UPDATE 5/21/20 12:35 PM: District 12 Councilwoman Cara Mendolsohn gave the following statement to Texas Scorecard.
“I’ve consistently voted against projects that have obvious conflicts of interest, often with a 14-1 vote. City hall needs to change its reputation for inside dealing and uphold the morals we espouse. So whether it is a no-bid contract by TXDOT for the son of a senator that oversees TXDOT or it is a housing project for the person who is the chair of the housing policy task force, I’m a ‘no’ for the project and a ‘yes’ for transparency and ethics.”
Next week, Dallas’ city council will vote on a special development deal for the son of a Democrat U.S. Senate candidate and state senator. City staff keeping elected officials in the dark, as well as questions about the developer’s competency, were among the issues raised during a meeting on Monday—further heightening similarities with Fort Worth’s Panther Island boondoggle.
Interstate 345, located in southeast Dallas in the Deep Ellum district, is a stretch of highway constructed in 1973 that has been blamed for the decades-long economic downturn of the area.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) owns the land but has leased it to the City of Dallas with an agreement that they can use it to build parking lots. As previously reported, there are two proposals for the future of I-345; one calls for tearing it down to allow for new economic development, and the other calls for Roddrick West—son of Democrat candidate for U.S. Senate and Texas State Sen. Royce West (DeSoto)—to build soccer fields beneath it. Texas Scorecard received the plans for the fields as part of a response to an open records request sent to TxDOT.
On Monday, the City of Dallas’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discussed amending the agreement with TxDOT to allow West’s soccer fields to be built, whereby the city would surrender control of the area to TxDOT. West told the committee he could have the project up and running in three to four months, and the fields won’t be full size and will be for recreation only—despite the claims of one state bureaucrat who talked about the World Cup coming to Dallas.
Emails secured by Texas Scorecard reveal that, in an attempt to push through the agreement, a swap has been proposed where TxDOT will not stand in the way of Dallas redeveloping Carpenter Park. Critics say tying the soccer field with other deals is a classic tactic used to make projects harder to oppose. When asked at Monday’s meeting why development for Carpenter Park has been put together with West’s soccer field, Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry replied, “For the benefit of consolidating everything.” He also said council could separate the projects if they wished.
“We strongly support moving forward with additional parking,” said Matt Tranchin, president of Coalition for a New Dallas, which supports tearing down I-345. He also said West should not have the contract awarded to him without first having to compete against other bidders. “Let’s have Roddrick compete with world-class institutions.”
“How did you get this contract?” District 9 Councilwoman Paula Blackmon asked.
“There’s no open bid,” West replied. “I can’t speak to [TxDOT’s] process.”
“We polled and talked to a hundred different stakeholders involved,” said Jon Hetzel, president of the Deep Ellum Foundation, which has continuously opposed West’s soccer fields. “Nowhere on that strategic plan did people bring up that we don’t have enough soccer facilities … in the neighborhood.”
“We need to make sure things are structured in a way where I-345 can still come down,” he added.
“The project is an interim solution to revitalize and repurpose,” West said. “There is nothing going on in the site that is permanent.”
However, according to West, if I-345 were to be torn down, he would have to be given 24 months’ advance notice to vacate the site.
“Why is it ever a good idea to look at a business venture that is only ever intended to be for the interim,” asked District 7 Councilman Adam Bazaldua. “This is the first conversation that I’ve been a part of when it comes to this deal, and I have a problem with that.”
More questions were raised about the deal when Al-Ghafry said the city hadn’t even seen the deal between TxDOT and West. Council members Chad West and Paula Blackmon previously told Texas Scorecard they hadn’t seen the agreement between West and TxDOT either.
“I had to make three requests to city staff to get a copy of the site map,” Chad West said at the meeting. “I was also told I have to see the developer to get a copy. Do you think I have to do that?” he asked Al-Ghafry.
“If staff has it in their possession, absolutely not,” he replied.
“I’ve never been this disappointed in city staff,” Chad West added. He also pointed out that by amending their agreement with TxDOT in this way, Dallas would be giving up their rights to the land to the state.
“Who will be the operator of the soccer fields?” District 10 Councilman Adam McGough asked. “Who’s going to run the programmatic part of this?”
Roddrick West—whose response was muffled due to buffering—appeared to indicate either his business or business partner would be the operator. “We are creating key partnerships as we speak with different recreational clubs around Dallas,” he added.
Blackmon shot off question after question regarding the dubious deal. “Who are your investors?” Blackmon asked. “Private investors,” West replied.
“Have you done one of these types of projects?” she asked. “No, ma’am,” West said.
A response from an open records request Texas Scorecard sent to the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners revealed West has repeatedly failed some of the board’s exams.
Sources have expressed concern that the real goal of the soccer fields project could be to grab land that would become prime real estate for development, and then sell it to the highest bidder once I-345 comes down.
“I don’t understand why this is something we would consider worth losing our rights to,” Bazaldua added.
City council members being kept in the dark, the involvement of a powerful elected official and his offspring, a potential real estate development, and the possibility of taxpayers being on the hook draws eerie comparisons to the 16-year-long Panther Island boondoggle in Fort Worth.
Dallas City Council is scheduled to vote on the project on May 27. Concerned Dallas taxpayers may contact the city council and Mayor Eric Johnson. Texas Scorecard has sent inquiries to Johnson’s office regarding this.
This article has been updated since publication.