By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Everybody grabbed a chop two weeks ago when the Dallas City Council voted to kick the families out of the Timbercreek Apartments at Skillman and Northwest Highway. Community advocates got a pork chop. Sweet little children's theater across the street. Developer got a big pork chop.
The city council smiled and made the sign of the cross, and the deal was done. Thousands of working-class Latinos, a few Anglos and some black people will be turned out of a successful, well-maintained affordable apartment community, to be replaced by a so-far undisclosed combination of big-box retail and high-dollar condos.
If you talk to most of the major players, they will fold their hands, slit their eyes and tell you in that special condescending voice people use about things like this that the eviction of the residents of the Timbercreek Apartment complex was an inevitability, a natural event. It was going to happen anyway. They will say that Timbercreek, a 1970s apartment complex built along a babbling natural stream, was a victim of irresistible market forces.
So before this sorry chapter drops into the great Dumpster of our collective memory, I just want to make one point: The extinguishing of this peaceable community of rent-payers had nothing to do with nature or the market. This was all City Hall. If this was a natural event, Moon Pies grow on trees.
This was people making money off politics and throwing babies and mamas out on the street to do it. And everybody went along, because everybody got a pork chop.
Timbercreek is 1,084 apartment units on 44 acres at the northwest corner of Skillman and Northwest Highway, about a mile and a quarter east of NorthPark mall. A year ago the Trammell Crow Co. bought the property, which was zoned multifamily.
Trammell Crow gambled that it could increase the value of the land by going to City Hall to get the zoning changed. That was the basic play--profit by politics.
Unfortunately somebody had to pay, and in this case the people paying the price will be the poor and working-class tenants who did have a decent low-crime place to live in a beautiful setting--a rarity in Dallas--and now must shop for apartments in all the same needle-parks where most poor people have to live in this city.
Instead of looking out for a decent, working-class, minority neighborhood, the City Council sold it down the river. The minority council members sat on their hands, except for the Mexican-American council members who were practically applauding. The only person on the council who voted against changing the zoning for Timbercreek was Mayor Laura Miller, who said she didn't see why City Hall should tear apart a decent community.
And before we go on to the specifics, let's ponder that part of the deal. The old bought-off pork-chop-in-the-pockets minority leadership at City Hall likes to talk about how Mayor Miller is out of tune with them. Maybe they're worried she'll make an end-run around them by showing some concern for their constituents.
OK, let's do the pork chops:
Michael Gonzalez is a well-wired local Latino leader who runs a worthy outfit called MiCasa, providing mortgage assistance to first-time homebuyers in the Latino community. He injected himself into the big middle of this thing by successfully lobbying the council to delay a vote on Trammell Crow's zoning application.
But tenant leaders who had been fighting the zoning change told me they were dismayed and betrayed the day before the final council meeting when they heard Gonzalez had held a news conference earlier in the day to announce his support for the new zoning.
In a joint press release, MiCasa and Trammell Crow announced a far-reaching financial agreement in which Trammell Crow will help locate houses that Timbercreek tenants might be able to afford, and MiCasa will be "the preferred provider of Down Payment Assistance and assist in all stages of the Home Buying Process."
The press release also made multiple references to Trammell Crow's willingness to work with minority contractors on all of its developments in the Dallas region, including an agreement to establish a special "link program" for minority contractors.
I read that, and all of a sudden I understood all that licking of the chops going on among the three Latino city council members--a lawyer, a dentist and the heiress to a local political dynasty.
But let's not lay it all on the Latinos. At the final council meeting, homeowner groups from the Lake Highlands area showed up to express their pleasure over the prospective closing of Timbercreek. Not that they've made any secret of their passion for getting rid of apartments: Their part of town, like many, has suffered a great deal from crime and decay associated with bad apartments.
The hitch is that these were good apartments. The Lake Highlanders were willing to come downtown and expend political capital to get these good apartments expunged from the map, because it's not about good or bad apartments for them. It's about poor and working-class people, even those who obey the law and raise their kids properly. This is the basic suburban mentality, that the proximity of people less affluent than yourself lowers your own social worth. But Dallas is supposed to be a city.
On the day of the final vote, perhaps the most poignant speech was by Robyn Flatt, executive director of the Dallas Children's Theatre, which occupies the re-developed bowling alley across Skillman from Timbercreek. I was in my car listening on the radio when she spoke, so I don't have notes, but I did call and chat with her later.
She sounds like a nice person. She has $2.5 million in public support to raise each year, according to her IRS records. I'm sure a person with her responsibilities doesn't want to flip off either the arts patron community or her neighbors in Lake Highlands.
But I was struck, nonetheless, by her willingness to get in the car, go downtown and testify in favor of the eviction of hundreds of families from their homes. She did confirm for me that Trammell Crow Co. had agreed to plant trees around her parking lot at no cost. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting she sold out the babies and the mamas for the trees alone, although they may have helped sweeten the deal.
Instead, I think she's just somebody who has imbibed a bit too much Dallas Kool-Aid. "I'm excited to be part of the improvement and the re-development of the whole Skillman corridor," she said. "I think what they're doing will help the whole thing move forward."
Well, yes. It will help the whole thing move forward. But what is the thing? Not every train should run on time.
Flatt said the apartments along Skillman have been a problem. "I think it has been a problematic area." But then she conceded that Timbercreek has not been a part of the problem. "As the mayor said, this particular group of apartments has not been one of the heavy abusers. I have known many people, many of my theater associates, who have lived in those apartments over the years."
So. Maybe all of this will help inform the performances of those actors who help the theater meet its annual budget every Christmas by doing all that Dickens.
I got another big chug-a-lug of Kool-Aid when I talked to Michael Gonzalez, the MiCasa guy--the Dallas version of a Latino advocate. He said, "I'm all for the environment. I'm for all these things. The issue is, I don't have $29 million.
"The truth is, whoever wants Timbercreek to be there, I don't care if they're black, white or Hispanic, go get a developer who can buy that for $29 million, and you can do whatever you want.
"Just like our own apartments or homes or cars, we can do whatever we want, because we bought it. So that's my advice. The truth is, unless you can do that, it doesn't make sense."
So there's your Dallas Latino community activist point of view. If the babies and the mamas want to keep their homes, they need to come up with $29 million. End of story.
But that's not even the beginning of the story. We need to get back to the truth. You can't do whatever you want with property just because you bought it. If you think you can, go buy a residential lot in the middle of Highland Park and announce your plans to turn it into a pizza parlor.
The uses of property are circumscribed by law. You are responsible for knowing what the zoning is on your land when you buy it. The city council was under no obligation whatsoever to change the zoning for Trammell Crow Co. and in so doing help pull the rug out from under thousands of decent tenants.
The mayor was right. This was an example of low-income, private-sector, multifamily housing the way we wish it always could be. No tax subsidies. Working just great.
There was nothing inevitable here, or there wouldn't have been a vote. The council could have looked Trammell Crow in the eye and said, "You bought it with apartment zoning. If we change the zoning for you, our vote will disrupt the lives of thousands of men, women and children who are respected and valuable members of our community. We're not doing it.
"Sorry if you take a loss. You bet the wrong way on our integrity."
But of course that is not what happened. Trammell Crow bet the right way. I guess that's why the people at Trammell Crow are doing what they do, and I'm doing what I do.