Nobody Can Get Southern Dallas' Act Together Except Southern Dallas

Land owner Robert Pitre hopes some day the city will install sewer mains near his property in City Council member Tennell Atkins' district so the land can be developed.
Land owner Robert Pitre hopes some day the city will install sewer mains near his property in City Council member Tennell Atkins' district so the land can be developed.
Dylan Hollingsworth

Two stories flew across my path yesterday like wobbly arrows tipped with suction cups. One was about the mayor's campaign to stoke economic fires in poverty-blighted southern Dallas with a team of privately paid cheerleaders. The other was about City Hall putting a belated bullet in the head of the long-dead Patriot's Crossing development (please, save the bullet, just give us clothespins for our noses).

Patriot's Crossing was a heavily subsidized housing, retail and office development right next to Dallas VA Medical Center, because in so many other parts of the country we see veterans who can afford their own homes flocking to live, shop and work next door to large VA Hospitals. Why not next to the cemetery?

A story in The Dallas Morning News yesterday made it sound as if the city is finally foreclosing on this six-year-old money-suck in order to somehow make itself whole.

"The foreclosure process will allow the city to either recoup its investment or take control of the property itself," the News told readers. The story quoted Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez as saying, "We're going to get either money or land."

But, no. No. The city is never going to get back the millions it gave away on this total loser. That money is gone, down a rat-hole, never coming back. I told you a year and a half ago about documents I had to pry out of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) showing that the developer, to whom City Hall had handed $4.4 million for land acquisition, was turning in appraisals for the land that seemed to have no relation with reality.

See also: HUD Loan Docs Raise Questions About City Staff's Report on $3.9 Million Loan for Patriots Crossing Development

In one case he showed the city an appraisal saying a property he bought was worth $248,400. But a HUD loan document for the same property showed it was worth $36,000. People listed as consultants by the developer received six-figure payments -- out of the city's money -- for unspecified services.

In the end, the city wound up paying $4.4 million for land that was worth maybe half a million. That's our money, by the way, so in counting what we've got in the deal so far I would say we would be justified in adding about $700,000 in interest over five years at 3 percent. That means the day the city sells that land at market value, we will lose about $4.6 million plus costs.

So what does that have to do with the mayor's Grow South suction-cup arrow? It has this to do with it: The Patriot's Crossing disaster (I think $4.6 million qualifies as a disaster) happened because the City Council member for that district, Vonciel Hill, insisted that it happen.

When other council members at a briefing on the project worried that all of the appraisals seemed absurdly high -- including Dwaine Caraway who knows the area well -- Hill shot back that their questions were racist. I'm not going to go into that here, because life is short and I want to get on to another point.

But the point here is that Patriot's Crossing happened only because the duly elected representative of that district browbeat city staff and her fellow council members into making it happen.

The other arrow, the mayor's new idea for spurring economic vibrancy in southern Dallas, is the creation of a team of privately compensated consultants to be called "general managers," each with responsibility for promoting growth in a given region of the city's southern hemisphere. One of those regions is the area around the new University of North Texas campus in southeast Dallas.

A year ago I told you the strange story of economic stagnation near this beautiful new campus. In 2005 when the campus was being developed and nearby Houston School Road was rebuilt as a modern thoroughfare, UNT officials made what seemed like an eminently sensible suggestion to the city. One of the biggest bars to development in that area is the total absence, believe it or not, of a sanitary sewer system.

See also: So Is "Grow South" About Helping the People or Just the Real Estate?

Yes. True. When this was just a poor to middle-class black neighborhood with no new university at its core, the city never deigned to build a sewer system. Houses and even commercial buildings were then and are still today on septic tanks, like doublewides in the wilds of East Texas.

In 2005, Houston School Road was torn up anyway. Before entombing the ground again in millions of dollars in new concrete, why not run a sanitary sewer line down that road to the area around UNT? With sewers in the ground, land near the magnet of the university would be ripe for apartments, houses and new commercial development.

The City Council listened and passed roughly $5 million in bond money for sewers. But those sewers, even though they were funded, were never built. The soil was closed and Houston School Road expensively rebuilt without sewers beneath it, because Atkins did not want sewers beneath Houston School Road.

Atkins and I have discussed it at length. His position was that he wanted to know the names of the developers and see their plans before committing the city to a sewer system for his own constituents.

Landowners in the area complained bitterly to me that they could not attract serious developers to their property without at least a commitment and a date for the sewer system. Now the only way a sewer system can be brought into the area is for Houston School Road or some other completed infrastructure to be torn up to make way for it.

I'm not going to go back into that argument, just as I am not going to rehash Hill's theory of racism and property appraisals. The larger point for me is that the loss of $4.6 million at Patriot's Crossing was not random. The city's failure to put sewers under Houston School Road was not an accident. These things happened by intention and design as the express will of the elected representatives of those districts.

City Council members have enormous power within their own districts. They can cause city staff members to sign checks for millions and millions of dollars even when those staff members are staring at documents that tell them the money is being thrown away. They can cause city staff members to make major infrastructure decisions that the staff members know will perpetuate blight and economic deprivation for decades.

I'm not saying that the mayor's new system of privately paid coordinators cannot do any good. But I do want to point out that these will be unelected virtual nobodies at City Hall, people to whom no one will have to listen, with only their powers of personal persuasion to put up against the iron fists of the duly elected council members for those districts.

The conditions on the ground today in southern Dallas are at least in some significant degree the work of elected leaders expressing their will through the available mechanism of democracy. Yes, white people downtown made the decision back in the day not to use the same basic infrastructure investments in the south to spur development that they did use in the white north.

But that was that day. This is a new day. And it's going to take a hell of a lot more than a team of cheerleaders from City Hall to make this new day better. It will take southern Dallas voters putting people in office who have the vision and the will to make things better. The ability to do that will have to come from inside the community. It's not going to arrive in a basket.


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