This Old House

City council member Veletta Lill says she would like to take the council out of Landmark Commission appeals.
Mark Graham

David Dean says he was fighting for justice, equity, and due process--that and the right to build a new closet wherever he damned pleased.

The Swiss Avenue Historic District homeowner ended up proving that with friends in high places, a good lawyer, a public relations pro, and a willingness to rough up the opposition, you can do more than beat Dallas City Hall. You can wax it like a fine wood floor.

Over objections from historic preservationists, Dallas City Council voted 9-4 on September 27 to overturn a decision by the city's Landmark Commission and let Dean build a front-facing addition to his 5,548-square-foot Georgian Revival home. Nobody contested that the garage-size closet wing was tastefully designed, but opponents, including Mayor Ron Kirk, argued it set back efforts to keep the early 20th-century boulevard a historically preserved street.

In the weeks since, preservationists have been assessing the loss and wondering what to do next. Several council members, including Veletta Lill and Laura Miller, want to take the city council out of the loop altogether. They would like to see people like Dean take their historic-district remodeling problems directly to court after the Landmark Commission turns them down. At the very least, they want to clarify loose council procedures that preservationists say were exploited by Dean.

But first, a recap of Dean's closet crusade and the unreported lengths to which he went to green-tag his plans.

Normally, home improvement matters aren't high on the agenda on Capitol Hill, but for Dean, a NAFTA lobbyist and former Texas secretary of state, U.S. Reps. Martin Frost, Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Ralph Hall were happy to weigh in on their remodeling plans.

"By golly, a man's house is still his castle, and a lady should have a place to hang her clothes, even in a historic district," Hall wrote the mayor, noting what a good friend he is of Dean and Dean's wife, Jean. "You know, we have lost a lot of our rights and freedoms over the years, but we ought to draw the line in the sand on this one...Let's give the lady her closet."

One would think that Frost, as Democratic Caucus chairman, would be a little tied up this fall leading his party's efforts to gain control of the House. Instead, he was busy reviewing plans for the Deans' house, whose storage problems became worthy of his time and concern. "They have patterned their addition after the sleeping porch on the back of the house, which is one of the most magnificent features," Frost wrote, noting that he viewed the couple's plans personally. "This will bring that wonderful feature into view for many to see who have been unable to do so since the house was originally built in 1916."

Johnson, taking her cues straight from Dean's legally worded appeal to the council, suggested that the couple's property rights had been "abridged by subjective and inconsistent interpretation" of city code. She too said she reviewed the Deans' architectural drawings and concluded the addition would "actually improve the appearance and balance of the home."

While the congressional delegation weighed in with their aesthetic expertise, Dean hired public relations consultant Lisa LeMaster to handle the press. After touring the Dean digs, media were soon reporting the couple's laments that they were being forced to live in "a museum" with too little closet space for their winter knits. (In fact, the Landmark Commission does not concern itself with interior renovations and showed considerable flexibility by approving changes to the rear of the house, as well as plans to relocate the driveway and build a fence.)

"I haven't seen this kind of campaign waged on $50 million projects," says Lill, who with Kirk, Miller, and John Loza voted against the Deans. "I don't think they should have had a PR firm involved."

LeMaster conceded her work directing media coverage was aimed at influencing the council. "It was the only way to speak to them," she says.

Although LeMaster says she had nothing to do with it, the media eventually picked up on some of the tough, personal attacks being leveled around the neighborhood by Dean and some of his friends against Virginia McAlester, a Landmark Commission member whose efforts to preserve Swiss Avenue go back to the district's founding in 1973.

In letters sent to the council, McAlester became the lightning rod for Dean's Swiss Avenue supporters, some of whom said they too were chapped by historic district rulings that ran counter to their remodeling plans.

Art Rousseau, whom the Landmark Commission stopped from building a guest house with aluminum windows and composite siding two years ago, complained in a letter to the mayor that McAlester "seems to look on this street as her personal laboratory and feels that the citizens of the street owe countenance to her."

In a KTVT-Channel 11 story that aired the evening after the vote, he took things a step further. Rousseau said that McAlester had solicited a campaign contribution for city council candidate Pete Vaca while McAlester's application was pending before the panel. "You don't want to say no," he said in the report. "You make sure that person doesn't get mad at you."

McAlester, who is one of 17 members on the commission, denies that she did anything wrong in the case, and the only written evidence of the matter suggests she is correct. The landmark panel approved Rousseau's project, minus the siding and metal windows, on November 12, 1998, documents show. The date is important, because Vaca wasn't even a candidate until three months later, in mid-February 1999. The following month, on March 18, McAlester was one of 23 people to sign a fund-raising letter for Vaca. Campaign finance reports show Rousseau ponied up $100 for the candidate on May 2. If McAlester put the squeeze on Rousseau in some other way in early November, he sure took his time writing the check.

The Channel 11 report also quoted Dean saying McAlester hit him up for legal fees for a neighborhood project while the closet matter was pending. McAlester, who says she paid $5,000 of her own money to hire the lawyer, says Dean volunteered to help kick in on the final legal bill--and nobody did anything after that. He was neither solicited nor did he pay a dime, says McAlester, who showed evidence that the final bill arrived only last week. "He twisted it all around," she says.

Linda Levy, KTVT news director, says the story was "essentially a he-said, she-said" piece, but that the station is standing by its report.

Dean did not return the Dallas Observer's phone calls. Rousseau says that even though the commission had voted to approve his project in November, there still were issues pending that spring, which meant he had not received final commission approval of his plans.

Preservationists say Dean relied on new and improved facts at the council too, but the city process was so confused, it's impossible to say whether he broke any rules.

The council was to have been acting in a "quasi-judicial" capacity, judging only the appropriateness of the Landmark Commission's decision to turn Dean down. But Rita Cox, the board chairwoman of Preservation Dallas, and others say the Deans presented significant new evidence, including some suspect drawings and new engineering and architectural reports. Cox says the Deans' attorney "was allowed to do or say whatever he wanted," while the city attorney representing the Landmark Commission was forced to play by stricter rules.

For instance, the Deans presented the council a new architectural rendering that significantly changed the height of one of the house's wings, bolstering their argument that their new addition didn't change the balance of the structure, which was an issue of considerable debate. Cox and other preservationists say the new drawing clearly was inaccurate. Indeed, it doesn't seem to match a photo of the house. LeMaster insists the new drawing was correct.

"The process was a total embarrassment, from my point of view," says Miller. "Madeleine (Johnson, the city attorney) came up with rules and they were enforced only in part. These things weren't written down, so you can hardly blame the Deans."

The closet matter set significant precedents that will make it difficult for the city to turn down similar requests in the future, Miller says. Eight other council members joined her during the past week in calling for a review of how the council will proceed in future appeals of Landmark Commission rulings. A hearing is set for November 15.

Beyond that, Miller and Lill say they would like to take the council out of such appeals altogether--an idea that property-rights supporters such as council member Alan Walne say they would oppose.

Lastly, Miller and Lill say they support putting clearer language in the code forbidding homeowners on Swiss or other historic districts from making changes that can be seen from the front of a house. "You can't possibly foresee what people will want to do," Miller says. "The next guy is gonna want a horse head on the front door."

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