Helping themselves

If plans by the African American Pastors Coalition succeed, some 250 to 300 new middle-class homes will pop up soon in the heart of South Oak Cliff, a neighborhood that conventional residential real estate developers typically consider akin to the moon because of its poverty.

"We are trying to take the initiative to do for ourselves. We are not waiting for others. That's what this is all about," says the Reverend Zan W. Holmes, who leads the coalition's efforts as well as one of the largest African-American churches in Dallas, St. Luke Community United Methodist Church.

According to Holmes, the coalition's nonprofit community development corporation, created three years ago for the purpose of spurring economic development in the southern sector of this city, will sell the new homes at market prices ranging from $90,000 to $130,000. The pastors will pitch the homes to their congregations, pre-qualifying church members for financing.

To develop the homes, the pastors coalition--a 70-member group that represents some 40 churches--has negotiated recently to buy a 58-acre plot of land from a limited partnership managed by none other than the interests of Ross Perot Jr.

It could easily be construed as more than coincidence that some of the same African-American pastors who are active in the coalition helped Perot by encouraging their congregations to vote last year in favor of a city-funded downtown arena. The Perot-backed arena will eventually house the Mavericks, the basketball team the young real estate tycoon owns, as well as serve as a centerpiece for his lavish commercial downtown development plans.

Does the proposed sale of Perot's land represent payback to the pastors for delivering on the arena vote?

The question draws sharp replies from both the real estate developer and the church representatives.

"There is a lot of concern about that question because there is no connection at all," says Valorie Burton, a public relations specialist hired by the pastors. But she concedes, "When questions start getting raised, it makes it difficult for us."

Holmes insists there is no relationship between the arena support and the proposed deal. "Absolutely zero, zip," he says. He was not even among the African-American community representatives who negotiated with Perot before the arena bond election, Holmes says. "It's just happenstance. We are paying market rate."

Perot's spokesman David Pelletier elaborated little about the transaction and refused to state the price of the land, which Perot's limited partnership acquired in 1994. "It's a straight land deal," he says.

Last week, when the ministers went before the city plan commission to seek a change in the property's status, Perot's name was barely mentioned. Dallas lawyer Kirk Williams represented the ministers before the board for free. Williams says he has previously handled zoning issues for Perot's limited partnership.

Many at the hearing didn't even know who owned the property. At the session the ministers sought to change the zoning on some 30 of the 58 acres from multi-family and commercial to single-family dwellings. The commissioners agreed to make the change, and the city council will take up the issue in March.

Others at the hearing raised objections, including worries about increased traffic congestion. One representative from a nearby homeowners association claimed, despite several publicly scheduled meetings, that they had not been notified far enough in advance about the proposed zoning change.

Holmes says he expects to get approval from the city council and hopes to lock in financing for the deal in the next few months, though he is concerned that the news of the proposal leaked out this week. "We were not ready to announce this. We are still in the development stage." But he says he agreed to talk to the Dallas Observer because he wanted to clear up any concerns about the reason for Perot's involvement.

At the zoning hearing this past week, Holmes was emphatic about the potential of the project. "Some say that the black church is a sleeping giant," he told the city panel. "Well, we are awaking to the challenge. We want to help develop the southern sector of this city.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen