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Local Government

Will Royce West’s Son Get to Build Soccer Fields Under a Highway?

With no previous experience, Roddrick West has navigated TxDOT like a pro. He has his eye on the land under I-345.
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The proposal to install a private development of soccer fields under Interstate 345 is scheduled to return to City Hall on Monday. We haven’t heard anything about this project for more than a year, after a council committee sent it back to the drawing board following concerns that it was unsafe to exercise under a highway. Some members also wondered whether the plan was the best use for the land, as the Deep Ellum Foundation had been trying for nearly a decade to turn it into special event and staff parking.

Those in opposition also note the optics of the deal. The Texas Department of Transportation is currently researching the potential for removing or burying the elevated, 1.3-mile I-345, which connects Interstate 45 to Central Expressway and occupies a whole lot of land between downtown and Deep Ellum. Tearing it out and replacing with a boulevard would free up hundreds of acres that could be used to build much-needed affordable housing, create physical spaces for jobs near the city’s core, and improve the pedestrian connectivity between two of Dallas’ most important neighborhoods. All of this development would generate millions in tax revenue for the city.

The man driving the deal to build the soccer fields is Roddrick West, son of U.S. Senate hopeful and longtime state Sen. Royce West. Royce has been perhaps the loudest and most powerful voice against removing I-345, causing political groups to question his son’s intent and confront his father at public hearings. (Disclosure: one of those groups is the Coalition for a New Dallas, the Super PAC co-founded by D Magazine founder Wick Allison that operates independently of D Magazine.)

Roddrick maintains that his dad has nothing to do with this project and that the lease agreement would include a clause that requires a two-year exit should the city and the state decide to do anything to the freeway. TxDOT confirms that fact, adding that the termination clause “can be exercised at TxDOT’s sole discretion.” The agency will not detail the lease’s financial information until the deal is final.

“Sometimes development hits a highway and doesn’t want to jump over because of the psychological effects on pedestrians,” Roddrick said. “With programming this site in particular, bringing life and activity to this site, it will drastically improve the pedestrian experience for folks crossing under 345 to go between Deep Ellum and the Farmers Market.”

For the project’s critics, the math doesn’t add up. While TxDOT owns the land under the freeway, the city controls it. Council will have to agree to cede control of the land for the soccer balls to roll.

A visual representation of the land owned by TxDOT but controlled by the city of Dallas. The space in green is where Roddrick West wants to put his soccer fields. Lot E is where Deep Ellum wants its parking. (Photo courtesy City of Dallas)

Since it was first presented, in 2018, a new City Council has been elected. And the coronavirus pandemic briefly froze the committees that would begin to vet such a project. But those meetings have begun again, and this will be among the earliest pieces of business unrelated to COVID-19 that the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will consider.

“The soccer aspect of all of this has not necessarily been the main focus, from the city’s perspective,” says Michael Rogers, the city’s transportation director, who notes that he had not seen the site plan in more than a year. “We have two other concerns that have popped up that are related to needs that the city has.”

Roddrick West’s dream of five soccer fields arranged like scattered dominos between the hulking beams of the highway now appears to be a piece that city staff is packaging in a deal with TxDOT to get permission to broaden the use of the land and gain control of a similarly sized parcel farther south.

Currently, the formal arrangement—known as a Multiple Use Agreement, or MUA—only allows for parking or parks on the land in question, which extends under the freeway from just north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas to Good Latimer Expressway at the eastern edge of Deep Ellum. The soccer fields, each of which would be large enough to host an adult 6 vs. 6 game, would be a carve-out bordered by Taylor Street, Canton Street, Henry Street, and Good Latimer near the Adam Hats Lofts.

The planned redevelopment of the neighboring Carpenter Park includes a structure, Rogers says, which wouldn’t be allowed under the current language of the MUA. TxDOT would need to agree to change the language.

