Across the Calatrava, David Jensen Learns Just How Dirty a Fight with Dallas City Hall Can Get

The city calls its plan for street improvements in West Dallas "The Three-Hole Punch." But for David Jensen, who owns a warehouse on those streets, it's a sucker punch.

Three years ago Jensen, a 62-year-old Harley-riding semi-retired fine-art handler, started seeing plans for a major rebuilding of the streets all around his small warehouse at Herbert and Bedford streets, four blocks west of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. He lives in the 52-year-old structure and had planned on spending his golden years there. The new street maps caught his eye.

"Ever since I started seeing these plans," he says, "I have been asking people to keep me in the loop."

Nobody kept him in the loop. There was no loop. Even though the public process prescribed by law for the closing and realignment of streets has never been launched, Jensen already has a bureaucratic knife in his back -- a shiv with no prints.

That's how City Hall rolls.

This is a deal that only looks complicated because somebody wants it to look complicated. It's not. It's a simple squeeze-play.

The city says it wants to widen Herbert Street, which runs along the side of Jensen's building. They also want to move it about 20 feet west, closer to Jensen. Wider plus closer means Jensen is toast. That guts his building from stem to stern.

Even though none of the necessary legal authorization for the street widening has been granted by the City Council, construction will begin soon on a project that will seal Jensen's doom. It's already a done deal. Jensen just wasn't in on it. In fact he was kept out of it. Now he's taking punches with his hands tied behind his back.

The major developer across the street from him is West Dallas Investments (Phil Romano, Butch McGregor, Stuart Fitts), a favorite of City Hall because they are bringing a hundred million dollars in high-style, mixed-use investment to a disused industrial desert at the foot of the new Calatrava show-bridge. Why wouldn't City Hall like them?

West Dallas Investments has brought in Columbus Realty Partners (Dallas Cowboys greats Roger Staubach and Robert Shaw). So ask yourself: All the biggest names in town and $100 million versus a 62-year-old guy with a Harley. Who would you bet on to win?

But think about this. Property is supposed to be property. Ownership is ownership. The city can take your property, but there's a way they're supposed to do it under the law. This isn't that way. And really? A retired guy with a motorcycle and a building full of arts and crafts antiques? They couldn't have afforded to play it straight with him?

Here is how the knife goes into Jensen's back without any prints: In the next month or so, Columbus Realty will break ground on a $60 million first phase of a major, game-changing mixed-use development, a kind of instant West Village. I used to write about how nothing would ever happen in this area, bridge or no bridge. These plans make those statements stupid. Everything is happening here.

Jim Reynolds, the development partner with West Dallas Investments, told me last week their plans call for them to rebuild Herbert Street "a few feet further west than the existing right of way." That means the street moves toward Jensen.

But that's all they do. Columbus Realty won't widen the street. They'll leave it at its current two-lane width, but they will harden the eastern border of it a few feet closer to Jensen, even though as of yet that new boundary has not been approved by the City Council.

I asked Reynolds what would happen if the council didn't approve the new line to which Columbus will build its project. He agreed that would be a nightmare. "We have a brand-new 60 million dollar project that would have to be taken down," he said.

So, get it? Whether the new boundary has been authorized by law or not, once Columbus builds to that line, it's set in stone. The city is not going to tell Roger Staubach and Robert Shaw to tear anything down.

The city, meanwhile, has been saying publicly for some time that eventually it will widen Herbert Street. Initially that wasn't necessarily a threat to Jensen, because they could have widened it in the other direction, across the street and away from him, eastward on what's just vacant land anyway. His property wouldn't have been touched.

But if the eastern boundary is set by the Columbus Realty project, then the widening has to come west, Jensen's way, and take out his building.

If all of this is set in stone anyway, if everybody knows already how the story ends, then why hasn't city staff just gone ahead, taken the new boundary to the council and gotten a vote on it? Here's one possible answer. Jensen hasn't sold his property yet.

Once that eastern border of the street is set, anybody looking at his property to buy will know that eventually half of it, including his building, is going to be taken for a street. As it is now, nobody has mentioned eminent domain, because the new street alignment isn't even authorized yet. Technically, no one has touched Jensen with a feather.

