Metropolis: Wednesday, May 09, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Tight-Lip Tactics

Players are cozy and neighbors nervous at the six-point intersection.

By JEFF PRINCE

Suspicion is thicker than demolition dust west of downtown Fort Worth these days, after a nonprofit foundation fought City Hall, assaulted a landmark theater, and isolated itself behind a cloak of secrecy that Spider-Man would envy.

After weeks of watching the Anne W. Marion-led FPA Foundation ignore city directives and refuse to provide information, neighbors are coalescing in opposition. Questions are also surfacing whether the foundation may be exploiting its nonprofit status and powerful connections to control development and to benefit some high-powered for-profit players in the area.

FPA Foundation documents say it was formed to support beautification efforts at the six-point intersection, where Camp Bowie, University, Bailey, and 7th streets form a somewhat convoluted intersection that, until recently, was widely recognized for the 7th Street Theatre’s large art-deco sign and nostalgic facade.

Before the FPA began dismantling the theater a few weeks ago, surrounding business owners and residents had sometimes disagreed on what to do with the theater and how to develop the cultural district and intersection. They were divided on Marion’s offer of $25 million to toss out just-completed street renovations and build a traffic roundabout — and on Marion’s later decision to rescind the offer. Now, however, even residents who once appreciated the FPA’s efforts are using words such as oppressive, unlawful, and unfair to describe the nonprofit group.

Take the May 3 meeting of the city’s Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission. The FPA sent attorney Jim Schell there to get permission to knock down the theater in 30 days, rather than waiting 180 days, which was being considered. Schell’s stated primary reason for wanting to speed the demolition process: The theater was so unsafe that the city might be held liable if anyone were injured at the site. He failed to mention that the theater is unsafe because the FPA snuck over on a Sunday morning in April and knocked down half the building before city officials stopped them.

Even people who questioned the 7th Street Theatre’s historical significance were appalled by the FPA’s lack of respect for protocol. “The violation of the law is the unifying factor,” said Gray McBride, moderator with The Westside Alliance, an affiliation of seven independent neighborhood associations. “We would expect any major landholder, especially anybody who projects themselves as a benefactor, to have respect for the community and the rule of law.”

Foundation officers have repeatedly turned down opportunities to explain their actions — including to the landmark commission. Fort Worth Weekly’s requests for information on the foundation were answered — eventually — by the Kelly, Hart & Hallman law firm. The FPA lists the law office’s address as its own, and law firm partner William Hallman Jr. is listed as an FPA director and secretary-treasurer.

One popular theory about the FPA’s determination to dismantle the theater is that Marion and other major backers of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, whose new $60 million building takes up one corner of the intersection, wanted a view uncluttered by an aging theater and other blue-collar businesses. “Does FPA stand for Fuck the Poor Association?” a local business operator asked.

In applying for nonprofit, tax-exempt status in 2001, FPA leaders wrote that their mission is to “support the city of Fort Worth’s redesign and beautification project” for “one of the gateways to the Fort Worth Cultural District.”

Marion then offered to rebuild the intersection as a roundabout, even though a two-year construction project to improve the corner was near completion. Critics couldn’t comprehend tearing up two years’ and millions of tax dollars’ worth of construction, in order to build Marion’s vision of a center fountain and plenty of perimeter landscaping. The FPA purchased six parcels of property around the intersection, including the theater, and indicated it would donate land for beautification purposes. City leaders were supportive.

Some small-business owners who resisted selling believe the FPA planned to have the city use its eminent domain powers to buy them out. The initial roundabout plan called for feeder streets that would have required wiping out numerous businesses. Concerns from residents led to revisions that spared most businesses, including the theater. However, before a plan was approved, Marion withdrew her $25 million pledge, citing economic concerns.

The most recent plan shows that the FPA properties, valued by Tarrant Appraisal District at $613,000, represent more land than would be needed for the roundabout. A real estate source who asked for anonymity said the foundation is negotiating to buy the strip mall at the intersection’s northeast corner, where a video store, sandwich shop, Chinese restaurant, and numerous other businesses currently operate. The new owners plan to raze the strip mall, the source said, but he didn’t know what would be built in its place.

