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

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.
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.
Dylan Hollingsworth

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.

 

And before you write him off as paranoid, at least recognize that there are underpinnings to support his theory. The first is history. The Reverend Marion Barnett last week recounted for me the history of an old black community called Upper White Rock that once stood near the present-day intersection of Interstate 635 and Preston Road before the freeway was built.

"People had outdoor toilets in the 1960s," he said. Only after the black owners had been condemned and bought out at rock-bottom prices were plans announced for major new infrastructure in the area. As soon as the plans were made public, Barnett said, land value skyrocketed, but it was too late for any of the black former owners to benefit.

Barnett said he sees the same thing looming in Grow South. "That's why I wonder if it should be called 'Grow South' or 'Rape South.'"

The second underpinning for Pitre's conspiracy theory is what he says he has been told by Atkins, his council member. Two years ago at Pitre's invitation, Atkins spoke to a group of black landholders at Pitre's ranch. Pitre says Atkins told them, "'If we gave you all basic infrastructure, then you are going to want too much money for your land when the developers come.'"

I spoke with Greg Barber, another landholder who was present when Atkins spoke, and he confirmed hearing the same statement. I spoke with Atkins, who told me he did not make that statement. He said he was asked about zoning, not infrastructure.

Atkins said he warned the 10 landholders at the meeting that a shift in their zoning to a more valuable form of zoning might cause their property tax bills to rise. "A majority of them did not want that," he said.

Pitre does not deny that he and other owners will benefit financially if the city installs a sewer main anywhere near their land. He says he does not want or expect the city to connect his land to sewer. He only wants to be as close to a sewer main as most landholders in the city are and have been for a half century or more.

"For any resident in the city who owns land, having a sewer line to tap into would be beneficial. Any white man, any black man, anybody should want that."

Barber told me that he thinks infrastructure should be installed to spur development, not follow it, and otherwise he said he does not even understand the basic concept of Grow South as it has unfolded so far. Referring to land in the southern sector that the city recently gifted to North Dallas entities for a golf course and equestrian park, he said, "Putting something for someone else in your neighborhood and around you, and you don't have access to it or benefit from it, I don't see how that's beneficial to the neighborhood."

Atkins told me the landholders near UNT are wrong if they believe he does not want them to be in on any eventual development of their land. But he says he can't ask fellow council members to commit resources to the area unless and until a credible development deal is on the table.

For that to happen and for the landholders to be in on it, Atkins suggests, the owners will need to partner with developers who can bring them the financial resources they need. At that point Atkins says he will do whatever he can to make the deal happen. "Bring me a deal," he said. "I have been saying that until I am dry in the mouth."

I do get what the city staff is telling me. They think that under normal circumstances if they built a big sewer main into an area where there is no major ongoing development, I might be the first to jump on them with a bridge-to-nowhere story. They're right. I might.

But these are not normal circumstances. Mayor Rawlings' Grow South initiative changes all that. The mayor has challenged the city to pursue a new high-minded goal of true social justice, expressed eloquently in his speech to the 50th JFK assassination memorial:

 

"I'd hope that President Kennedy would be pleased," he said on that day, "with our humble efforts toward fulfilling our country's highest calling: that of providing the opportunity for all citizens to exercise those inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The city of Dallas must continue on that course."

Seems like a sewer would be a great start.


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