A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Good Public Transit

The Federal Grants That Built the Dallas Streetcar Are Now Funding Roads

| 3 days ago

To explain the significance of a wonky shift in policy transpiring in the Trump administration, it is worth briefly revisiting how Dallas got into the streetcar game. It began in the 1980s, when some trolley enthusiasts created a nonprofit that helped get the historic McKinney Avenue Trolley restored. They raised the money, part of it through a local taxing jurisdiction known as a PID, and managed to get it built. Then, in the 2000s, a more modern-minded crew of trolley enthusiasts thought it would be cool if Dallas restored the streetcar line in Oak Cliff. Local officials were less than enthusiastic.

All the typical transportation powers-that-be — the North Central Council of Governments, the city, DART — thought this new generation of streetcar nuts were hapless hipster dreamers. Nonetheless, the Oak Cliff streetcar nerds applied for a TIGER grant from the federal government and won it. That essentially twisted the arms of the city and region to start thinking about streetcars. Now there’s a plan on the table to connect the McKinney line to the Oak Cliff line that was constructed after the TIGER grant award, and even more conversation about how to utilize that connection as a springboard for building out an entire network.

That’s the power of a federal grant: it can serve as a catalyst, a way to circumvent entrenched local thinking and shift attitudes around transportation policy. The TIGER grant program was founded by the Obama administration as a way to help push a more broad-based approach to funding mobility projects of all sorts. Sadly, the new administration has taken the hatchet to the TIGER grant program, reworking it into a program that generates more federal funding for road projects. They’ve also renamed the thing, from TIGER to BUILD.

How surprising is that? Well, not at all, of course. 

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Politics & Government

City Council Extends the State Fair’s Contract Through 2038

| 5 days ago

The State Fair of Texas will be at Fair Park for another 10 years. The City Council approved an amendment today that extends the fair’s contract another decade, from 2028 to 2038. The deal includes protections for minimum wage payments for hourly employees, who are guaranteed to receive a base of at least $11.15 per hour through 2020. Afterward, the minimum will scale up each year based on the city’s cost of living calculator.

The amendment also requires the State Fair and the Dallas Police Department to agree upon a set amount of on-duty and off-duty officers that will be needed for security. They’ll begin meeting six months before the fair opens its doors each year. The contract calls for DPD to invoice the State Fair for “services provided, including full cost recovery of both on-duty and overtime assignments based on actual hours worked.”

“Within thirty (30) days of receipt, State Fair shall pay the full invoice amount,” reads the contract.

This has been a point of controversy around the horseshoe at least since 2016, when the short-staffed and cash-strapped DPD revealed that the fair had rung up more than $1 million in staffing costs that year alone. Last year’s fair also exceeded $1 million. Fair officials had previously vowed to pay $550,000 for security annually. On Monday, the Quality of Life committee voted 4-3 against recommending the Council approve the amendment. And on Wednesday, councilwoman Sandy Greyson, of North Dallas, immediately requested a motion to defer the vote until 2019. And then the familiar arguments for and against the fair reared their head.

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Turnout Has Been Low, but There’s Plenty at Stake in Today’s City Council Runoff

| 6 days ago

As of Friday, with Election Day happening today, just 804 people have voted in the special election runoff to determine District 4’s next City Council member. This is the Oak Cliff slot vacated by Dwaine Caraway, who stepped down in August as he pled guilty to felony corruption charges.

The lackluster numbers come after a whopping 14,297 people cast votes in the District 4 special election in November. At that point, 13 candidates were involved. Previous Council member Carolyn King Arnold and activist Keyaira Saunders received the most votes, but neither won a majority, so the decider became this mid-December runoff.

In 2017, Caraway edged Arnold by taking 1,760 votes compared to her 1,553. District 4 did not require a runoff that year, but the ones associated with that election—Districts 6, 7, and 8—yielded between 2,000 and 2,500 votes, give or take. It would require an unlikely final push to reach those numbers this year; during those runoffs—which were in June—only about 18 percent of the total vote came on election day.

But despite the poor turnout, there is plenty at stake here for the slice of Oak Cliff covered by District 4, and for the rest of Dallas. The winner holds influence during a crucial five-month stretch for the city, leading up to the election of a new mayor, while grabbing an inside track to their own re-election for a full two-year term in May.

