Up the Crick

To Deep Ellum's problems, add this: an underground raging river of poop

That's because it's costly. The hookups alone could put the mom-and-pop stores out of business.

Today in Deep Ellum, much of the property sits on top of the existing sewer lines, with the connections running from the rear of buildings. The new sewer mains will run under the streets in front of the buildings. So to connect to the new lines, plumbers will have to rip through floors from back to front. And some of the floors are hardwood or marble. The estimated cost to connect is $30,000 for each property owner, according to the lawsuit. Some owners say it could be closer to $40,000. Santiago Pena of Cantina Dallas, who isn't among the plaintiffs, says it could cost him $100,000 to reconnect, such is the length of his floor.

And if they don't have the money to reconnect? Well, tough luck.

The three planned Deep Ellum sewers will be installed in the road beds of Commerce, Main and Elm streets instead of in the alleys where the old sewers exist and leach into Mill Creek.
The three planned Deep Ellum sewers will be installed in the road beds of Commerce, Main and Elm streets instead of in the alleys where the old sewers exist and leach into Mill Creek.
Mark McCay's art deco store on Canton Street sits atop the contaminated storm drain that was once Mill Creek.
Mark Graham
Mark McCay's art deco store on Canton Street sits atop the contaminated storm drain that was once Mill Creek.

Bruce Bagelman, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, calls it "inverse condemnation." If a property owner continues using an old sewer line after the new one is installed and a backup occurs, the city can refuse to help. And then it can condemn the building for failing to meet code. Says one plaintiff, "The city could put a red tag on my building...The city can induce you into this situation. And then they can say, 'I've got you.'"

Bob Johnson, director of Dallas' water department, says the city is seeking competitive bids from plumbers that will keep the reconnection costs low for property owners. Hardy thinks a property owner should be able to connect to the new line for roughly $25,000.

The city has asked property owners to sign a letter authorizing it to find plumbers to connect private properties to the new line. (A property owner can find his own plumber if he's unhappy with the city's choice, but he must first sign the letter to be part of the deal.) The city will even front the money for this connection, provided property owners pay back the city within five years.

There's a big problem with the letter, Bagelman says. No property owner knows how much he'll have to repay over five years because Dallas hasn't provided any estimates. Property owners have been asked to trust the city, Bagelman says--and they don't.

Some plaintiffs wonder why they should have to reconnect at all. Pipe bursting might work for the sewer lines of Deep Ellum.

Pipe bursting is when a ditch is dug at the start of a sewer line, and a missile is placed in the ditch. Attached to the missile is polyethylene plastic piping. The missile is pulled through the existing piping, shattering it. The polyethylene stuff behind the missile replaces what was shattered. The costs are kept to a minimum. The streets remain pristine.

Hardy says he and his staff considered pipe bursting but decided it might damage some buildings' structural integrity. Also, the missile might get stuck, as it did a few years back in Fort Worth, when that city used pipe bursting for its Third Street Project downtown. Dan Callaway, a construction inspector for the Third Street Project, says it took a year longer than expected and $1.4 million more to complete the work. "After going through what I went through," Callaway says, "I wouldn't recommend pipe bursting."

But even if a new sewer line is the only way to go, Bagelman wonders if the city would consider easing the costs to property owners. Other cities have established public-private partnerships when similar situations arose. But Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers is steadfast: No public money can be used for private property. "I'm absolutely convinced of this," Bowers says. "And we've had attorneys look at this for years."

The city's project is surrounded by uncertainties. No one knows when construction will begin, much less when it will be completed, though two years for both phases seems to be the estimate. No one knows if both the streets and sidewalks will be ripped open, or just the sidewalks, or just the streets.

No one knows how much business will be lost. The city wants Barson to do its construction during the day. Pena and other restaurateurs worry about their lunch crowds. "Without sidewalks and without streets, you've lost foot traffic," he says. Erick Schlather, president of the Deep Ellum Association, says, "This is going to be a major expense to a lot of people."

Santiago Pena has his own fears. "This place could turn into a ghost town," he says. To some extent, he feels cheated. He doesn't know why the city never told him of the likelihood of having to rip up his floor to connect to a new sewer line as he built his restaurant in 2001 and 2002. "No, the city never said there was a problem with sewer lines. Never said you can't construct here. As long as I was paying my permits and getting my inspections done, the city didn't care where I built," he says.

Bruce Bagelman wants to know why the city neglected these lines for so long. "Why are we here? Who's responsible? How could this have been avoided?"

Loza wants to know what's keeping the process from moving forward. He has a pretty good idea: He's fed up with five years of resistance to the new lines. "My instructions to the city attorney were: 'Do everything that you have to to win this lawsuit. Get any kind of sanction against them...Make them pay for everything that they can.'"

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