Moral Minority

The wages of sin are a big fat bankroll for Trammell Crow, thanks to city council

OK, I know you already think I think I'm some kind of East Dallas Mahatma Gandhi or something. I really am not. I believe in profit and private property and free enterprise and all that junk. But it's just sort of nice and a little refreshing once in a blue moon when somebody at City Hall mentions morality.

You know—morality? It's that stuff people used to talk about in church back before the prosperity doctrine. It's all about making decisions based not necessarily on money or competition but on what you believe to be your moral obligations toward others.

Imagine my pleasant surprise last week when I'm sitting up in the cheap seats in the city council chamber waiting for them to get to an agenda item, and suddenly a member of the Dallas City Council starts talking about a real estate development deal in terms of morality. I almost fell out of my chair.

This was the Timbercreek case about which I have written in the past ("Looters," May 18, 2006; "No 'Doze," June 14, 2007). A year ago Lake Highlands council member Bill Blaydes, whose political base is apartment-phobic homeowner groups, led the charge to demolish 1,000 working-class apartments along a creek at Skillman Avenue and Northwest Highway.

When the Trammell Crow Co. bought it, the land carried zoning appropriate to what was on it. There were apartments there. The land was zoned for apartments.

The land was worth less than it would have been had it been zoned for retail. If Trammell Crow Co. had bought that much land zoned for retail, it would have had to pay a lot more for it.

So here's the trick, and it's as old as Dallas. You buy land zoned for apartments. You get your pals on the council to rip that zoning off and rezone it retail. Now it's worth a ton more. All you have to do is toss out all the families in the apartments, and you can peddle the land to somebody to build a big-box retail store.

It's called making money off politics. They did all that last year. Only Mayor Laura Miller voted against it.

Then last week the company was back in front of the council asking for a permit to dump a layer of rubble and fill-dirt at least 25 feet deep on top of the creek that runs through the property.

This property was developed in the 1980s along a lovely old creek beneath steep white-rock bluffs. In June 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the acreage at Timbercreek, "although narrow and surrounded by an apartment complex...is one of the highest quality riparian areas of a small tributary in this area."

The EPA's marine and wetlands section urged in a letter that Trammell Crow Co. not be allowed to bury the creek in rubble in order to create a flat platform for a big-box store. The letter said, "The apartment developer years ago chose to preserve as much of the stream and forest as possible and use it as an amenity to enhance the quality of life of the residents.

"This proves that a development can be done on this site while protecting the character of the stream. We recommend the stream and the forested corridor remain intact and the new development be placed around it."

There's another point here: The people who live in this complex are not poor people, according to the definition I grew up with as a child of the Great Lakes industrial belt. These are working people. I always thought that was a term of honor. These are people with jobs. They pay around $500 a month rent on average in order to live near those jobs.

And this is not a "crime magnet" apartment complex as it has been portrayed by the neighborhood groups. One of the things that came out during the debate over the zoning a year ago was that this complex has quite a low crime rate, in fact.

The people here just aren't rich. That's all.

So of course last week when the developer came in for permission to destroy the creek and slash down the forested area, all the homeowner groups who had advocated for knocking down the apartments in the first place came back to say what a swell idea they thought it would be to nuke the creek too. Sometimes you have to destroy the village to save it, I guess.

Frances E. Phillips, a lawyer who represents Trammell Crow on environmental issues, went to the microphone and read a long list of government agencies that had signed off on the project. "According to the city's Department of Public Works, the Timbercreek fill permit application complies with all 10 criteria imposed by the city code," she said.

That's when council member Mitchell Rasansky started talking: "The lady in yellow read all of these agencies that approved this," Rasansky said. "I didn't even know there are that many agencies.

"But ma'am, what you didn't read was the moral standards of the standard citizen in the city of Dallas. You really didn't read what the moral standards were."

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