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Trinity River

It’s Time to Bury the Old Trinity River Hatchets

| 6 days ago

As Matt and I wrote last Friday, we were rather impressed with a big new plan for the Trinity River that was unveiled last week by the Trinity Park Conservancy. Unlike so many of the Trinity River plans that have been pushed over the years, the Harold Simmons Park plan appeared to represent a change in direction around some of the fundamental thinking that has dictated official efforts to chart out the future of the river. Past plans proposed transforming the river all sorts of crazy ways, but this new plan appears to have the fundamental nature of the Trinity River as its starting point.

I say “appears” because, as the plan’s authors readily admit, it is still very early in the planning process. If the history of the Trinity has taught us anything it is that politics, bureaucracy, philanthropy, engineering, general incompetence, and other forces that swirl around the Trinity often manage to get into the designers’ plans and muck them up. But at least at the unveiling, the designers were keen on making the appearance that the nature of the river was fundamental to their design.

Let’s highlight the significance of this. It means that after decades of debate over the Trinity, public resistance to the official Trinity narratives has helped reshape the city’s thinking around what we do within its levees.

There was a time not that long ago when everyone spoke about the river like it was an object that needed to be transformed—redeveloped as a road to boost a regional transportation agenda, harnessed to target economic development in areas of downtown, or dug-up and rebuilt as a park. Only in recent years—months, really—did some of the people closest to the project start to recognize that the Trinity was a floodway, and not a river like the kind that exists in east coast or European cities or in the mountains of Colorado. This park project, as pitched, has a core principle of restoring natural ecology in the floodplain.

The designers behind the new plan talked about making “strategic moves” to harness the river’s aquatic physics in a way that can help rehabilitate the ecosystem and open low-impact recreational access.

These ideas are coming from the Trinity Park Conservancy—the recently renamed Trinity Trust—the same organization that once hired the people that drew the jugglers under the overpass and commissioned the doomed whitewater rapid course. The shift in language and attitude should overjoy the old Trinity warriors—their friction and resistance has helped to sharpen Dallas’ understanding of the river and its future.

But this is the Trinity River, Dallas’ oldest punching bag, and old polemical habits die hard.

The two main responses to the new plan—one from the Dallas Morning News’ Mark Lamster and another from the Dallas Observer‘s Jim Schutze—both miss the mark in their reaction to last week’s unveil.

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Philanthropist Lynn McBee Files to Run For Mayor

| 1 week ago

Philanthropist Lynn McBee is running for mayor. She filed her treasurer appointment report with the city secretary’s office and announced her run in an email to media at 5:31 p.m. on Friday.

McBee, the CEO of the Young Women’s Preparatory Network, is a former biochemist researcher who is known for her fundraising acumen for the city’s nonprofits. She has served as the chair of the boards of organizations as diverse as the Dallas International Film Festival to the Family Place Foundation, which supports victims of domestic violence. She currently is the board chair of The Bridge homeless shelter and is a member of more than a dozen other boards throughout the city. The Dallas Morning News last year called her a “super-fundraiser” when she won the Texas Trailblazer Award, which is given out by the Family Place. The nonprofit’s CEO, Paige Fink, said she was instrumental in helping it receive “almost $17 million in under two years.”

I’ll be chatting with McBee on Monday to discuss her platform. County appraisal records show she owns a home in Highland Park, although Shawn Williams—a spokesman with Allyn Media, which is handling at least communications for the campaign—says she recently moved downtown and put the Highland Park home for sale.

Her press release announcer comes with a list of endorsements that include Lucy Billingsley, the CEO of Billingsley Co.; Clay and Lisa Cooley, he of Cooley Auto Group, she a board member of the Callier Center at UT Dallas and McBee’s Young Women’s Prep Network; Richard Rogers, the former CEO of Mary Kay; and about a half dozen others that I’ll list below.

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Hometown Kid Called Very Dumb by D.C. Bigwig

| 1 week ago

We have more shots fired—oh so many shots—in the feud between ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—also the ex-ExxonMobil Corp. CEO—and excitable Twitter user and current President Donald Trump. It seems ex-Exxon exec Rex has made the president angry.

Let’s recap before we give you the goods, which you’ve probably already seen elsewhere and rolled your eyes at by now, but it’s Friday and it’s slow and so here we are.

