It was fitting that the strange saga of Roddrick West’s proposal to develop soccer fields under a stretch of elevated highway downtown ended today in a confusing tangle of parliamentary procedure. The soccer development was mired in political obfuscation from the get-go.
At its Wednesday meeting, the Dallas City Council voted unanimously to deny a resolution that would have seen the city of Dallas relinquish its control over land under I-345 between the downtown Farmers Market and Deep Ellum so West could build a soccer complex. The vote, however, came only after Far North Dallas’ Councilman Lee Kleinman deconstructed the resolution so that the denial wouldn’t affect the development of Carpenter Park downtown as well as the future of land along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas.
There was no good reason why those other projects were ever tied up with West’s soccer fields in the first place. The idea for locating a soccer complex under the highway first emerged last year when West, who has no previous development experience and is the son of State Senator Royce West, emerged with a deal already in hand. The Texas Department of Transportation would let West’s private company build fields on its land, but first the city would have to amend its Multiple Use Agreement with TxDOT to allow the state to lease the land to the state senator’s son. Dallas city staff supported the deal. The city council and Deep Ellum stakeholders, however, had some questions.
For one, how and why West was able to strike his deal with TxDOT in the first place? Deep Ellum stakeholders had no idea that TxDOT could hand over control of the land to anyone who simply asked. Because TxDOT was only proposing to lease the land to West, and not sell it, the agency did not have to request competitive bids. That was news to Deep Ellum business owners who have been trying for years to find ways to utilize the land under the highway for parking.
Parking was another question. West’s proposal provided for the addition of 61 parking spaces, which didn’t seem to offset half of the new traffic the project would attract to the already overcrowded district. Then there was the question of why city staff had decided to package the soccer field proposal with plans to build Carpenter Park, a project that has been in the works for years. It felt as if Carpenter Park was “being held hostage,” as Councilwoman Paula Blackmon put it.
Then there was the broader political subtext. In 2016, TxDOT completed the CityMAP study which looked at the long-range plans for I-345 and proposed removing the highway and replacing it with a boulevard or burying it. Both plans were conceived as ways to stitch back together the city center, which is divided by a ring of highways. We devoted an entire issue to the idea of turning I-345 into a boulevard, arguing that the removal of the highway represents the single best opportunity to simultaneously tackle a host of Dallas’ systemic urban problems, from driving inner city job growth and expanding affordable housing to reconstituting the city’s urban fabric in a way that could support investments in public transit, walkability, and sustainable economic growth.
One of the loudest political opponents of the plan to remove I-345 is—you guessed it—State Senator Royce West. Now his son had emerged with a pre-packaged deal in hand to seize control of that very pivotal stretch of land. And the deal had the rubber stamps from both state and city staffs. It all smelled as funny as the air under I-345—which was another goofy thing about the soccer complex project. There was no adequate environmental study that investigated what kind of impact the pollution-laden atmosphere under the highway would have on the health of the kids playing in West’s soccer development.
It took the Council the better part of a year to decipher the situation. Today, Kleinman took out the parliamentary scalpel and set to work. He carved out the Carpenter Park section of the resolution, which he and his colleagues unanimously approved. That means Carpenter Park will move forward as planned. Then Kleinman carved out the MLK Blvd. section, and the Council voted—at the request of staff—to table that consideration indefinitely. As it turned out, city staff has no idea what to do with the land in South Dallas that was tied up in West’s deal after all. Again, stinky stuff.
Finally, the Council voted to deny the request to amend their agreement with TxDOT to allow the state to lease the land to West. Even though previous discussion around the horseshoe on the soccer fields stretched on for hours, there wasn’t much to be said today. Uptown’s Councilman David Blewett spoke about the need for the city to preserve control over its best interests. Councilman Omar Narvaez brought up the air quality and health concerns. Kleinman, who has previously appeared supportive of West’s idea, left the door open for future consideration of new uses for the land under I-345. “Maybe in the future we can get something that works for the city,” he said before the Council unanimously denied the proposal.
So where does this leave us? Ever since West emerged with his plan and revealed the state’s willingness to part with the land underneath its highways, more developers have come forward to express interest. The Council today directed staff to bring a proposal to its transportation committee that would establish a formal process for how to vet these kinds of requests in the future.
But today, a crisis was averted. West’s development was always about so much more than soccer fields, or the jobs and opportunities it promised to bring to Dallas. It was about whether Dallas’ elected representatives truly possessed the power to determine the city’s own fate, or whether the tangle of governmental and quasi-governmental agencies that have a say in critical matters like transportation and land use planning can tie the hands of elected officials. With its vote, the Council asserted that it can still chart the city’s future.