Rumors have circulated that the FPA was trying to buy prime locations at the northeast and southeast corners of the intersection with thoughts of building a hotel. City leaders have discussed building a hotel there for years. However, it appears that the entities that were working to make that happen were closely tied to — but not synonymous with — the foundation.

The Kelly Geren & Searcy commercial real estate firm has been trying to broker a deal for the crucial southeast corner. The agency includes Craig Kelly — son of Dee Kelly, senior founding partner at Kelly, Hart & Hallman and longtime consigliere to the Bass family.

Craig Kelly confirmed that he had tried to engineer a land swap to secure the intersection’s southeast corner, which is across University from the Modern’s new building. The current owner-occupant of the corner — Taylor’s Rental Equipment Co. — would relinquish its site in a swap for a vacant lot farther north at 250 University Drive, across from Luby’s Cafeteria. Taylor Rental’s current site would be ideal for a hotel because it is within walking distance of the cultural district’s many attractions.

The swap was contingent upon a zoning change on the 250 University Dr. plot, being sought by Kelly Capital Investments, an investment group that includes Dee Kelly, Craig Kelly, and Dee Kelly Jr. Craig Kelly wouldn’t reveal the type of development intended for the southeast corner. “It’s irrelevant; it’s not going to happen,” he said.

The FPA’s most recent Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax (Form 990) shows that the group received $1.6 million in contributions, gifts, and grants in 2001. Of the $69,153 paid out, $68,635 went for legal fees. The beneficiary of the legal payments appears to be Kelly, Hart & Hallman, because the Form 990 states, “During the tax year, a professional corporation in which an officer of the foundation is a shareholder, provided legal services for the foundation.”

The mothballing of the roundabout plan obviously didn’t end the jockeying for influence over the six-point intersection and the surrounding cultural district. Nor did the rejection of the FPA’s plan entice the foundation to take its neighbors’ desires — or city requirements — more seriously.

When attorney Schell appeared before the landmark commission, for instance, he provided almost no information about the FPA’s plans. But when his “unsafe” argument didn’t convince the board, he offered another one. The FPA had removed the theater’s marquee and put the trademark neon sign in storage. Allow the FPA to demolish the theater, Schell said, and the sign would be donated to a preservationist group. The offer reeked of blackmail. “If they don’t get less than 180 days, what are they going to do with the sign?” commissioner Frank Giles asked. Schell responded, “I can’t answer that.”

That lack of answers riled commissioners. Schell couldn’t name FPA’s directors or describe their plans for the theater site. Commission members voted unanimously to grant the full 180-day demolition delay, tying the FPA’s hands until at least mid-October. The commission also urged the FPA to consider offers from investors wishing to buy and renovate the theater.

Afterward, commission member Wini Klein said the nonprofit was acting as if “they have some sort of divine right” to do what they please.

The Internal Revenue Service prevents nonprofits from trying to exert political influence. The FPA itself isn’t contributing to campaigns, obviously, but its leaders would have to hogtie and gag themselves to keep from exerting political influence. The foundation’s vice president is businessman Lee M. Bass, who manages the inherited oil assets of his Fort Worth billionaire family. Hallman, the secretary-treasurer, is an attorney for Marion and the Bass brothers, and a partner with the influential Dee Kelly, whose family invests in commercial development. It’s not surprising that some neighbors believe the theater fiasco was helped along by some at City Hall — although it was city planning officials who finally stopped the demolition.

Other questions remain. Why would a nonprofit group try to destroy a theater that wasn’t in the way of the roundabout, and when there were no stated plans for the site? Is the roundabout dead, comatose, or just napping? Is the FPA using nonprofit status and political influence to clear the way for friends and relatives to develop for-profit ventures? Answers to these questions could be clarified with input from FPA, but as of late, that group has been doing its talking with a wrecking ball.



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