Things started with a report from NBC News, back in October 2017, that Tillerson had dropped a “moron” accusation on his boss.

DT figured it was fake news, although did he? Because he curiously offered a retort just in case: take an IQ test against me you cowardly coward. He said that in an interview, not on Twitter, which I will note I was surprised to find out during the reporting of this story.

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Arts & Entertainment

Dallas Finally Has a Strong Cultural Policy. But Will It Be Implemented?

| 2 weeks ago

Last week, the Dallas City Council unanimously approved the city’s new Dallas Cultural Plan, a lengthy, 100-plus-page policy document that is the product of more than a year of public input and planning. The occasion might elicit a shrug from some. Dallas is a city that loves to make plans, though it has a sketchy history when it comes to implementing them. And, as I wrote back in January, cultural plans tend to be wishy-washy, 30,000-foot documents that repeat fuzzy platitudes about the arts and creativity while offering little in the way of tackling the difficult obstacles involved in nurturing a healthy cultural scene. For example, Dallas’ 2002 plan failed to force any meaningful action related to addressing the city’s endemic challenges with diversity, equitable funding, and access space, to name a few.

The good news is this new plan is not like the 2002 iteration. It is a meaty document that does more than simply outline pie-in-the-sky dreams for Dallas’ culturally minded future. The new plan is comprehensive, though focused, making some critical observations about the state of Dallas’ arts and culture before zeroing in on a handful of broad topics it seeks to address in the coming years. It appears to be a useful roadmap, with lengthy laundry lists of actionable items and potential initiatives that could radically change the way Dallas supports its artists and arts organizations. It also seeks to reconsider some of the historical issues Dallas has had with regards to supporting the arts — namely the lopsided approach to funding spaces for large arts organizations, while leaving everyone else out in the rain with their tin cups, begging for the leftover small change.

The only question I’m left with after perusing the 106-page report is one the report itself can’t answer: will the city and its Office of Cultural Affairs have the political leverage and willpower to implement this thing?

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Politics & Government

Regina Montoya, Attorney and Former Clinton Aide, Details Her Mayoral Platform

| 2 weeks ago

Last week, attorney and former Hillary Clinton aide Regina Montoya joined an increasingly crowded room of mayoral hopefuls. The Dallas Morning News was her announcement venue, and it provided the requisite bio: Wellesley and Harvard grad, Children’s Medical Center’s former senior vice president and general counsel, vice chair of the DFW International Airport’s board and a trustee on a host of others. The day prior to her announcement, Mayor Mike Rawlings announced the formation of a nonprofit that has a goal of reducing the number of kids living in poverty—believed to be about 115,000—by half in the next 20 years. Dallas is the third-worst city for child poverty in the nation.

Called the Child Poverty Action Lab (or CPAL), the formation of the nonprofit was recommended by the mayor’s Task Force on Poverty. Montoya was the chair. She’s used her work on the poverty task force as something of a launching pad for her mayoral platform, telling The News that her goal as mayor would be to use the office as a “bully pulpit for opportunities to invest in people.”

“I am literally running for Dallas mayor to focus on our best resource: our people,” she said in an interview. “I want to have a city that empowers its citizens through transportation and education and make sure there are real economic opportunities in all of our communities that make them vibrant and safe.”

In that interview, we touched on a whole lot of things—poverty, housing, education, walkability, access to healthcare—that will probably be agreed-upon challenges by most of the candidates. For instance, Larry Casto, the former city attorney who announced his mayoral bid not long before Montoya, made housing a cornerstone of his early platform. He said he would follow the path of State Rep. Eric Johnson, who sought legislation to take money from an existing tax increment finance district and feed it back into the surrounding community in the form of property tax abatements, to help minimize displacement.

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Dallas Morning News Ed Board Couldn’t Be More Wrong About Dallas Citizens Police Review Board

| 3 weeks ago

Earlier this year, when ex-Balch Springs Police Officer Roy Oliver was found guilty of murdering 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, it had been 45 years since an on-duty police officer in Dallas County had been convicted of murder. Criminal charges against on-duty officers are extremely rare. A 2016 Texas Tribune investigation found that of the 880 officers in Texas’ largest cities involved in police shootings between 2010 and 2015, just seven faced criminal charges. None were convicted. This trend runs nationwide. A researcher at Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that between 2005 and mid-2017, only 35 percent of officers who were arrested and charged for fatal on-duty shootings were convicted on manslaughter or murder charges.

