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The B.S. Plan

Can I tell you the worst part in this whole exercise the Dallas City Council and the mayor are going through about adopting a so-called "comprehensive plan" for the city? Forget what's in the plan. Whatever's in it, it's irrelevant.

In fact, that's the worst part. This deal about adopting a master plan to determine what kind of city we're going to be in the future is a bunch of totally empty, hypocritical, two-faced, blah-blah drivel. You want to know what kind of city we're going to be? Watch what they do to the Timbercreek Apartments at the next council meeting.

They're going to dump more than 1,000 mainly Latino families out on their ears so a powerful developer can make money on the dirt. In a direct 180-degree contradiction of all the oily, high-minded bleating in their so-called plan, they're going to tear up a perfectly viable, healthy low-income community.

They're going to give a big wet City Hall blessing to the developer so he can take a rolling, timbered, 44-unit tract on a gorgeous creek and bulldoze it into the Stone Age. Instead of a peaceful home for thousands of working-class people, we'll get some fat Wal-Mart-style box in there that will vacuum-hose the cash out of people's pockets for the next 10 years and then shut down and blow town.

They're going to tell you and me that this is progress. Why progress? Well, because City Hall, which can't balance its checkbook, collect the parking fines or keep track of the library books, is broke. Imagine that! And by dumping these families out on the street and churning the property, the city will be able to gin up some new revenue to feed its tax habit.

The steward of this debacle is city council member and mayoral candidate Gary Griffith, in whose district Timbercreek is located. But Griffith is not sponsoring the implosion of this community because he's a mean guy. He's not.

He honestly believes that the residents must vacate and the developer must be allowed to churn the dirt because City Hall's first duty is to serve the god of dirt-churning, whom we shall henceforward refer to as "CHURNO!" And this is where we get to the red meat.

The city council is almost certainly going to enact its new master plan into law next month. From there on out, the city council is supposed to obey the plan's lofty premises in making all future zoning decisions. The plan, which they call "ForwardDallas!" (oh, please), says: "Creating opportunities for affordable housing throughout the entire region is a necessary component of the ForwardDallas! Vision." Isn't that special?

But according to the law of CHURNO!, if some baggy-pockets real estate developer comes along and buys a piece of dirt, then he is guaranteed a profit on that dirt even if he paid too much for it. And it's City Hall's most sacred duty, according to the law of CHURNO!, to make that profit happen. How? By changing the zoning for him.

Oh, you bought some dirt that was zoned multifamily? The apartments on it were chugging along just fine until you bought them. But now you've borrowed all sorts of money, and anyway you want to double your money in a couple years, so you want the city council to change the zoning. Turn it into retail zoning. Then you can scrape the apartments, peddle the dirt to some big-box retailer if you've played your cards right and make ooh-la-la's of money. CHURNO! will be very pleased.

In all sincerity and without a sneaky bone in his body, Gary Griffith told me that this is why Timbercreek needs to be turned upside down and the babies and the mamas shook out. He said he asked Trammell Crow Company, the developer that bought the property last year, if they could keep the apartments on it or replace them with new apartments.

"They told me on several occasions that with every inquiry they made toward any type of multifamily development, it didn't work economically on that property. They said they explored that and were not able to find anybody who could put together a program to make it work economically, which means they may have paid a lot for it."

But apartments are on it now. They are small apartments--1,084 units averaging 710 square feet each--and 30 years old, built in 1976. But they're there.

"I think those apartments are rapidly becoming toward the end of probably their useful life," he said. "I mean, they're 30-plus years old. Apartments get run down, and continuing to fix them up is a larger and larger battle."

But they aren't run down yet. I toured them the other day with one of the tenants, and the place actually is quite beautiful. Say this for Trammell Crow: They seem to have spent a lot of money keeping the place up and policing the grounds since acquiring it.  

