Somebody always says, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Sure. But I have a motto too. Make sure you can tell a gift horse from a damn wolf.
I'm talking about the way the city council handles zoning issues and about those idiots over at The Dallas Morning News editorial page. Last week they ran an editorial with the headline, "Dallas City Council should abandon fiefdoms."
Fiefdoms. You know what that means? It means East Dallas, Oak Lawn and North Oak Cliff—all of the urban areas where there is renewed development interest—should prostrate themselves before the same kind of down-and-dirty developers who screwed these areas 30 years ago.
In the inner city, we have long memories.
The inner core of Dallas is hot right now in real estate terms, except for the national economic recession, which we will assume is going to be temporary. The longer pattern is one of growth; people of means are moving back into the area.
It's part of a national trend. We all know that. What we can't forget is that the inner core still bears nasty scars from previous flings with development interests. Bad things happen when City Hall gets seduced by the quick-money guys. Down-and-dirty zoning produced the blight of low-rise apartment buildings that invaded stable single-family residential areas all over the inner city in the late 1960s and early '70s, first nibbling at the edges, then devouring whole neighborhoods.
On Gaston and Live Oak in East Dallas, the new stuff was fashionable and full of wage-earning singles for maybe 10 years, which is like 10 minutes in the life of a neighborhood. By the time I moved into that area in early '80s, those same places were drug-infested tenements with sewage running in open ditches.
Why did I move into an area with sewage in ditches? Hey, my kind of prices. Plus, no suburbanites. Sewage is like garlic hung over the front door to keep the suburbanites away. That and automatic weapons fire in the alleys at night.
Other forms of bad zoning wrought other forms of mischief on places such as Lemmon Avenue in Oak Lawn and what we are now calling the Cedars, a disused industrial and warehouse district southeast of the convention center. The city zoned those areas for way more intensive development than the market was ever going to produce. So the land wasted away while the people holding it waited for ships that were never going to come in.
While the landowners waited on Lemmon, they covered their land with cheap development such as car dealerships and drive-in hot dog stands—the equivalent, in development terms, of tents. In the Cedars, they just let it sit, which is like putting up a big sign saying, "Welcome to Camp Crack Head."
In both cases, the quick-money guys made out. Because they got out. The people who put up those apartments on Gaston probably got their money out in 90 days by flipping their properties to absentee investors. In the Cedars, they probably got their money out 90 minutes after it was re-zoned, by selling it to the greater fool who thought the zoning was actually worth something.
The quick-money guys were in and out faster than Bill Clinton, and then for the next 30 years the community lived with the mess they left behind.
But there is such a thing as good development. I have written about Henderson Avenue and the great re-development there by the Andres brothers ("Downtown Apostate," November 29, 2007). There is also such a thing as wrong-headed, overly recalcitrant neighborhood resistance to development, where neighborhoods dig in their heels and refuse to accept anything new. In a dicey urban environment, that's another good way to create Camp Crack Head.
Generally speaking, the inner city goes up or it goes down. In the inner city, nothing stands still.
Taken together, what all of this means is that the creation and nurturing of strong urban communities, both residential and commercial, is a very complicated and delicate balancing act. I would argue that the single most important reason why the inner city of Dallas is beginning to do so well is that the people of the inner city—smart homeowners and good developers alike—have learned a lot about how to do the balance.
But all of that balancing comes eventually to the desks of two people—the member of the plan commission who represents the district where a proposed development would take place and the city council member from that district. Those are the two people who know the skinny on any given development project that involves zoning.
In East Dallas, where homeowners such as myself have lived through the Era of Raw Sewage in order to greet the Dawn of McMansions, we have a very keen sense of who we trust and who we do not. In the 1980s we watched while the ticky-tacky suburban developers took over Dallas City Hall and tried to ram highways through our part of town because they thought it was a ghetto. Well, it was a ghetto. But it was our ghetto, by God, not theirs.