Landowners Fear Dallas' "Grow South" Plan Will Cut Them Out

They want the city to change course and build sewers to boost property values.

Landowners Fear Dallas' "Grow South" Plan Will Cut Them Out
Dylan Hollingsworth
Robert Pitre believes the city is holding out on basic infrastructure for his southern Dallas land, keeping the value down until some insider buys him out.

Put yourself in Robert Pitre's shoes. He owns 120 acres right next to the new University of North Texas campus in southern Dallas in an area of the city that is more rural than urban. For one thing, it has no city sewer service. Houses and businesses in the area must use septic tanks.

The city has stories as long as your arm — some good, some sort of fishy — about why there are no sewers here. But eight years ago the head of the water department gave Pitre an engineering drawing — I have a copy right here on my desk in front of me — showing a new sewer line to his area underneath the main thoroughfare through the UNT campus, which was about to be rebuilt.

The city document shows the cost of the system, a combination of 10-inch and 8-inch PVC pipes, manholes and so on, at $351,003 in 2005. But in 2006 when Houston School Road was widened and rebuilt to become University Hills Drive, the city put in no pipes. No sewer. Nothing.

No worries. In 2009 when the city carried out a master plan for the area around the UNT campus, its final report contained four separate references to a sewer line to be built. Two years later the engineering and design firm Kimley-Horn was hired to put together a more formal plan to be shown to landholders in the area, and that plan also showed a sewer line coming straight into the area where Pitre owns his land.

This is 2014. Not only is there no sewer in the area, the city now says it never promised one, never designed one, wouldn't know how to build one anyway and could never have physically brought a sewer line down the main thoroughfares in the area because of the slope of the land.

Assistant City Manager Theresa O'Donnell explained to me recently that it would never have worked to put sewer under the roads in the area. "Sewer, of course, not to be crass, runs downhill."

Apparently the streets in the area all run uphill. But, if they run uphill, don't they also have to run downhill? This stuff is not my strong suit. It's why I'm in journalism. I was referred to Dallas Water Utilities, the agency that produced the document given to Pitre nine years ago showing a sewer line down Houston School Road, now University Hills Drive.

I wondered why they ever produced drawings for landholders in the area showing a sewer line straight down — or up — University Hills Drive, if the doo-doo ... well, you get it. Assistant DWU Director Cesar Baptista told me, "Oftentimes the city is asked to do like a quick study based on current zoning."

I asked about the downhill doo-doo. He said that was possibly not the real or most important reason for not building a sewer into the area. He said the real reason was that no developer had shown up yet with a plan and with committed financing for a project that would justify sewer construction.

"The developers, by code, are responsible for financing and engineering and designing and then constructing the lines to their development," Baptista told me. "Going in, they all know that. That's part of the rules."

O'Donnell said the same, and suggested Pitre and other landowners in the area have a self-interested agenda in pushing for infrastructure ahead of firm development plans. "They would like to put the infrastructure in because, of course, their land would be much more valuable if there were utilities to it already."

Her remarks dovetailed with an explanation I had received weeks earlier from Tennell Atkins, the City Council representative for the area. "If you are sitting there with property saying, 'Bring me my water and sewer line,' that might be the wrong water line, the wrong sewer line in the wrong direction, whatever," Atkins said. "We need a plan."

All of what O'Donnell, Baptista and Atkins told me makes sense in the context of normal business operations in the city. Where it ceases to make sense, at least for me, is in the context of the city's "Grow South" initiative. Championed by Mayor Mike Rawlings, Grow South is aimed at promoting the economic development of the city's southern hemisphere. Implicit in the idea that City Hall should proactively tilt the balance in favor of southern Dallas is an assumption that City Hall has tilted the balance against southern Dallas in the past. In other words, southern Dallas now needs infrastructure to spur development, because it suffers a deficit brought about by a richly documented history of racism and the deliberate withholding of infrastructure in the past.

The past is part of what worries Pitre. He is a guy who grew up in the projects, kept himself out of trouble, started his own business and slowly began acquiring land decades ago. Now he sees Grow South as a conspiracy threatening everything he has saved and waited for all his life. He thinks City Hall is working to disincentivize development by withholding infrastructure again as it has before. But now instead of merely expressing racism, he thinks the purpose behind withholding sewer and other basic urban infrastructure from his area is to hold down land values until some insider or group of insiders can acquire his land cheaply and be in position to benefit when the pipes finally show up.