The takeaway is clear: it is incredibly difficult to hold accountable police officers who are involved in on-duty shootings.

In the wake of the killing of Botham Jean, who was shot dead in his own apartment by the since-fired Dallas Police officer Amber Guyger, a new proposal aims to increase police accountability by strengthening an entity known as the Dallas’ Citizens Police Review Board. The proposal, which the Dallas City Council may vote on early next year, seeks to expand the board’s power by giving it a budget, extending it the power to subpoena officers and set policy and conduct independent investigations. Currently, the board is more or less a ceremonial advisory panel, which Councilman Philip Kingston has said is treated “with such open contempt” by police officers “that it is shocking to me.”

Not everyone agrees that change is needed. In an editorial in the Dallas Morning News today, the paper’s editorial board argues that the proposed changes to the Citizens Police Review Board go too far. Brushing off the attempt to reform the board as a reactionary politicization of Jean’s killing, the editorial board says that police justice and transparency are achieved when the police chief is charged with holding officers accountable.

“Police accountability starts in the police chief’s chair and works best when there is an open, transparent signal that justice will be pursued, and malfeasance not tolerated,” the editorial board declares. “This ‘buck stops here’ approach carries more weight among citizens and officers than a politically-appointed and mostly anonymous lay panel.”

Sadly, history doesn’t do much to shore up the editorial board’s case.

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Real Estate Developer Mike Ablon Files To Run for Mayor

| 4 weeks ago

Developer Mike Ablon, the public head of the public-private partnership that’s managing the development of the park near the Trinity River, officially filed to run for mayor today.

Ablon is the second candidate to formally throw his hat in the ring for next May’s election. Albert Black, the Oak Cliff businessman and Baylor Scott & White board member, filed to run in July. (Ablon’s filing isn’t yet on the city’s website, but the city secretary’s office confirmed that it had been submitted and was being processed.)

Ablon was boarding a plane Wednesday afternoon and declined to comment until Monday, so we’ll talk about his platform then. But he’s a real estate developer held in high regard who was one of the drivers of the transformation of the Design District. Alongside investment group Lionstone, PegasusAblon scooped up 40 acres of land and 700,000 square feet of showroom space from Crow Holdings in 2007. They picked up where Trammell Crow left off, bringing in a mix of new uses to the neighborhood—restaurants and bars and coffee shops and more than 1,000 multifamily units. He refused to rent to national chains, instead favoring locals. His vision helped open up a broader potential for the neighborhood, which had for years been used as a supply and warehouse center for home builders and designers and the like, with some galleries and antique shops scattered around.

His firm sold its properties in the neighborhood in 2014. Ablon has been a proponent for the individuality of Dallas neighborhoods.

“The city is just now getting into a maturity, where it has a depth to these places,” Ablon told me four years ago for a piece in American Way magazine. “Now, (tourists) could say, I was in Dallas and went to the Design District or XYZ neighborhood and I thought it was really special. Five years from now there will be 10 of these neighborhoods. And 50 years after that there will be 20 of these neighborhoods, and 50 years after that, there’ll be New York.”

You’ve likely seen Ablon’s name most recently associated with the Harold Simmons Park in the Trinity River levees. Mayor Mike Rawlings last year appointed him to be the head of the local governmental corporation, or LGC, that’s overseeing the development of a 200-acre park. Prior to that, he largely stayed out of politics.

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With Fort Worth Backing Beto, All of Texas’ Cities Are Now Blue

| 1 month ago

I’m not sure if I entirely buy this takeaway from Tuesday’s election, but here it is: City Lab reports that with Fort Worth’s backing of Robert “Beto” O’Rourke in the U.S. Senate race all of Texas’ cities now vote blue.

Fort Worth was the last city in Texas that consistently backed Republican candidates. But this year, as early voting numbers and overall turnout shattered previous midterm records, Beto won Tarrant county, which hasn’t had a Democrat congressman or woman in decades. The turnout also gave Fort Worth a Democrat on the state Senate (Beverly Powell), and a surprise Democrat in the Tarrant County Commissioners Court (Devan Allen).

Here’s how City Lab’s Kriston Capps analyzes it:

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