Somebody always says, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Sure. But I have a motto too. Make sure you can tell a gift horse from a damn wolf.
I'm talking about the way the city council handles zoning issues and about those idiots over at The Dallas Morning News editorial page. Last week they ran an editorial with the headline, "Dallas City Council should abandon fiefdoms."
Fiefdoms. You know what that means? It means East Dallas, Oak Lawn and North Oak Cliff—all of the urban areas where there is renewed development interest—should prostrate themselves before the same kind of down-and-dirty developers who screwed these areas 30 years ago.
In the inner city, we have long memories.
The inner core of Dallas is hot right now in real estate terms, except for the national economic recession, which we will assume is going to be temporary. The longer pattern is one of growth; people of means are moving back into the area.
It's part of a national trend. We all know that. What we can't forget is that the inner core still bears nasty scars from previous flings with development interests. Bad things happen when City Hall gets seduced by the quick-money guys. Down-and-dirty zoning produced the blight of low-rise apartment buildings that invaded stable single-family residential areas all over the inner city in the late 1960s and early '70s, first nibbling at the edges, then devouring whole neighborhoods.
On Gaston and Live Oak in East Dallas, the new stuff was fashionable and full of wage-earning singles for maybe 10 years, which is like 10 minutes in the life of a neighborhood. By the time I moved into that area in early '80s, those same places were drug-infested tenements with sewage running in open ditches.
Why did I move into an area with sewage in ditches? Hey, my kind of prices. Plus, no suburbanites. Sewage is like garlic hung over the front door to keep the suburbanites away. That and automatic weapons fire in the alleys at night.
Other forms of bad zoning wrought other forms of mischief on places such as Lemmon Avenue in Oak Lawn and what we are now calling the Cedars, a disused industrial and warehouse district southeast of the convention center. The city zoned those areas for way more intensive development than the market was ever going to produce. So the land wasted away while the people holding it waited for ships that were never going to come in.
While the landowners waited on Lemmon, they covered their land with cheap development such as car dealerships and drive-in hot dog stands—the equivalent, in development terms, of tents. In the Cedars, they just let it sit, which is like putting up a big sign saying, "Welcome to Camp Crack Head."
In both cases, the quick-money guys made out. Because they got out. The people who put up those apartments on Gaston probably got their money out in 90 days by flipping their properties to absentee investors. In the Cedars, they probably got their money out 90 minutes after it was re-zoned, by selling it to the greater fool who thought the zoning was actually worth something.
The quick-money guys were in and out faster than Bill Clinton, and then for the next 30 years the community lived with the mess they left behind.
But there is such a thing as good development. I have written about Henderson Avenue and the great re-development there by the Andres brothers ("Downtown Apostate," November 29, 2007). There is also such a thing as wrong-headed, overly recalcitrant neighborhood resistance to development, where neighborhoods dig in their heels and refuse to accept anything new. In a dicey urban environment, that's another good way to create Camp Crack Head.
Generally speaking, the inner city goes up or it goes down. In the inner city, nothing stands still.
Taken together, what all of this means is that the creation and nurturing of strong urban communities, both residential and commercial, is a very complicated and delicate balancing act. I would argue that the single most important reason why the inner city of Dallas is beginning to do so well is that the people of the inner city—smart homeowners and good developers alike—have learned a lot about how to do the balance.
But all of that balancing comes eventually to the desks of two people—the member of the plan commission who represents the district where a proposed development would take place and the city council member from that district. Those are the two people who know the skinny on any given development project that involves zoning.
In East Dallas, where homeowners such as myself have lived through the Era of Raw Sewage in order to greet the Dawn of McMansions, we have a very keen sense of who we trust and who we do not. In the 1980s we watched while the ticky-tacky suburban developers took over Dallas City Hall and tried to ram highways through our part of town because they thought it was a ghetto. Well, it was a ghetto. But it was our ghetto, by God, not theirs.
Now we turn around and see the same wolves coming back at us from the other direction. The city is in the process of re-writing its development and zoning code. There are growing indications that city staff is under pressure to blow up some of the cherished protections and barriers we have fought long and hard to erect around ourselves.
Last week I attended a briefing at City Hall in which it was plain that staff is attempting to seriously undermine the "proximity slope" protections that keep a developer from sticking a 12-story building across the street from my single-family neighborhood. They are also trying to use new zoning concepts to create new versions of the same old bad zoning that created blight before.
So where do we go with all of that, when we get stirred up? Easy. We go straight to Neal Emmons, our plan commission member, and to Angela Hunt, our city council member. They try to strike a balance between our demands in the neighborhoods and the city's need to encourage good new development. But between the two of them, they are the fulcrum.
It's that way in every city council district. That is why, except in the most extreme cases, the city council almost always honors the wishes of the council person from the district where a proposed zoning change would happen.
At the March 26 Dallas City Council briefing, Mayor Tom Leppert and North Dallas council member Ron Natinsky tried to bust the rule. They asked the council to vote down Angela Hunt on a routine zoning matter. Hunt was actually in favor of the development in question but wanted to send it back to the plan commission for tweaking.
With Leppert's backing, Natinsky moved that the council refuse to send it back. He and Leppert were defeated in a 10-5 vote, and the issue went back to the plan commission.
To us in East Dallas, the move by Leppert and Natinsky looked like an attempt to write a new everybody-but-Angela rule. And why would we would be paranoid about that? Because over the years the bad development interests, the rip-and-run boys, the in-and-outers, have tried to blow out every strong representative East Dallas has ever sent to council, from Hunt to Veletta Lill all the way back to Lee Simpson in the early 1980s.
They always think the same thing. Get rid of that East Dallas council representative, and the walls will come tumbling down. Then they think they can have their way with East Dallas, whether it's ramming highways through to get people out or tossing up cheap multi-family housing to get people back in.
On April 1, the Morning News editorial page castigated the council for not going along with Natinsky and painted the council members who had voted against him and with Hunt as crumby little ward-heelers: "Unfortunately, the independent-minded still appear to be in the minority on the council," the editorial sniffed. "Too many city leaders are loath to rock the boat on issues in other districts, lest their colleagues interfere with their own pet projects."
The most important point here is that zoning questions in the inner city are not the pet projects of council members. They are my pet projects. My neighbor's pet projects. We watch this stuff like hawks, all of us, and you better believe we let Emmons and Hunt know if we don't like what we see.
I talked about this last week with Michael Jung, an attorney at Strasburger & Price who represents both homeowner groups and developers on zoning questions. "Angela Hunt to a degree is, believe it or not, more business-friendly than some of the homeowner wing of her constituents," Jung said. "And she agonizes over that."
He agreed with me that getting rid of Hunt, stuffing her somehow, isolating her on the council, is not going to calm anybody down or make things easier for any developers.
"Angela is not whipping otherwise calm East Dallasites into a frenzy," he said.
Believe it. We bring the frenzy.
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Nothing drives people in my part of town crazier than the assertion that we should be grateful for any new development we can get. That's the "gift horse in the mouth" argument.
We know too well, based on too long an experience, that the creature bearing gifts is not always a horse. Sometimes it's a wolf. We know exactly what that coded language on the Morning News editorial page means when they say, "...we'd be better served by leaders who favor a citywide vision rather than parochial protocol."
It means people who don't get our part of town at all will ram cheap development down our throats, undo decades of hard-fought progress, scoop up quick profits and then run for the border.
The hell, we say.