Eddie Bernice Johnson Blasts the Morning News for "Slanted and Biased Coverage"
It's been nearly four years since developer Yigal Lelah unveiled his vision for Veterans Place, a sprawling mixed-use development he hopes to build on Lancaster Road, directly across from the VA Medical Center.
The development, as the name implies, is focused on returned military personnel and their families, with a couple hundred housing units, a veterans museum, 100,000 square feet of office space and a sky-bridge over Lancaster and the DART rail station there so that vets don't have to dodge traffic en route to the hospital.
But the 3.8 acre property remains a vacant, marked only by a sign announcing the project and giving a number to call for leasing information.
In an editorial last week, the Morning News expressed dismay that the project, which has already received $4.4 million from the city and is seeking a $1.4 million low-income tax credit from the state, has come to a standstill.
The News writes:
The problem is, Lelah must have VA cooperation to fulfill his commitments. He also wants VA co-financing. What happens if the VA doesn't buy in?
Amid years of this back-and-forth, the project has stalled. Something's gotta give. Even though a big question mark hangs over everything, Lelah applied for zoning changes last week so he can start initial construction -- with no certainty what the final product will look like.
This situation seems ripe for direct intervention by the mayor and U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, whose congressional district includes these sites.
Please, everyone: Clear away the obstacles, get the dirt flying, and get this project built as it was promised.
If the News was hoping to get Congresswoman Johnson's attention, it succeeded. She fired back at the Morning News, first in an editorial she distributed to media outlets, then, yesterday, in an email blast to constituents.
Long story short, she accuses the News of shoddy journalism. The paper's editorial "rests upon the testimony of a single developer whose actions are uncertain, while others question whether he is fully committed to the development of Veterans Place."
The real obstruction to progress is not a lack of communication within a public-private partnership, but one of securing proportionate funding from private sources. The City of Dallas has taken legitimate steps to reasonably plan and fund the Veterans Place project. Unfortunately, the developer has relied overwhelmingly on public funds to move this project forward. The "pre-development costs" that he has offered would be a fraction of the total costs, and would place a disproportionate risk on the City of Dallas.
As for the development of Southern Dallas and the creation of housing and retail space, I have worked closely with city officials and developers to create sustainable projects. One that I am most proud of is Lancaster Urban Village, a mixed use project that will create housing, retails shops, office space, and recreational facilities for the residents who live where the Veterans Administration Hospital is located.
My office helped to secure federal funding for the project. We worked closely with city officials and developers, and once the development is completed it will be a vital part of Southern Dallas. So, to suggest that we have done nothing is patently false
She concludes with this: "I do not mind fair and equitable evaluation of my work. But I take offense at slanted and biased coverage that distorts reality. It is something that I will not tolerate without comment."
The News has a different take on their piece's accuracy. Editorial page editor Keven Ann Willey passed along the email she sent to Johnson's office in response to the Congresswoman's concerns.
Willey notes that Tod Robberson, the editorial writer who worked on the piece, repeatedly solicited Johnson's input, but, through her spokesperson, she declined to comment.
Furthermore, Robberson didn't rely on a single source but spoke with the VA, mayor's office, Habitat for Humanity and the city's housing director. And, Willey says, the piece did question Lelah's shaky financing by raising questions about what would happen if he isn't able to secure private financing.
"We deliberately calibrated the tone of our mention of you and the mayor at the end of the editorial to be hopeful and open-ended. ... There is nothing disrespectful about that metion," Willey writes. "Quite the contrary. And since it was your office that declined to respond to our repeated efforts to get more information, it seems generously even-handed."