Really bad apartment complexes are all around this one, paved with needles and used condoms. This is in the so-called Vickery-Meadow area near Park Lane and Greenville Avenue. Timbercreek is toward the eastern edge of Vickery-Meadow along Skillman Avenue where it crosses Northwest Highway, about one and a quarter miles east of NorthPark mall.

Lisa Paine, a tenant who has lived at Timbercreek for 13 years, calls it "an urban forest," and I have to say, after looking around, that she's right. She showed me a bluff where you can see the clear waters of the creek winding off over white-rock shoals into a dense woodland canopy.

"Caruth Creek goes right through the middle of the complex," she said. "There are 38 species of birds. I have three different kinds of woodpeckers at my birdfeeders. There's fox in the woods. There are herons. There's a red-tailed hawk nest down by the office, several different species of ducks with their babies. It's just an absolutely beautiful area, with 50-foot trees that haven't been touched since it was built.

"They want to just demolish this whole thing. Trammell Crow has a proposal in front of the Corps of Engineers to re-route the creek parallel to Melody Lane and put up this little cheesy pedestrian park with lights and everything to act as a facade for the retail development they want to put in here."

The reason the churning of Timbercreek is so monumentally hypocritical, given the grand pronouncements of the comprehensive plan, is because Timbercreek is such an exception to the rule, a viable moderate- to low-income multifamily community, just like what the plan says it wants, surrounded by scary-bad stuff that nobody wants.

So do they go after the bad stuff? No! Of course not! The city council is going to help this developer tear up the one good community in the area because that's what the law of CHURNO! demands.

Is Trammell Crow Company the bad guy here? Not at all. They're a developer. They develop. That's how they make money. If they can get the city council to help them make some moolah, they will. They're in business.

If anything, Trammell Crow is probably behaving more honorably than a lot of developers would. They say they won't kick anybody out for a year. They met last week with Michael Gonzalez of Mi Casa, an organization that provides down-payment assistance for first-time home-buyers, to see if there may be a way Trammell Crow and Mi Casa can help Timbercreek tenants become homeowners. David Margulies, spokesman for Trammell Crow, told me the meeting went well and talks are ongoing.

Trammell Crow doesn't have to do that. I think part of the reason they're making nice is because Gonzalez lobbied the city council last week to delay the vote on their zoning. But nice is nice. Don't look a nice horse in the mouth.

Both Margulies and Griffith argue there may be some disingenuous, even sneaky, stuff going on with the tenant opposition, and if I had to bet, I'd guess they may be right. A shadowy figure is paying a high-dollar attorney to assist the tenant opponents. The guy, whose name is Paul James, inundated me with e-mails for weeks, but when I tried to call and e-mail him back, he went silent.

Margulies argues--and he's absolutely right--that you can't inject yourself into a public political debate, stir the pot for weeks, spend considerable money on it and then duck from view when the media want to check you out a little.

I tried hard for a week to reach James. Nothing worked. He doesn't intend to be reached.

The suspicion--and I share it--is that James is a cut-out for somebody bigger who doesn't want Trammell Crow to get the zoning, either because the somebody is a commercial competitor, or maybe it's someone who wants to give Gary Griffith a hot-foot in his race for mayor. Given James' sneaky behavior, anything is possible.

But all of that is absolutely irrelevant to the point I'm trying to make. So Trammell Crow wants to make money. So what? So maybe somebody else wants to keep them from making money. Or someone is playing dirty politics on Griffith. Double so what? Such is the way of the world.

My point is that this big huff-and-puff the city council is making about a comprehensive plan is one of two things: 1) nothing or 2) a subterfuge to encourage churn in the city. None of the principles or goals enunciated in the plan means squat, because when push comes to shove on zoning, the city council will always follow the law of CHURNO!  

May 10. That's when the council takes this up again. They will vote to dump the babies and the mamas out of Timbercreek and give Trammell Crow Company its big fat profit on the dirt. And by their works ye shall know them.


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