Eat My Dirt

A builder's guide to skirting the zoning laws and making the city look goofy

My problem is that the outcome here—letting the building stand—is not cost-neutral. The neighbors pay the cost in their own home values. And other builders who go by the rules pay the cost, whereas this guy gets to build an entire floor of sellable space that they did not get to build on the same amount of land.

What's on that top floor? I looked it up in the real estate listings: the fourth floor consists of two penthouse units now on the market for $329,000 apiece. That's two-thirds of a million bucks worth of real estate that this guy got just by filling boxes with dirt. He calls the building "The Novela," by the way. Glad he didn't name it "The Cuento Corto" (short story).

Jordan Schweitzer, a member of the panel who voted against the dirt skirts, asked Todd Duerksen, a city official, how high the builder could have piled his dirt in order to justify piling more stories on top of the building. Duerksen launched into a long answer about slopes and grades and retaining walls. Finally Schweitzer interrupted and said, "But this is a planter box."

See that box of dirt at the lower right-hand corner? The builder claimed he could use that to justify adding a fourth story. The city said OK.
See that box of dirt at the lower right-hand corner? The builder claimed he could use that to justify adding a fourth story. The city said OK.

Eventually Duerksen was forced to concede that under the city official's ruling in this case there really was no limit.

Steve Clicque, a developer who was sitting in the audience, slipped up to my chair and showed me a drawing for a brilliant invention of his own design—fat PVC pipes attached to the corners of a building and filled with dirt. By the city's own theory, Clicque's dirt-pipes would allow someone to erect the Empire State Building on a lot in East Dallas.

Clicque created his dirt-pipe drawing as a kind of bitter joke, to show how crazy this whole thing was. But I can absolutely guarantee you that the next builder who tears down a duplex in that neighborhood is going to try to do the dirt-skirt trick. And why not? Wouldn't you build some planter boxes, if it meant an extra $660,000 on your deal?

For that very reason, city council member Angela Hunt, who represents the neighborhood, told me she is supporting an ordinance to kill this practice once and forever. At least somebody down there gets it.

Jamie Pierson, the neighbor, had to pay a fee of almost $1,000 to get the Board of Adjustment to give him a hearing. He paid $375 an hour in attorney's fees to be represented at the hearing. The builder didn't even show up for the hearing. He was represented for free, in effect, by the Dallas City Attorney's Office.

Pierson told the Board of Adjustment that the City of Dallas building official's decision in favor of the dirt skirts "defies the laws of nature and of logic but most importantly, it defies common sense." He asked the panel to reverse the building official's decision and compel the demolition of the building.

A majority of the Board of Adjustment voted with Pierson, but the rules call for an 80 percent majority to overrule the building official. So Pierson lost.

Look, this isn't only a wacky story about City Hall foibles, or I wouldn't waste your time. Well, maybe I would. But not this time. This remarkable little saga is important because it's emblematic of a larger struggle at City Hall, one with serious implications for the entire city.

City government, as you know, is cash-starved. The mayor and city council won't vote for new taxes. But they have to get money somehow. Their mantra is always, "Grow the tax base, grow the tax base." But our mayor, a former construction industry executive, and a majority of our council members believe that the only way you can grow the tax base is with new construction.

East Dallas, left to its own devices, is proof that they are wrong. Consistently over the last several years, every time Dallas Morning News real estate editor Steve Brown has published one of his home-value surveys, East Dallas has outranked every other inner-city neighborhood except Oak Lawn in terms of home appreciation.

And what is East Dallas famous for? Conservation districts, historic districts, neighborhood activism. Admittedly it's a balancing act. East Dallas has to watch itself so it won't run off good investment. But the lesson of East Dallas—repeated in restrictive communities across the country—is that real value, the big value, the big growth in a residential tax base comes from carefully controlled neighborhoods with high emphasis on quality of life.

Not dirt skirts.

The Saga of the Dirt Skirts is a symptom of desperation. It's City Hall saying, "Just throw up some crap and pay us your taxes. We don't care." It's the crack cocaine of urban finance. Sure, you get a rush now. But you ruin your life.

We're in an exciting period of transition right now. Much of Dallas seems to be doing better than it has in 30 years. From Gaston Avenue to Fort Worth Avenue, from Jefferson Avenue to McKinney Avenue, every sign indicates the inner city may be on the verge of a vigorous boom. Perhaps that shouldn't surprise us, given all of the national predictions of a reversal from the 20th-century suburban paradigm.

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