How to Redesign Dallas’s Fair Park



In 1936, the year that Dallas' Fair Park hosted the Texas Centennial, Balboa Park in San Diego was the site of the California Pacific International Exposition (after previously hosting a World's Fair in 1915.) Both parks were designated National Historic Landmarks. Both benefit from central locations easily accessed by public transit and streets.

But while Balboa Park is now a beautiful and vibrant urban amenity featuring natural vegetation areas, gardens, recreational facilities and miles of pathways, as well as museums, theatres, restaurants, a world famous zoo, and easy connections with its surrounding neighborhoods, Fair Park is sorely underperforming. Over time, Fair Park's original Art Deco buildings have suffered from benign neglect and are now vacant, while many of the museums and performance halls have relocated. Much of park has been usurped by parking (200 of its 277 acres), and the park sits desolate most of the year, except for the three weeks when it is home to the State Fair. And each year the city loses many millions of dollars in operations plus tens of millions in amortizing capital expenditures.

Fair Park could become a beautiful and vibrant park for Dallas. The question is, how do we pay for it? As with other major parks, the optimal funding strategy is going to require a mix of several tools. Which specific tools are best will depend upon what the park's redesign entails. Year-round activity and connectivity with adjacent neighborhoods are essential for financial viability of the park.

Historically, general obligation bonds have been the default tool for municipal capital park expenditures, providing a low cost of capital, payable over an extended timeframe. This is a strategy that has been proposed for Fair Park. But taxpayer-funded bond issuance need not be the primary strategy.

If we are going to step away from asking taxpayers to fund 100 percent of the redevelopment of Fair Park, we will need to incorporate revenue-generating elements into the redesign. Conversion of large surface parking lots, that produce massive heat islands, into structured parking, particularly with solar panel rooftops, could generate revenue to repay bondholders and would qualify for a green bond designation. Municipalities across the world have increasingly turned to relatively new financing mechanisms for projects, such as green bonds, which function as municipal debt to finance projects with environmental benefits.

A sale/leaseback structure or leasehold improvements financing could be possible with revenue-generating capacity, such as underground garages or historic buildings converted to use by creditworthy tenants. Given the poor condition of the buildings at Fair Park, significant renovation work is needed. Including environmental elements (such as energy efficiency, water conservation, or LEED design) into the scope of rehab or new buildings could earn a green label, attract unique tenants, and increase the city's ability to generate rental income for the park. Twenty percent income tax credits are available to prospective tenants for rehabilitating income-producing historic buildings. Daylighting of currently paved-over creeks should be considered, improving storm water drainage and creating dramatic settings for rent-paying tenants nearby.

Once it is clear what the redesign will entail, a financing plan can be developed, combining philanthropy with creative financial mechanisms, making a revitalized Fair Park financially feasible without burdening taxpayers through a reliance on city general obligation bonds or other public subsidies as the main source of funding.

This city is our canvas, and we are all urban artists who together can create a grand masterpiece. Together, let's envision best possibilities for Fair Park and rally the resources to make the improbable inevitable, so we can inhabit the masterpiece that will be Dallas.

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