The city staff proposal includes the parking that Deep Ellum covets as well as a plan to control land that would eventually become a Complete Street project in South Dallas, under I-45, along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The city would then give up control of the land where Roddrick’s soccer fields would go. All of those projects would be on TxDOT’s property. All of them require state permission. Some on the Transportation Committee have questions.

“What are the final plans for the soccer fields? Why is it being tied into our renovation of Carpenter Park and parking lots?” says Councilman Chad West, who represents North Oak Cliff and sits on the Transportation Committee. “The most important question is, by placing a permanent structure or allowing some type of long-term contract agreement to be in place, are we jeopardizing any type of alternative design for the way I-345 is right now?”

Rogers says no. He’s comfortable with the two-year kicker. And he wouldn’t call the land that would house the soccer fields a bargaining piece. But, he says, it’s a package deal, and TxDOT agrees. “TxDOT’s goal is to take a global look at potential new uses under I-345, rather than handle it piecemeal,” the agency said in a statement issued in response to my questions. “TxDOT wants to work with the city to better understand if the city is interested in new uses under I-345.”

Staff will ask for Council approval to cede control of that land if TxDOT grants control of a similar parcel under I-45, between CitySquare’s Forest Theater redevelopment and The Real Estate Council’s $2.5 million redevelopment of 12,000 square feet of retail space along MLK. Rogers envisions a Complete Streets project there, with wider sidewalks, better lighting, and perhaps the removal of a lane or two.

“Everything is tied together here,” Rogers says. “There’s so much synergy that if you do one thing, it has an impact on another.”

The city would like permission to make this area along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. a better, safer place for pedestrians to walk.

Roddrick West doesn’t understand the controversy. He believes this to be an open and shut deal that would bring life to an unused piece of land between two vibrant neighborhoods, an amenity that would benefit the city’s core. He says he got the idea from his time working for HKS as an architect in Miami, where the popular Stadio Soccer development occupies land under an I-95 overpass.

He says he’s not planning to ask for public money but would accept it if offered. Michael Morris, the director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, has floated the idea of contributing public money to the deal. West says it would cost “north of a million dollars” and would be funded by private investors, whom he declined to name.

“I’m still not understanding what the general issue is,” West says. “The project realistically does not get in the way of 345 staying up or coming down. … It’s been kind of confusing for me, and I want to understand. If it’s just my last name? OK, that’s something I can live with. If there’s something else there, let me know. Let’s see if I can solve it.”

Some of the confusion has happened in recent weeks. Councilman West requested a status update on the project from Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry, who noted in his response memo that Roddrick West’s project was an “indoor soccer complex.” Roddrick West says that is incorrect, but has declined to provide the most recent site plans. TxDOT has appealed my open records request for those site plans to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Al-Ghafry also wanted to put the matter to a vote in front of the full Council in May. Councilman Lee Kleinman, the chair of the Transportation Committee, asked Al-Ghafry to allow the committee to vet it first, as this full Council had not yet been briefed on the project.

“I’m not sure where that indoor thing is coming from. I was not completely clear on that,” Kleinman says. “I think that the soccer field deal is interesting, but I do want to find out more—if there’s any more permanence on the structures going there, because the long-term plan is to do something with 345, and we don’t want to impede that.”

Roddrick West says the five turf fields will be “a modular system that can be taken up and put down in two to three days.” He declined to name the company he plans to hire, but says it is “a reputable manufacturer who has done these fields throughout the U.S.” What he’s describing sounds like the work done by California-based Urban Soccer Park, which advertises one-day setups that “transform underutilized land into thriving sports centers.” They haven’t responded to request for comment.

The fields will be encased in netting to prevent balls from leaving the property, but West says there would be no permanent structures. His plans include 60 parking spaces and an event lawn that will have space for 43 vendors. The soccer fields would hire seven people to handle operations.

Roddrick West’s dream of five soccer fields arranged like scattered dominos between the hulking beams of the highway now appears to be a piece that city staff is packaging in a deal with TxDOT to get permission to broaden the use of the land and gain control of a similarly sized parcel farther south.

