Five months ago I told you about David Jensen, a semi-retired art-handler and antiques collector who lives in a warehouse in West Dallas. He’s right in the path of major real estate developments that are changing that realm from a disused industrial wasteland to an urban oasis. He moved there a decade ago to be left the hell alone.
Jensen told me last week that his worst fears have come true. He’s screwed. After jerking him around for months, promising him all kinds of “transparency” (man, I’m starting to hate that word), the city called him last week and told him they are going to put a street through his home.
“They informed me that Public Works had decided to run the right-of-way through my building, and that was it. Beyond that, it’s not clear to me what was said because I was upset.”
No, look, you have to put yourself where he is. He loves his home. He’s single. He’s an older guy. He’s got crippled dogs that wandered up out of the post-apocalyptic wreckage and adopted him. His warehouse is stacked to the rafters with Mission furniture. He has more than one cool Harley. He was happy. He wanted to stay where the hell he was and be left the hell alone.
Taking somebody’s home – anybody’s home – is serious. And what gets me about this deal is that the city’s argument for doing it is so clearly fraudulent. They didn’t have to widen the street through his home. If it had to be widened to accommodate the huge new apartment complex going in across the street from him, they could have widened it the other way and shaved a couple apartments off the end of the complex.
Oh, yeah, sure. The company developing the apartment complex is owned by two famous former Dallas Cowboys players, Roger Staubach and Robert Shaw. So here is our fair and just City Hall sitting there like the Buddha, weighing the two Cowboys on one palm and the dude with the Harleys on the other. Up, down. Gee, who’s gonna win?
Had it gone the other way, had City Hall told the Cowboys to take a hike and awarded the favor of the day instead to Jensen, church bells would have rung all over the city. World War II gigantic typeface headlines on Page One of the daily newspaper would have proclaimed: “DALLAS CITY HALL OPTS NOT TO SCREW LITTLE GUY. Dismayed former athletes hurl selves into river.”
But it’s more than just a thumbs-up thumbs-down by City Hall. This things stinks way worse than that. Had this been a simple matter of conflicting private interests, the city would have had no right, no business, no justification at all for intervening with a threat of eminent domain, helping one side and not the other by effectively telling Jensen he has to sell whether he likes it or not.
Government can only use eminent domain for a public purpose, like a highway or something. True, politicians have tried to play with the definition of “public purpose.” Last time Rick Perry ran for president we told you here how he got himself in trouble with Texas voters over eminent domain. Since then state eminent domain law has been tightened to protect against overly creative uses.
But in David Jensen’s case, the city has covered its ass by claiming the street widening can only go his way and take out his property because they need to straighten out an intersection two blocks away from him. It’s transparent bullshit. So-called straightening the intersection is the worst thing the city could do for a nearby residential district because it will turn a narrow street into a high-traffic short-cut for the apartment traffic.
Nobody asked City Hall to “straighten out” the intersection. It does no one any good. It does a lot of harm. But, look, we don’t have to get all into a bunch of street intersection straightening details here. Just think of Buddha. Dallas Cowboys in one hand. Mission furniture guy in other. Up, down. Down, up. Yeah, which way did we think Buddha was going to decide? You know what? This whole metaphor is a libel against the real Buddha. I should call this one Buttya, God of City Hall.
And let me make another distinction that may seem awfully arcane and insiderish to you. I really don’t blame the bureaucrats for this. I’ve got a way better villain for you.
I reported to you five months ago that the City Hall bureaucrats who met with Jensen originally told him his property would not be taken. They said anyway he would have all kinds of opportunity to weigh in and make his views known before any decision would be made. Transpaaarency!
He told me the other day at lunch that none of that turned out to be true. He said after he got home from the recent meeting in which they told him they were taking his home, he knew something big and hard had hit him in the gut but he wasn’t sure what.
“The next day I emailed them a series of question and didn’t get any answers back. So I re-emailed it and said, ‘Nobody wants to tackle these?’”
Public Works confirmed to me that they had met with Jensen and exchanged emails and that his version of what was said was accurate.
“I got answers to the questions, but they were very short and very rude, or at least I construed them that way.”
Jensen had asked: “Can you explain to me where the public forum exists for the public vetting of this current decision other than the city council meeting for approval in August of 2015?”
Public Works Director Rick Galceran wrote back: “The city has no plans for an additional public forum other than the city council meeting.”
In other words, Public Works made the decision to recommend taking Jensen’s property. The council will vote on it in August when it gets back from summer vacation. And that’s it.
Hmm. So on the question of transparency and process and Jensen getting a chance to air his views, we will take that as a “Screw you very much.”
He asked: “When was [the decision] finally made and can you explain to me who was responsible for the final decision? And what processes were involved? Is there a committee who votes on this decision or is the decision made by one person or who is on the committee and who is the person who has the power to take someone’s property?”
I mean, c’mon. They’re taking the guy’s home. He wants to know who did it. How did it happen? You’re in your house one day with your bikes and your stuff and your gimp-legged one-eyed dog sleeping out front on the street, everything just exactly the way you wanted it, the way you worked to make it, and then somebody walks up, slams you in the gut and says, “Get out.” How can that happen?
Galceran wrote back: “City engineering staff made the final recommendation based on the need to align Herbert Street.”
And, of course, as director Public Works, he is “city engineering staff.” That’s like, “You want to know who took your house? You’re looking at him, Pops. What are you going to do about it?”
So why isn’t that guy the villain? OK, here is where I probably get into too much interpretation and speculation, but I have been interpreting and speculating about these dudes for a long time.
They never talk like that when it is up to them. In my experience when city officials have their own free rein and are able to do things by the book, they’re decent and polite about it, so decent you almost wonder if they’re trying to make up for something.
They only talk like that when the fix is in. They only take the screw-you tone when they can’t afford to tell you what’s really happening. That tone means, “Sorry, pal, but I got a family to support and a pension to keep, and I’m not telling you jack.”
Under our single-member district City Council system in Dallas, any decision like this to physically change a street and significantly alter traffic flow through a neighborhood of voters is totally up to the council member for that district. In this case we are talking about District 6 council member Monica Alonzo.
By allowing this change to be made in a street in her district, Alonzo is completely screwing her own constituents in the poor Mexican neighborhood about to be turned into an Indy 500 cut-through for the apartment traffic. She is doing a great big major solid for the rich Cowboys. And she will not talk about it.
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I have tried multiple times over a period of months to reach her. Jensen got one quick meeting where she said, “I’ll look into it,” and then an icy cold shoulder from her after that.
This isn’t the Public Works dudes. She has cut her deal. I don’t know what it is. I don’t see the Cowboys or any of the other major real estate interests in the deal showing up in her campaign contribution reports.
But I do know this. The taking of Jensen’s property to help the Cowboys is a Monica Alonzo deal. Clearly it’s one she’s not too proud of, or she’d talk about it. And you and I know Jensen is not a defenseless virgin. I’m sure he will cut the very best deal he can for himself on the eminent domain, and I hope he makes out like a bandit. I’m sure one reason he wants to stir the pot is to put some upward pressure on the price.
I’m just saying they are taking his house. He didn’t want to sell. They are lying. That sucks.