Taking It to the Street

Want to get elected to city council in southern Dallas? Forget the race card and patch that pothole.

All of the candidates and most people in the district who have tried to deal with City Hall only shake their heads when the name of Councilwoman Charlotte Mayes is mentioned. Mayes has been famous during her four terms in office for not returning phone calls.

"I think the effectiveness of the representation has been a major issue," Chaney says.

It's also possible to focus on District 7 another way. From this other perspective, District 7 still has terrible problems, but its terrible problems are no worse than the rest of the city's terrible problems. The issue of streets is a good illustration.

Even by the city's own generous estimate of its own performance, almost one-third of the streets in District 7 are in substandard condition. The amount of the district's streets deemed by the city to be in "satisfactory condition" is 69 percent. And if that's what the city is willing to admit about conditions out there, one can only assume the truth is much worse. Anyone who has driven around Dallas recently knows what "substandard" means: gaping potholes, broken and eroded curbs, cracks, cheap blacktop patches all over the place, big old steel plates that have been left in the street for years. All in all, a teeth-rattling surface that seems to put 10 miles on a car for every mile driven.

But at 69 percent, District 7 is doing pretty well, compared with District 11, around Dallas' crown jewel Galleria area, where the ratio is only 60 percent satisfactory. And 11 does quite a bit better than District 2, in the very heart of the city and downtown, perhaps the city's most visited area, where the ratio is only 53 percent.

But all of the districts should feel sorry for Mary Poss' District 9, in affluent northeast Dallas and Lake Highlands. There the ratio is less than half good.

In fact, when the southern districts are compared with the northern districts, the south does better, at an overall average of about 64 percent satisfactory. The northern average is 59 percent.

The underlying reality, of course, is that the citywide average is 62 percent.

And that stinks. Everywhere.

Here is the mystery: For some reason, even though these are fat times and the local economy has been boiling for several years, even though real estate values have been steadily rising citywide and money has been rolling into city coffers, the city of Dallas can't even begin to get to the basic repairs it needs to make in the streets.

The answer to the heartache of Parry Avenue is not that racist or mean-spirited city officials have conspired to deprive a poor benighted block in South Dallas of what everybody else gets. Nobody gets curbs these days.

Jim Pate, regional executive director of Habitat for Humanity, speaks very carefully about city staff. He points out that he must work with them day in and day out. But he also seems not to blame them for what happens.

"As far as sidewalks go," he says on the phone, "we always put the sidewalks in ourselves in front of our houses."

So why didn't he put in sidewalks on Parry Avenue?
"According to code, you can't put in a sidewalk unless there's a curb and gutter there. I've never gotten a clear explanation of why that's the case. But I guess they don't want the sidewalk to be too far away or too close to the curb."

So why isn't there a curb and gutter?
He explains that curbs and gutters are the city's responsibility on "dedicated streets"--that is, streets that already exist, as opposed to brand-new streets created by developers out in the suburbs.

The city, he explains, isn't installing the curbs and gutters because it is several years behind on such projects. Even if it did finally install them, the city would assess homeowners on the block up to $750 a household for the work, as if it were a repair.

Federal money is available to pay for the work, so that no assessment would be necessary, but the city administers the federal grant programs so slowly that the wait is four years or more, even after a grant has been made. David Dybala, head of public works for the city, could not be reached for comment on the Parry Avenue situation.

Pate explains it with a related story. In the Bonton area of District 7, south of Highway I75 at Bexar Street, Habitat ran into a similar situation a few years ago. There were no city curbs or gutters. The city wouldn't allow Habitat to build sidewalks.

In that case, when Habitat finished building its houses, it went to the city for certificates of occupancy. Pate says, "The building inspector told us, 'I can't give you a green tag [certificate of occupancy], because you don't have sidewalks.'

"We went up the line to somebody and said, 'Hey, look, you guys are the reason we don't have sidewalks. Give us a break.'

"Well, they agreed it was kind of ridiculous. The cost to us of putting in sidewalks, by the way, is about $350 a house. So the city said what we needed to do in order to get a green tag without sidewalks was get a 'waiver of sidewalk.' Well, guess how much a waiver of sidewalk costs? You guessed it. $350."

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