But here's the squeeze: The minute that new curb goes in on the eastern boundary of the street, he's locked-in to sell eventually, and he will be taking a haircut on the price.

That's some slick stuff.

Jensen starts his own story with three points to make. He doesn't want to sell. But if they're going to make him sell, he wants them to say it, to show their hand. And then he wants to be able to fight for the best price.

He's crazy about arts and crafts furniture. His collection is huge. In 2002 he saw this small warehouse in the middle of an area that looked like one big junkyard and decided it was for him.

"I had heard the [Calatrava] bridge was coming, so maybe it was a good investment, too" he says.

But mainly he meant to stay. He built a small studio apartment in it and paid off his $70,000 note in five years.

"I have semi-retired from my art-handling business," he says, "and planned on finishing the build-out of my building to live here, make artwork again, and maybe dabble in antiques, or open a full-on antique store here."

Seemed like a good plan: "With the uptick in apartments in the area, plus its proximity to Oak Cliff with its Craftsman architecture, seems like the client base for antiques might support a business here," he says.

Then three years ago Jensen caught wind of something called the "Three-Hole Punch," a plan to widen and extend three streets including the one he's on. The plan calls for the city to use $34 million in bond money to widen and lengthen three streets that go through the planned Columbus Realty development, punching under railroad tracks in three tunnels to connect Singleton Boulevard with West Commerce Street.

And voila! Instead of being tucked away in a bit of a no man's land on Singleton, the Columbus Realty Project suddenly will be hooked up to two major thoroughfares at its northern and southern borders -- way easier to get into and out of. But the question on Herbert Street was which way it was to be widened, east or west.

Jensen got on it. First he says he asked planners at City Hall what he should expect. He says they told him not to fret. He says they told him, "If the city is going to take land for a street, they will opt for vacant land before they take land with buildings on it because of the expense."

No problem then. He and another owner had buildings. The land on the other side was vacant. But, of course, there was another factor the planners didn't mention. The vacant land was owned by West Dallas Investments. That's not really what you call vacant.

All along, Jensen kept asking the people at City Hall to please keep him posted if anything changed. "All this time from 2012 on, I have been asking people please to keep me in the loop. Every time I see another plan, I say, 'Please keep me in the loop.'"

At the end of last year somebody showed Jensen a plan that showed him way out of the loop. When he took a ruler to it and followed the lines, he saw Herbert Street going right through his building.

Part of the problem was that the plans for the Three-Hole Punch weren't coming out of the normal city bureaucracy but were devised instead by something called the City Design Studio. The design studio is a small group of architects and planners tacked onto city government in an effort to break logjams and infuse the bureaucratic process with fresh eyes and thinking.

Run by architect Brent Brown, the Design Studio is generally credited with making a lot of the rebirth of West Dallas happen, along with protecting the working class neighborhood of La Bajada from rape and pillage by developers.

But when Jensen and a neighboring property owner went to meet with the design studio on January 15, they say they got a lot of hand-waving and mumbling that didn't answer their questions about that eastern curb on Herbert Street.

"The gist of the meeting was that it was all still in flux," Jensen says, so there was nothing concrete for anybody to discuss.

Jeff Magid, who owns a demolition company a block down Herbert, went to the same meeting and confirmed Jensen's view of it: "They were so noncommittal about whether it was going to happen or it wasn't and what you could do if it did, it wasn't very clear at all.

"It seems like a pretty ridiculous scheme of things," Magid says, "to move a street and disturb somebody's property when you could move it the other way and not disturb anybody's property that presently has a building. I know they're planning on doing a building over there, but you would think they would take into consideration people that have been there for years before they start cutting into their livelihood."

Or not. From the point of view of Brown and the design studio, the name of the game is change and accommodating investment.

Brown's memory of the same meeting is that Jensen was trying to find out if the city planned to use eminent domain to get his property. "I remember David asking, 'OK, so is the city going to eminent domain the building?' The answer given was that we don't know, meaning that the decision hasn't been made. That's made by council. At this point council has not made a decision to use eminent domain. Nobody can tell him that answer because council hasn't voted."

