By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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."
I couldn't believe it. Moral standards? In Dallas? I looked to see if the security guards were fidgeting with their weapons.
But Rasansky went boldly on. "I said earlier that being on the city council for six years, there's two cases that I'm sorry the way I voted, and this is one of them.
"You know, North Dallas is not exactly known as a haven for green and natural forest. You're trying to take up 1,700 feet of creek and almost 11,000 caliper inches of trees. I figured out if it's eight or 10 inches each tree, that's about 1,100 trees you're removing.
"This is a site that cannot be reproduced in the city of Dallas. It's just absolutely unbelievable."
Then Rasansky moved on to the more human element in the whole situation—the destruction of a stable community of modest-income citizens of the city. He took on the Lake Highlands homeowner-types who had spoken to the council, defending the whole project as a civic improvement.
"The people from Lake Highlands, the gentleman up there and the lady, I concur with them on some items, but of all the apartments there, and checking with our police department, this is the cleanest of them all. It's not wonderful, but it's the cleanest of all."
And then—and I admit it, music to my ears—Rasansky, an apartment developer himself, plowed right into Trammell Crow Co. on the moral question of making money this way in the first place:
"As I said, you have a right to do this. But you aren't being morally right to do this to 2,000 people. That's my opinion.
"Not only are you destroying a natural beauty in North Dallas...these people are going to be put out to look for other homes without enough time.
"I was swayed the first time in supporting this. This is an item that I am very sorry how I voted. Believe me, there are nights that I haven't slept on account of this.
"I think you are doing wrong, Trammell Crow Company...The stigma of Trammell Crow is going to live for a long time for what you are doing today to these people. I'm really sorry for Trammell Crow Company to stoop this low."
Rasansky was not totally alone on this. Council member Angela Hunt also said she regretted having voted for the zoning change a year ago:
"To me, regret is the worst emotion you can have," Hunt said, "and I agree with my colleague Mr. Rasansky. I regret having supported the zoning change on this property.
"And here's why: I think over the last year it has become so apparent to me that affordable housing has become critical in our city."
Another good point. In its long-range development plan ("forwardDallas!"), the city bloviates about the importance of "workforce" housing. But real-life cases on the ground put the lie to all of that. I attended a plan commission meeting last week with another case just like this one moving on up through the pipeline, this time nuking a trailer park that has been a peaceful home to 150 mainly Hispanic families for decades.
What Dallas is really doing is slitting its eyes and balling its fists and sitting back to watch while "the process" ethnically cleanses the city of the non-rich. Who really believes the Lake Highlands area was lusting for another hideous big-box store on a gigantic concrete slab in an area already chock-a-block with boxes on slabs?
No, that's not it. The real deal up there is that people in that part of town are willing to annihilate the natural beauty of the land and uproot thousands of hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying residents in order to create a suburban-style economically stratified empire—a virtual gated community on a grand scale.
Mayor Miller wasn't at the council meeting last week. When the council voted, only Hunt and Rasansky voted against the fill permit.
Council member Ron Natinsky offered what was probably a pretty good point: Once the Trammell Crow Company had won its zoning and had been deemed to have met all the criteria for a fill permit, the city would have put itself in a difficult legal position by denying the permit.
I get that. Life is complicated. Seldom are things black and white. But I do believe that Rasansky and Hunt illuminated all of that complexity in a very valuable way by allowing a moral light to fall on it.
And you do have to be careful. You allow a lot of loose talk about morality, and people are going to start using words like virtue, honor and civic responsibility. Oh, I hope the children aren't listening.