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10 comments
SocraticGadfly
SocraticGadfly

 Maybe South Dallas could be asked to be annexed by Lancaster. And, where the hell is Royce West? I guess after his UNT-Dallas baby was born, he didn't give a further fuck? Maybe he's trying to help JWP beat down the Allen Group so Perot will develop this area?

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

No money for you folks until we can be reasonably sure that a Pier 1 Imports and Starbuck's are part of the development plan. 

WhiteWhale
WhiteWhale

You only own that until someone politically connected wants that. 

gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers

Honestly.  Do you guys live on crumpets over there? 

I'm not in a state of absolute or total resistance to the "Debbie Does Dallas" disaster we call real estate development in the city, but I am also inured to the "we can cheat the rubes blind because life and freedom and even justice are all about money" routine, and as long as the "gits" have the "gots" they can be snots and will not be stopped.  


Hell, Jesus Christ himself could land on top of their luxury cars and those who suffer from "Dallas Developmentalista Disease" would out-and-out call the Son of God "a pigeon" to his face. 

Dallas: All face.  Inside, there's nothing but space. 

I mean, OK, OK, rah, rah, rah, I am not against boosting retail establishments and luxury condominiums, but it seems to me that one would actually like to believe that 20 long years and three presidential administrations filled with calls from the federal government to developers that the United States needs more affordable housing for the poor would have managed to sink into those one-and-a-half-inch thick skulls.  But the Big Face says, "We are only rattling our lips when we cry to privatize--because the real agenda is to jack the entire government until the government is weak enough to be run over by whatever" those blintz-brains seem to think is "upcoming". 

After all, under normal circumstances, when people with honest-to-God common sense know danged well that "ideology" and "the issues" aren't where it's at, when the federal government asks for the ever-so-private sector to go ahead and step up to the plate if you wanna privatize, that the ever-so-private sector would actually go ahead and step up to the plate and take on the burdens they so conveniently criticize.  It's like a forced cold front.  If it's not moving in the "right" direction, force it until it is either exhausted or decides to move out of the way.  Texas.  Weather.  Alert: no precipitation today.  Nothing but sunny little sunshine forever world without end amen. 

And, like, wow!  This namby-pamby NIMBY fake fracas over "sewers" has a few metaphorical permutations that obviously are way too complicated for those in Texas who have been conditioned since infancy to take words at face value and never think that often quicker thinkers and opera stars often mean something quite different than "sewers" when they talk about them "running downhill". 

Frank Zappa once quipped in his own sing-song act: "The poodle bites; the poodle chooses".  There's nothing quite like getting bitten hard by the French Poodles of Dallas and its little self-divided hollow spot smack in the middle of the North side.  Even when these moving Halloween masks tend to look like stuffed hamsters while thinking to themselves they look like John Holmes, the Dirk Diggler of the 1950s, even when it's obvious their El Salvadoran girlfriends are taller even when they have their cabbie hats on, they're just all about "beautiful situations", aren't they? 

Here come's Haley's Comet.  That makes me wanna vomit. 

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

Mr Pitre should sell his land to Yigal Lelah.

120 acres @ $13/ft = $67,953,600.00


dave895
dave895

Seems like I've heard this story somewhere, sometime before. Same old story that you've told many times in your blogs and columns, Jim. Bidness as usual, steeped in white privilege and manipulation. 


Thanks for keeping us posted.

Catbird
Catbird

A few years ago, a Black man named Royce West used his influence with the State Legislature to fund a UNT branch campus in his Senate district. This was good. Something new and useful in South Dallas. Education could be obtained by the little children without having to leave home. Property values would rise, more new development would follow. Everyone was happy. 


Not long after that someone's computer was used to construct an Excel spread sheet with many line items that would be needed to build a new development and among those items was the assumed cost of Mr. Pitre's 120 acres. This list is called the developer's "Pro Forma" and it is the financial bible for any proposed speculative development. 


