City Hall

Grab Your Wallet, More City Hall Snake Oil On "Patriots Crossing"

Uh-oh. Grab your wallet. The Dallas Morning News editorial page wants you to know about a very exciting City-Hall-run real estate development on Lancaster Road across from the Veterans Administration hospital, six miles south of downtown:

“This is an important project,” the paper said this week. “It’s prime property on the DART line across from the VA packed daily with patients and medical staffers who want access to more retail and restaurants. It could be an economic boost to the low-income neighborhood sorely in need.”

Important. Prime property. Across from the VA. Packed with patients who want access to retail (really?). An economic boost. And sorely needed.

Excuse me. Did you notice where they said what it was?

Well, for that we can go to Robert Wilonsky’s column in the News in which he said, “the city’s open to just about any idea — multifamily housing, a movie theater, office buildings, parks, you name it.”

We have to name it? So this is an exciting new City Hall-run real estate development that could be housing or a movie theater or offices or a park or maybe all of those things on prime property across from the VA packed with patients and medical staffers looking for retail (really?) to create an economic boost that is sorely needed.

Here's a thought experiment: Try to imagine walking into a bank to get a loan for that.

Banker: “What is your concept?”

Schutze: “Excellent question. I’m glad you asked me that. My concept, as I see it, is for sort of an apartment complex but also an office building with a movie theater or a restauranty kind of a deal but, you know, in a park, so it would be nice for patients and medical staffers who are looking for retail between procedures, you know, like you see these poor sons-of-bitches in their wheelchairs out in front of the hospital smoking with their IVs all hooked up and no place to go shopping, and it’s sad, and this would kind of create a boost for everybody that is sorely needed.”
Yeah, right. The banker would be scouring my wrists to see if I was wearing any recent VA hospital I.D. bands of my own. You know why you don’t hear ideas like that in the real world? Because it’s not an idea. You know what it is really? It’s a typically absurd City Hall attempt to rebury a corpse so everybody at City Hall will have time to retire before anybody finds it.

Here is what I would like to know, before we all join hands and go skipping off to Lancaster Road for another picnic like the last one. When did the city manager of Dallas plan on telling us about the money the city has already invested in this land? When was that very important piece of information going to be entered onto the books?
I told you two years ago how the city bought this land for the first deal, another bright idea, something about a residential community with a sky-bridge to the VA hospital, because, you know, so many people want to live next to a VA hospital. The city gave a developer absurdly inflated amounts of money to buy up lots in a residential community along Lancaster where land should have been relatively inexpensive.

For example, the city loaned developer Yigal Lelah $70,000 to cover him on a house lot he bought for $36,000. They loaned him $213,000 for another property he bought for $120,000. These two deals were typical of dozens of deals that Lelah did to put together a block of land across from the hospital.

Does that mean Lelah stole the money? Absolutely not. The paperwork I looked at back then showed exactly where the money went. Consultants. Lots and lots of consultants. You wouldn’t believe how many consultants it takes to buy a house in southern Dallas — architects, planners, lawyers, people who are just sort of general consulters. A passel.

For example, the city loaned Lelah $248,000 to buy a house at 4702 Denley Drive. The purchase price — the amount Lelah paid to the seller — was $36,000. Where did the other $212,000 go? I told you. Consultants. Man, that house at 4702 had to be consulted up one side and down the other before it could be bought.
Did our august protectors on the City Council never notice that the developer was paying a quarter million dollars for houses in an area where the going rate was right around $36,000? Yes, some did. Scott Griggs, the member form North Oak Cliff, questioned some of the deals.

But the council member representing the area where the development was to take place, former council member Vonciel Hill, who had pushed the development from the beginning, threw a tantrum and said any attempt to question the purchase prices was racist.

Let me re-emphasize what I said already about the developer. Lelah didn’t hide any money or slip anything under the rug. It took me a while to get all of the loan documents from HUD and piece it together, because city officials clearly didn’t want me to have the information. But when I did get my hands on the documents, it was all there. It was utterly appalling, but it was all there.

I think there’s a reason we don’t have old-fashioned, bootleg-era, rampant corruption in Dallas. Only a fool would actually steal money from City Hall. All you have to do is take a paper bag down there and get it. Just ask. “Hey. Who’s got my money? Put it in the bag here for me, will you, Champ?”

Get a council-person on your team, of course, preferably someone willing to give a good groin-kick to anybody who gives you grief. But why would you risk criminal charges when it’s actually easier to take them to the cleaners legally, without so much as jay-walking?

Added to the unaccounted but presumably bodacious amount of money the city overpaid for the land in Lelah’s project in the first place, the city then had to ignominiously pay to get the land back from him in a big foreclosure/bankruptcy mess last year.

At the time, the city staff was talking all tough about how they were going to get back either their land or their money. Let me tell you four things wrong with that picture. One, it’s not their land. It’s our land – yours and mine. Two, it’s not their money. It’s ours. Three, the money’s gone. Bye-bye. Four, the land itself is now seriously underwater, because they spent God only knows how much of our money for land that isn’t worth a fraction of what they paid.

That’s the piece I want to see. I want them to tell us what the land was worth when they bought it. What they paid for it. What it’s worth now. How much money we lost.

That’s fair. It’s responsible. Before we move ahead another single square on this checkerboard, let’s have a full clean accounting of how we got where we are now.

The last thing we want to see or hear is a bunch of hand-waving and nattering about a residential office movie theater packed with shopping patients in a park. What? Have people with serious investment money been beating down the door at City Hall saying they absolutely have got to get into that area across the street from the VA hospital right away?

Or is it going to be the other thing, the boost and the sorely needed? They’re going to tell us we have got to pump some more millions into the whatever-whatever development across from the VA, because, well, you know. It’s sorely needed.

I keep a little bit of tabs on that area. Former Councilman Dwaine Caraway is the one who really fought the good fight for it when he was on the council, not Hill. And the fact is that some really promising private sector things are happening along Lancaster, some nice new retail in an area that hadn’t seen a brick turned in decades before Caraway got into it.

It’s still high risk, but some smart companies, including a few national franchise chains, have been willing to take that risk. So why wouldn’t we let that process play out for a little while and see where it leads? I just don’t hear a persuasive argument that the area will shrivel and die without a huge infusion of whatever-whatever money from City Hall.

But I know what might shrivel and die if we called a full stop and insisted on an honest accounting. Some people’s careers at City Hall.

We need to see the money on a page. And we need a list of names of the people at City Hall who made the decisions and gave the authorizations.

At the very least, if we can’t even see those things, we need to call a full halt to any new medical patient move theater park ideas.

And then there is this. In recent weeks we have been telling you here about an onslaught of critical audits of various City Hall departments in which auditors found an appalling lack of proper auditing or written policies. This business with proposing some kind of a something or other across from the VA Hospital is only a canary in that coal mine, a deeply disturbing indication of the way they handle things.

At the first sight of anybody with a calculator and an accounting ledger in his briefcase, they strike up the full orchestra, first the violins (for the sorely needed), then the horns (for the prime property), and then the clowns and the banjo players and whatever else it takes to keep anybody from asking for hard numbers.

Our city manager has just announced that he will retire next January, so the council is already beginning to look around for replacements. How about somebody with a calculator and an accounting ledger in his briefcase? Now that would be some show, would it not? Some show.
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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