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Dallas Morning News Achitecture Critic Mark Lamster Isn't a Total Pinhead After All

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Mark Lamster, architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News, is still new in the job, but he's got a sharp analytical eye. Over the years I have developed my own mental gauge for how long it takes newcomers to figure out Dallas, and I have to say this guy's sort of a rocket.

In a piece in the paper today he says: "Dallasites like to make fun of Houston because it has no zoning, but Dallas has something that might be worse. Call it Do-It-Yourself Zoning. With a decent lawyer, you can essentially rewrite the city's zoning rules to your convenience."

That's it. That's just it. Totally it. He puts his finger right on it.

In spite of cyclical massive efforts going back decades to impose grand visions on the city through planning, the peculiar mechanism of City Hall makes sure that Dallas really runs like a small Southern city in the 1950s. Everything is opaque. Transparency is a code word for communism. Want something done? Get inside. Way inside. Otherwise forget about it.

Specifically Lamster is talking about the incredible proliferation of private zoning in Dallas. Through a legal mechanism called the "planned development district" (actually, we old hands just call it a "pee-dee"), developers can exempt themselves from almost all of the city's big vision planning policies and invent their own zoning on their own land.

They draw a circle around their property and then draw up a kind of little Disney Land of zoning inside that circle, where they get to do whatever they want. Of course they do have to get it past the Plan Commission and the City Council. For people who know how to get that done, it's kind of like walking through the bus station. Unpleasant but easy. For other people it's impossible.

There are two ways to get yourself a pee-dee. The first is DIY. Three steps for that: 1) Join the Dallas Country Club (please don't be of an awkward demographic origin, helps if you don't actually live in Dallas). 2) Make friends. 3) Ask your new powerful friends to get you a pee-dee.

The second way, better for newcomers, outsiders, awkward persons and people who are impatient: hire a lobbyist/lawyer/insider/fixer. I would name them for you here, but I have so much respect for all of their abilities, I feel uncomfortable sounding like I'm trying to lend any one of them a commercial advantage over the others.

But let me tell you, every once in a while some church or school or other private entity has actually come to me, foolishly thinking I could help or advise on their capital project, and I always tell them two things: 1) Never ever mention my name to anyone at City Hall. 2) Hire a top-quality insider lobbyist and get you a pee-dee.

It actually pains me to see innocent well-intended citizens and/or businesses showing up in front of the Plan Commission thinking they can access City Hall straight-on. Believe me. For those people it's a slaughter-house -- like the Artful Dodger's two-minute trial at the Old Bailey in Dickens' Oliver Twist. Funny but horrible.

So how do the consultants do it? The first thing they do is visit key City Council people and figure out some kind of tit-for-tat juggling of the books to help everybody with their pet projects, weaving their client's new pee-dee cleverly into the fabric. Then they work downward, sort of, making sure that lesser appointed bodies like the Plan Commission and the least important people of all, city staff, understand that this is already a done deal up top.

Is the Dallas way of getting things done any different from how things get done anywhere else? Only in this sense: It's almost impossible to see.

I worked for The Houston Chronicle for a while. I wasn't in Houston, but I paid attention to the way things got done down there. Lamster is right in suggesting that the no-zoning regime in Houston is actually more transparent and even more rational than the Dallas system. Some of it is cultural, having to do with Houston being a more truly urban place with evolved organized constituencies and a habit of public discourse. Some it has to do with a more level playing field and a more open kind of competition in Houston. Everybody keeps an eye on everybody else. Houston has tons of special enterprise districts, by the way, but they are all developed according to a pretty rigid standard.

Here the culture is much more small-town and keep-your-head-down. It's understood that people who pay the price and play by the rules, who knock the ball through the wickets and don't get drunk, will finally receive what they seek. In Houston it's about building your deal in public. Here it's all about barricading your deal from the public realm.

The dynamic here is opaque to most newcomers who are not themselves involved in real estate development. They see cranes and cement mixers and go all ga-ga about everything happening, without ever snapping to the fact that nothing is happening the way it's supposed to. Not to be patronizing or anything, but I do think Lamster is an exceptionally quick study. I apologize for calling him "Mark Lamster, New York Pinhead" when he first showed up. Eric Celeste made me do that.

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