By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
On April 8, 22 Deep Ellum property owners filed suit against the city of Dallas, alleging that it's the city's responsibility to pay for each property or resident's connection to the new sewer lines once they are built. City attorneys say the connection costs will be kept to a minimum, but the city, by law, cannot spend public money on private property, or, in this case, private plumbing.
Everyone from the plaintiffs' lawyer to Councilman John Loza, who represents Deep Ellum, says the suit will not delay construction of the new sewer mains. Yet no construction date has been set. Says Sam Laney, vice president of Barson Utilities, "We're at a standstill. We're waiting on the city...to see who's paying for what and where."
The last thing the district needs is months or years of delay. Aside from the threat of a severe backup dousing the streets of Deep Ellum in raw sewage, the city and property owners are worried about Mill Creek, which in the 1940s was converted from a creek to a storm drain that runs underground through Deep Ellum. Raw sewage is finding its way into Mill Creek, which eventually empties into the Trinity River. The Environmental Protection Agency was none too pleased to learn of this in February: It issued an administrative order demanding the city fix the problem. The Dallas-based Environmental Conservation Organization, a nonprofit agency, went a step further, suing the city for its supposed negligence.
And then there's poor Justin Burgess. He and his business partner, Mark McCay, moved Deco-Dence to Canton Street in 2001. Mill Creek runs beneath their new building, and Burgess says he's developed a parasite normally found in Third World countries where proper plumbing doesn't exist. When an environmental laboratory recently ran a petri dish through the waters of Mill Creek beneath Deco-Dence, the fecal coliform count was 19 times the legal limit for raw sewage in a storm drain. And that's judging by the city's standards, which are lower than the EPA's.
Elm Street was settled after the Civil War by blacks who called it Deep Elm, but some people heard "Deep Ellum," and the name stuck. A new sewer line was installed in 1905, as Elm Street blossomed. Two other sewer lines, one on Main and one on Commerce, were constructed in the 1910s. All of them were five inches in diameter and made of clay. By the 1920s, Deep Ellum was a retail and entertainment district nonpareil, a place where everyone, blacks as well as whites, came to hear the blues or find some whiskey on the cheap. It's important to note, as the lawsuit does, that the buildings in Deep Ellum dating from the teens and '20s were approved by the city with full knowledge of the sewer lines that lay directly below. Years later, the difficulty in getting to these lines would cause property owners to point the finger at the city.
By the 1950s, the jazz singers found other gigs, the red-light district was gone and development in Deep Ellum had ceased. The Houston and Central tracks were removed. White Dallasites discovered suburbia. Businesses left, and warehouses moved in. Failing and decrepit in the early 1980s, Deep Ellum had few businesses remaining. That's when the city launched its Deep Ellum Plan to revitalize the area. And today, some of the same people suing the city are the ones who gambled on Deep Ellum some 20 years ago. Of course, it wasn't a huge gamble: Dallas provided tax breaks and other services to businesses investing in the area.
And the plan worked. Deep Ellum had 57 bars and nightclubs by 1991. Artists set up studios there. Housing was available. Retail flourished. The district was larger than it had ever been. The sewer lines, however, remained unchanged, as small as they were 90 years earlier but now expected to handle much greater volume.
Dallas Water Utilities' Steve Hardy was concerned enough to run a small television camera through Deep Ellum's sewers in 1994. He noticed cracks in some lines and heavy damage in others.
By the late '90s, owners were complaining about backups. Chunks of the broken segments were lodging themselves in the fully functioning pipes. City officials in 1999 met with property owners and discussed what to do; the Roto-Rooter guys had become a staple of the weekend.
Councilman Loza says the city looked at all possibilities. The best option was to put in new lines beneath the streets at the city's expense, with connection to the lines charged to property owners. Though some owners rejected the idea, the city moved forward, late last year awarding a $5 million contract to Barson Utilities for improvements to 17 Dallas sites--Deep Ellum chief among them.
In early April, 22 property owners and residents joined Don Blanton, a major property owner in Deep Ellum, in a lawsuit against the city. "It's not my problem [the pipes] are underneath those buildings," Blanton says. "It's not my problem they're worn-out."
Says Loza: "Some people just don't want to pay what they should."