"Speculative" is the key word. The real estate entrepreneur will do everything he can to reduce the risks but in the end, its a crap shoot...and it is nearly every time.


At some point in the future, the developer will approach the mayor of Dallas or other municipal and county officials about their fronting the costs of the municipal infrastructure for a certain project. This will be done with the knowledge that the project itself will repay the city through an increased tax base over time.


Smart people will produce their calculators, input many numbers into complex formulas and if the math works, there will be additional talks.  


The officials will be interested because they understand that the taxes generated by the new development are permanent and after the original debt for the infrastructure is retired the project will become a perpetual source of debt free income for the city and county. In other words; the project will pump tax money into the city coffers until Jesus comes back.


At the core of the negotiation will be the idea of the city purchasing itself a perpetual money making machine for the cost of the infrastructure. That will be the idea in the minds of the elected officials when they vote "yes" to fund the project. Who wouldn't vote for something like that? 


Mr. Pitre must understand this fundamental motive and move his investment to the proper side of the equation in he wants anything more than fair market value for his undeveloped property. 


The color of skin on the man's face really has nothing at all to do with what is happening outside his sphere of influence...if he holds onto this belief and does nothing to improve his development posture then he will undoubtedly lose out on the opportunity he has helped to create and I, for one, would hate to see that happen.        

Small_time_Developer
Small_time_Developer

Simple solution which is standard policy all over the city: If you want the city to put in infrastructure (such as sanitary sewer, curb-and-gutter street improvements, storm water drainage, etc.) that benefits several or many property owners in the area (including yourself), put together a design proposal/request and take it to the city councilman for that area, and those requesting it should be prepared to PAY FOR IT. Everyone knows and understands those improvements cost money, and that they confer a significant increase in property values (sewer service certainly does, other 'improvements' may have marginal value to many folks). If the expected increase in value is greater than the cost, then it is an "investment" in your own property, which is usually a good and wise decision.  When a developer is putting them in as part of a new commercial/residential development, they calculate the cost  vs. the value as part of the overall development; if the project can be redesigned such that the sewer line can be shortened/redirected to save costs, then, of course, they do that because the cost/benefit analysis is in their favor.


Along those lines, in my experience, if a neighborhood proposes an 'improvement' which the city didn't believe is necessary (such as redirecting storm water/adding drains/curb inlets), but enough property owners voted in favor of it, the city will proceed to do the work, bill the property owners their proportional share, and assess a lien against the property of those who don't pay their share. That way, the the landowner can't sell the property at the new increased value (due to the improvements) without paying their share - it avoids the free rider problem, in the long run - if you don't sell for 20 years, then you probably get a really good deal; but then again, you weren't profiteering off the backs of other owners who paid their share (since you didn't immediately sell out).

gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers

@Small_time_DeveloperYeah, it is kind of saddening that a citizen cannot simply call up his (or her) representative and simply ask, isn't it?  Don't we know who they are? 

Less than an hour ago, I saw a nice Latino man pushing his wheelchair-bound mother across the street, but the little ramp for wheelchairs and the disabled was so absurd, the poor man had to push, push, push, simply to get the occupied wheelchair back onto the sidewalk.  Then, apparently done with serious reason involved, a streetlight stands perched so close to the ramp that the man barely escaped one of the wheelchair's big wheels from dropping off the curb and thus spilling his mother into heavy traffic, most of the autos speeding with perfidy and blithe non-responsiveness to anything other than their own "self-interest". 

No telling how the wheelchair-bound in this part of Oak Lawn (probably an entire eight blocks from Observer HQ) manage to get down Congress without feeling like an involuntary extra in a wagon train movie. 

Yeah, lady, why don't you put together a massively-complex banker's file full of all the right reasons why the City of Dallas should actually do something than suck, suck, suck like Lamprey Eels onto the comfy ankles of the Dallas Socialite Central buyer's club?  And lady?  You should also find a gym and work-out until you can freaking walk. 

Only the poorest and most vulnerable of America can save us all from the profligate spending habits of the great nuns of conservative recklessness.  I thought I found a penny on my walk this afternoon, but it was only a crushed bottle cap.  The poor: next target for our ever-so-hidden secret Confederacy, an equal-opportunity enslaver. 

 
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