citywide,’ this just seems like a fallacious argument to me.”
There may have been no one at the table feeling more vulnerable than District 5 Councilman Rickey Callahan, who framed the issue as a matter of his political survival. The district has no signature park and is fighting to get its first. Callahan lamented at how his district has the worst streets in the city.
His share for street projects is little more than a band-aid, and if he can’t produce a park his constituents can rightly argue, “Why are you there?” he said.
Councilmembers Carolyn King Arnold, District 4 , and Scott Griggs, District 1, sided with the other critics. Griggs described the process as “very troubling,” and one that split funds “very asymmetrically.”
“We don’t want to create two classes of Citywide assets,” Griggs said.
This left PDD’s downtown advocate, Kingston, in a defensive posture. “I think what my colleagues have identified is that staff’s proposal with how to allocate bond funds is not what this council wants.”
- Carpenter Park: Boundaries are Pearl Street, Pacific Avenue, Live Oak Street, the U.S. 75 expressway. At 3.8 acres, it would be the largest of the four, and include outdoor athletic facilities, public art, gardens, a skate park.
- Pacific Plaza: Bounded by Pacific Avenue, Harwood Street and North Paul Street. It would incorporate James Aston Park and expand northwest up to the HKS Architects property. Total area: 3.4 acres.
- Harwood Park: Bounded by Young Street, Pearl Street, Jackson Street and Harwood Street. One block of Wood Street would have to be abandoned. Total area: 2.8 acres.
- West End Plaza: Bounded by Corbin Street, Market Street, Munger Avenue and Record Street.