Road warriors

East Dallas residents rally to buy time against Haskell Avenue bulldozers

Four years ago, David Chandler thought himself one of the rarest of breeds--an urban pioneer committed to rebuilding a crumbling Dallas neighborhood. He was the proud owner of the old Southwest Telegraph & Telephone building on the northwest corner of Main Street and Haskell Avenue in Old East Dallas. The circa 1899 building had everything he needed for his commercial sound system business--storage space, a huge workshop area, a full basement. Soon after remodeling the ground floor, Chandler renovated the second level, which became the bright and airy loft apartment he lives in today.

"For a long time, a lot of people thought these buildings were not worth saving," says Chandler, pointing to his refinished pine floors, original mahogany doors, and sky-high ceilings. "I never believed that. For me, everything I did here was like uncovering hidden treasure."

But only a few weeks ago, Chandler learned that his urban oasis is not long for this world. His property sits smack in the path of the "Haskell Avenue Alignment Project," a massive public works job that will widen Haskell Avenue from three lanes to six from Lemmon Avenue on the north to Fair Park on the south. Eventually, according to the Dallas Plan--the city's blueprint for the roads, transportation, and neighborhoods of its high-density future--the street will serve as a major artery into Fair Park and as a continuation of the McKinney Avenue Trolley route.

It's the kind of progress that Chandler and several of his neighbors say they can do without. They say they learned only a few weeks ago that their property stood in the way of the anticipated 160-foot right-of-way for the project, although four previous plans under consideration had exempted their property. But Chandler and Janice Mattox, who owns a small building at Haskell and Swiss avenues, fear that the big landlords in the neighborhood--Baylor Medical Center and Criswell College among them--are using their influence to keep their property in tact.

"I have heard that perception, and it simply is not true," says Trudy O'Reilly, who runs her own public relations business and chairs the Haskell Avenue Alignment Executive Committee, a panel of East Dallas business owners and residents appointed by the City Council. For more than six years, the committee has met monthly to hammer out what it considers the best options for the avenue. In addition, O'Reilly says, the committee has held several community meetings, often with more than 100 residents in attendance, to discuss the future of Haskell Avenue.

"It is true we have people on the committee who have great amounts of property and a great deal of political power in the city. But everyone has sat down at the table together and has worked toward a consensus. It would be easy for them to do, but no one has pulled rank on this project."

So far, the committee has developed six plans for Haskell. The latest incarnation--which goes by the name "Modified Option D-2" misses Criswell Library and Grace Methodist Church, requires less property from Baylor and Criswell than previous plans, and affects fewer sites that might be eligible for historic designation, according to a summary presented last week at the City Council's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. And although Option D-2 came together well after a City Council-imposed deadline, the committee offered it for consideration because of a proposed cost savings of nearly $5 million, O'Reilly says.

No matter which option the city ultimately accepts, the price tag for the hefty project, according to the city's public works department, is estimated at between $40 million and $46 million. A 1995 bond program already has paid for a $2 million engineering study of the area, and the city expects future bond issues as well as county, state, and federal funding to finance the rest of the project, says David Dybala, an engineer with the city's Public Works and Transportation Department.

Everything about the Haskell plan seemed to be cruising along until a few weeks ago, when Chandler, Mattox, and other residents in the way of Option D-2's wrecking ball got wind of the latest plan. O'Reilly says that most of the property owners who are now complaining bought their land long after the project had been developed by the city. "They may or may not have known that their property was included, but this is something that has been planned for years," she says.

Chandler, however, says when he bought his building it was not part of the targeted area. He insists he was never notified of the change in plans, even though the city is legally required to do so. O'Reilly insists he was notified--as were all residents who would be affected. "I was told by the city that Mr. Chandler had not changed his address, and that the notice had gone to his old address," O'Reilly says. "But the notices have also run in the local newspapers. There was a citywide awareness that these discussions were going on."

Mattox, who is renovating her building on the southwest corner of Haskell and Swiss, says she attended a committee meeting only after hearing that her building had suddenly appeared expendable under the new plan. Under earlier plans, her building would have remained standing. So, Mattox says, she went ahead and put money into rehabilitating the 75-year-old structure with an understanding that it was safe. The little brick building has a quaint pottery-tile roof, original concrete cast trim work, and ornate rosettes on its exterior. Inside are high, original tin ceilings. Mattox has replaced the original damaged floors with wood planks from Texas' Hill Country.

Her building is home to a small antique store and the office of state Rep. Terri Hodge. "There are beautiful buildings all through this neighborhood," Mattox says. "Some of the oldest businesses in town are here," she says, pointing to Patterson Meat Co., the old Adler Hotel, and numerous storefronts of green grocers during a quick tour of the area.

"Of course, the neighborhood needs improvements in drainage and the roads," Mattox says. "But six lanes?" And, adds Chandler, "why is the cost so high?"

The cost, says O'Reilly, is simply the price of progress for a city that must find a way to accommodate growing use of Fair Park and urban traffic congestion in general. Fair Park now attracts 12 to 15 million visitors a year, a number that has doubled in the last decade, according to an August 1997 public works report. The Dallas Plan also has made rebuilding communities a priority, O'Reilly says. "The plan is very clear about taking heavy traffic out of the East Dallas neighborhoods and turning them into places where people can walk or ride bicycles again."

This latest Haskell Avenue go-round has piqued the interest of at least a few City Council members, some of whom mentioned their constituents' concerns at last week's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee meeting. The area includes the districts of freshmen council members John Loza and Veletta Lill. Both have raised questions about the seemingly sudden change in plans for the road. Even freshman council member Sandy Greyson, whose far North Dallas district comes nowhere near Haskell Avenue, has weighed in.

"I know this has been a long process, but it doesn't seem like we're there yet. Somehow we have to get broader public participation on this issue than we have had," Greyson says.

As a result of the latest discord, the council's transportation committee has sent "Modified Options D and D-2" back to the Haskell Executive Committee for 60 to 90 days of public hearings. A rather frustrated O'Reilly says that means more rounds of community discussion on a topic she thought had been settled long ago. The changes are coming, she says. It will be at least seven years before any construction starts, but there will be no stopping the bulldozers.

For his part, Chandler was happy to have bought a bit more time to shop his cause around the neighborhood. "We're just the little guys. But we're going to keep walking the neighborhood and letting people know what's going on. We may be able to change this thing yet.

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