All of this would, of course, happen beneath a freeway. It’s not unheard of locally. Its neighbor would be the Deep Ellum Urban Garden and Bark Park Central. The Farmers Market isn’t far, and there is even a futsal court and soccer field located on Cesar Chavez a few blocks south. And West himself notes the irony of the city pushing for Carpenter Park a few blocks north, a chunk of which is planned to extend under the freeway.

He points to an environmental study commissioned by city staff last year, which noted that “ambient air quality for nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide at the proposed soccer fields under highway bridges in southeast downtown Dallas is expected to meet the applicable National Ambient Air Quality Standards.” That study used figures from a particulate matter reader planted at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, about a mile from the site.

You can find conflicting studies. In 2010, the Health Effects Institute analyzed 700 studies from around the world and linked traffic pollution to childhood asthma attacks, impaired lung function, cardiovascular disease, and morbidity. A distance of 980 to 1,640 feet from a highway had the greatest incidences of health problems, about the length of three to five football fields. These are matters the City Council will have to consider.

So, too, will be the process. Jon Hetzel, of Madison Partners and the chairman of the Deep Ellum Foundation, says the neighborhood has been trying to lease the land from the city for more than eight years. They drew up a deal years ago that would give the city any excess revenue from between 500 to 1,000 parking spaces it wanted in what’s known as Lot E, another section of the land under the freeway, immediately south of the proposed soccer fields. West apparently knows how get things done faster than the Deep Ellum Foundation.

Hetzel was not aware of a process by which the foundation could have gone to the state to petition for the use of the land. And because TxDOT isn’t seeking to sell the land, only lease it, the agency doesn’t have to request competitive bids for use of its right-of-way. That’s where those in opposition aim their criticism.

“A transportation authority rewarding public land to a private developer having nothing to do with transportation prior to any strategic, long-term plans being finalized lacks prudence and raises serious questions,” read a statement from the Coalition for a New Dallas. “And now the City Council is essentially being directed to comply with this. Thankfully, this is a new City Council that was elected with a mandate to clean up the way Dallas does business. Council now has an opportunity to show strong leadership and ethics by not allowing this MUA to be amended as proposed.”

Rogers, the city’s transportation director, says he’s trying to move on these projects quickly. The city’s projected post-COVID shortfall is already $33 million. Sales tax revenue is expected to fall off a cliff. There is uncertainty about federal and state dollars for big projects.

Small wins, like getting approval for all of Carpenter Park and control of the space along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, would put the city in a position to execute quickly, he says. Letting the future of I-345 govern the space beneath it now would put the city at risk of missing out on these opportunities, he adds, especially considering those projects in South Dallas are already moving. Currently, I-345 is undergoing what’s known as a feasibility study and will still need engineering plans for whatever it determines. To Rogers, the city’s safest bet is to include exit clauses for anything that could conflict with the future of the highway and get to work. He says I-345 still has no state dollars allocated to its future, and the monetary hit from COVID-19 could push that project back even further.

“We have these items that are right before us today,” he says. “The funds for 345 could be a little ways down the road. If there are opportunities to do things in the meantime, we should do them. But they should have a caveat they can all go based on the engineering.”

We know state Sen. Royce West is against the removal of I-345. As for his son? “I am in support of tearing down 345 as long as the people in South Dallas, as well as the southern sector of Dallas, are not disproportionately affected by it,” Roddrick says. “I have brothers and friends who live in South Dallas … who work up north. They take 345 all the time, and it’s already a hard commute for them. I’m trying to imagine 345 being gone and what that would do to the commute and them dreading the prospect of that.”

The council committee has plenty to unpack next week. It is a question of land use more than anything, of whether the city believes the space under a freeway that could be torn down or buried is an appropriate home for this private development. And Roddrick West will have to escape his last name.

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