I asked Brown when and where and by whom the decision was made to allow Columbus Realty to proceed with hardening-in the eastern border of the street, since that action alone will effectively dictate that the widened street move west and take out Jensen's building.

"I can't tell you when the decision was made," he said. "What I can tell you is that there is no decision to use eminent domain."

I asked if hardening-in the eastern border isn't the same thing as eminent domain, since it dictates taking Jensen's building.

"I know in our work," Brown said, "we have always said that change should be incremental. When development comes forward, you should work to accommodate change, but you should allow incremental change and the market to kind of evolve. As development comes forward and the market wants to do things, you try to help it do it."

But in Jensen's view, it's not "the market" that's his problem. It's Butch McGregor. Jensen says McGregor, one of the main partners in West Dallas Investments, has been trying to buy his property almost from the time he acquired it.

"Butch came in and contacted the guy I was buying it from to see if I was behind on my payments or my taxes or anything. The owner called me up and said, 'Watch out for this guy.' When McGregor came to me, I said, 'I don't like the way you do business.' That put me at cross purposes with Butch from the beginning."

Reynolds, the development partner at West Dallas Investments, told me McGregor was not available for comment. He confirmed that his company is interested in acquiring Jensen's land but denied that McGregor would ever use high-pressure techniques: "I can tell you from personal experience with Butch that he is a 'no pressure' type of personality when it comes to those acquisitions.'"

Jensen has a fairly pragmatic view toward keeping or selling his property. He doesn't want to sell it. His dream is to finish out the second story of his little studio apartment, organize that mountain of antiques at the back of the warehouse, open a storefront and live out his days. But if he has to sell instead, he wants the best price he can get.

"I want a million dollars," he says. He allows that a million dollars is an opening bargaining position. His problem is that he can't get anyone to bargain with him.

One person present at the Design Studio meeting, Timothy Starr, is not a member of the design studio staff. Starr is an engineer and assistant director of the city's Public Works Department. Jensen turned to him to get concrete answers about that eastern curb on Herbert Street.

"I said, 'Look, Mr. Starr, if this project [Columbus] starts happening, it sets the eastern boundary of the street. So what happens to me?' He said, 'At that point we make an offer to acquire your property.' I said, 'I don't want to sell my property. I don't want you to acquire it.'"

But Jensen says he also told Starr he wanted to start negotiations as soon as possible with whoever it was at City Hall who would be handling it. "I said, 'Who do I talk to to start negotiations?' He said, 'You talk to me.'"

But Starr couldn't talk to him yet. Guess why. No official decision has been made yet on the street alignment. Guess what else. Starr wouldn't talk to me, either, so I couldn't ask him who told Columbus Realty to go ahead and pour that curb. I guess it's just the curb from heaven. Or hell. Depending.

Reynolds of West Dallas Investments was very clear that neither his firm nor Columbus Realty will be building anything or taking any land that impinges on the properties of either Jensen or Magid. They are merely building to the line that the city has told them they can build to, and they are trusting that the city will fulfill its promise later to widen the street.

Should Magid or Jensen decide to sell, meanwhile, Reynolds says his firm stands by to be of assistance if possible. "Right now we would be willing to acquire them at a number above market value, because it would mean something to us for future development."

Of course, that price, even if it's above market, would presumably be for the half of their property that will be left after the street goes through it.

If Jensen or Magid goes hardcore hold-out and refuses to sell, then Reynolds sees a sorry outcome for them. "If we start our plans and we build around them and then they decide to sell, then their property becomes essentially a dog park."

Jensen isn't entirely sure why the city would allow West Dallas Investments to develop their property to a street alignment that doesn't exist yet or why West Dallas Investments and Columbus Realty would want to develop on land that isn't theirs yet. But it's like this. Imagine David Jensen shows up to play poker with these guys and finds on arriving that all the cards including his own were already dealt before he got to the table.

He doesn't have to tell them why they did it that way or guess what they're up to. All he has to say is, "That's not poker." What he wants is a fresh cut, a new shuffle and a clean deal. How can that be wrong?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze