Councilman Atkins, Quite Contrary, How Does Your District Grow?

Can't let this pass without at least pointing out the irony. Last Sunday Dallas City Council member Tennell Atkins was all over The Dallas Morning News opinion pages with an essay on the importance of public incentives for private developers in under-served areas of the city. He wrote: "Evidence of tangible public support is critical to the process of obtaining viable development partners and leveraging other capital sources."

This happens to be exactly the same argument that the same city councilman has consistently rejected for the area in his own district around the new University of North Texas-Dallas campus. There, landholders have been begging Atkins to free up funding already authorized for a sanitary sewer system -- something they have never had before -- so they can lure serious investors to develop much-needed student housing.

I have to admit, I sometimes have found myself chicken-and-egg-bound in my conversations with Atkins about the need for sewers near the campus. He always says, "Bring me a developer." He is making the point that the city shouldn't be in the business of installing expensive infrastructure speculatively before anybody shows up with a credible plan to use it. Yeah. I get that.

But then I get egg-and-chicken-struck when I talk to the landholders. They say nobody is ever going to be interested in developing an area where there is no major city-owned sewer infrastructure within miles. It's also an under-served area with a history of hard-times, a place that could use a little extra help getting up and running.

If you were looking for something in southern Dallas on which to capitalize, it's hard to imagine a better bet than the glamorous new UNT campus that opened four years ago near the intersection of Interstate 35E and I-20. But Atkins has been adamant that he's not going to let the city risk bond money on a sewer system until the developers are already outside his office door with plans rolled up under their arms.

I asked him once about the mayor's "Grow South" initiative to spur economic development in the city's segregated southern hemisphere. He said, "That's the mayor's deal. Ask him."

That's a tough line to take about your own district. I figured him for one of those strict free market guys who really doesn't believe in public subsidies. But then here he is Sunday in the daily paper's What's-the-Point? section with a Robin Hood plan to siphon tax revenues out of a development way up in North Dallas and use the money to rebuild freeways and all kinds of major stuff to spur the redevelopment of Southwest Center Mall.

He was writing in response to an earlier editorial in the paper objecting to the scheme on a number of grounds but one in particular: For at least 20 years the marketplace has been sending strong signals that Southwest Center Mall is history. Malls don't last forever. This one has had one foot in the grave so long it's beginning to give off a whiff of gangrene.

Just outside the city line to the south, vast snazzy new malls have popped up in recent years to serve the burgeoning, upwardly mobile black and Latino middleclass -- along with tons of white families -- who have voted with their feet to move south out of the city. The city spending $30 million on new freeway ramps is not going to lure them back.

Due east at the other end of Atkins' district is UNT-Dallas surrounded by raw land with a great economic engine purring away in its midst, an area aching for development, and Atkins won't let them have sewers that are already paid for. So you tell me what's going on. Right now it hard to see how anybody's going to get any good out of any of this. Maybe we should cut our losses, turn the chicken loose and make an omelet.

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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