David Jensen is a guy I have written about over the last six months who lives in a West Dallas warehouse in the path of a big new apartment development that is favored by the city.
He showed up at City Hall Wednesday to try to stop the city from taking his home. He got screwed.
The City Council voted to take his home. But city officials went to pains first to explain that they were not the ones taking his home. It was his home’s fault. It was in the way.
You think this can’t happen to you? No, it won’t happen to you unless you make the mistake of getting out about five or six years ahead of the real estate market the way Jensen did.
In 2002 he spotted a 52-year-old warehouse in an old industrial district in West Dallas where very few people would want to live. He’s an artist, so it appealed to him. He paid 70 grand for it and went to work converting part of it into apartment.
Fast forward to about a year ago. Now that the artists have made the area cool, everybody wants to live there. A company called Columbus Realty Partners, controlled by former Dallas Cowboys football players Roger Staubach and Robert Shaw, bought a solid chunk of land across the street from Jensen and circulated plans for a big multi-use development.
The real estate company that assembled the land for the Columbus Realty project, called West Dallas Investments, talked to Jensen about selling his property. He told them his plan was to stay there until he died. He said he didn’t want to sell or move. He said he’d sell for $1 million.
Through the grapevine Jensen finally saw a copy of the plans for the Columbus Realty deal. The building on the plans, right across Herbert Street from him, jutted out over the sidewalk and a few feet into the street.
Jensen is no fool. If the city’s going to let the ex-Cowboys build something that sticks out into the street, he figured, then the city’s going to have to move the street toward him.
He got out his tape measure. If the city allowed the ex-Cowboys to take up that much sidewalk and street, then the city planned on carving off several feet of his warehouse to make room for it. That meant his warehouse was toast.
He started trying to reach city officials to tell them he didn’t want his home to be toast. City officials told him they had no official plans yet to take his building. He asked how they were going to move the street without taking his building. They said they had no official plans yet to move the street.
He asked how they were going to let the ex-Cowboys stick their building out into the street without moving the street. They said the ex-Cowboys hadn’t filed those drawings yet. But they said they were thinking about moving the street. They’d let him know.
Nobody ever thought about moving the street at all until after the plan started circulating with the building sticking out into the street. But once those plans were out, then the city did look at Herbert Street and it decided — lo’ and behold and out of the blue — that an intersection two blocks away was sort of crookedy.
Yeah. By a few feet. Where Herbert Street comes from the south next to Jensen and at the west end of the Columbus Realty project and then goes north two blocks and crosses Singleton, it jogs by maybe six feet at the intersection of Herbert and Singleton.
Hmm. Stitched together with this and that, that six feet, when it gets straightened out, happens to be just enough to push the straightened street right through Jensen’s warehouse.
But it’s a coincidence. Right? Like city officials were out driving around town one day looking for streets to straighten.
“How ‘bout that one?”
“No, that looks pretty straight already.”
“Oh my word, will you look at Herbert Street here? It’s got a six-foot jog in it!”
But you want to know another coincidence? Somehow when the Municipal Department of Street Straightening was out driving around looking for streets to straighten, they must have driven right past Amonette Street. It’s at the other end of the vacant land set aside for the
ex-Cowboys' project. Where Amonette hits Singleton, it’s got a jog in it twice the size of the one at Herbert Street.
No plans are afoot to straighten Amonette. They must have missed that one. In fact they missed a bunch of them. At Topeka Street to the west, there’s a jog a quarter-block long.
But, no, just so happens the only one they have to straighten out is Herbert, where Jensen made the mistake of getting into the area early, before it was cool, and telling people now he really does not want to move.
At last Wednesday’s meeting, the City Council voted on moving Herbert street to straighten it out. City officials were careful to state several times that Wednesday’s vote was not for use of eminent domain to take Jensen’s building.
North Dallas member Jennifer Staubach Gates had to vacate the council chamber during the vote, recusing herself because Roger Staubach is her dad. This is a recurring issue. North Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman, whom Staubach-Gates appoints as her stand-in on the council when she has a conflict because of her dad, told the meeting: “This is not an eminent domain case. This is a right of way case.”
Interesting, that he would take such an interest in a case so far from his own North Dallas district.
City Attorney Warren Ernst was quick to endorse Kleinman’s decree: “As has been said,” Ernst said, “this is not an eminent domain case.”
So there. It has been said. Not an eminent domain case. Just a street-straightening case.
Whatever. A dozen neighbors and supporters of Jensen went to the open microphone and pleaded with the council not to take his home. Linda Cook said, “I believe the city of Dallas is colluding, and I repeat that word, colluding, with Columbus Realty Partners by moving the right of way [in such a way as to] force Mr. Jensen to sell his property. Unfortunately for Mr. Jensen, he lives in District 6, where he has been put off repeatedly by [council member] Monica Alonzo.
“It’s no surprise to me that she has put him off,” Cook said, “because I have found she can be counted on to come down on the side of businesses and developers every time.”
On cases like this that are totally within one council district, the council members have an unspoken rule: All council members always vote the same way the member from that district votes. In this case, two council members, Scott Griggs from District 1 in Oak Cliff and Carolyn King Arnold from District 4 in central Southern Dallas, broke the rule and voted against moving the street.
The mayor and the rest of the council except for Staubach-Gates, who was waiting in the wings, remember, because it was her dad’s deal, all voted to screw Jensen. And now maybe you can guess what the next step will be:
A very polite, soft-spoken, nondescript person from City Hall calls Jensen and says, “Mr. Jensen, I am so sorry, but the City Council has ordered us to straighten your street in such a way as to cause cars and trucks to drive over the place where your face would be if you were still sleeping there. As we do not want cars and trucks to drive over your face, nor even motor-scooters, we must urge you to sell the city your property at a price of cheap-cheap-cheap.”
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He says no. Then he gets a call from an even more polite, even more nondescript person from the City Attorney’s Office who tells him they’re going to force him to sell by invoking the principle of eminent domain, by which a city can force a person to sell if it’s for a public purpose — like straightening a street.
Someone here will tell me he should sue. There isn’t enough money on the table to get a good eminent domain lawyer to sue at the lawyer’s own expense, and Jensen can’t afford to pay a lawyer up front for a dragged-out case against a big city, because hardly anybody could afford that. So he can’t sue.
The only force, the only principle that could have intervened here and stopped this — the force that I believe inspired Linda Cook and the other people who spoke on Jensen’s behalf and also councilpersons Griggs and Arnold — is simple moral decency.
It’s a good thing there was enough decency going around Wednesday to bring Jensen’s defenders to the microphone and to get those two votes on his behalf at the council. But there just wasn’t enough to save his home.