Landowners Fear Dallas' "Grow South" Plan Will Cut Them Out

Put yourself in Robert Pitre's shoes. He owns 120 acres right next to the new University of North Texas campus in southern Dallas in an area of the city that is more rural than urban. For one thing, it has no city sewer service. Houses and businesses in the area must use septic tanks.

The city has stories as long as your arm — some good, some sort of fishy — about why there are no sewers here. But eight years ago the head of the water department gave Pitre an engineering drawing — I have a copy right here on my desk in front of me — showing a new sewer line to his area underneath the main thoroughfare through the UNT campus, which was about to be rebuilt.

The city document shows the cost of the system, a combination of 10-inch and 8-inch PVC pipes, manholes and so on, at $351,003 in 2005. But in 2006 when Houston School Road was widened and rebuilt to become University Hills Drive, the city put in no pipes. No sewer. Nothing.

No worries. In 2009 when the city carried out a master plan for the area around the UNT campus, its final report contained four separate references to a sewer line to be built. Two years later the engineering and design firm Kimley-Horn was hired to put together a more formal plan to be shown to landholders in the area, and that plan also showed a sewer line coming straight into the area where Pitre owns his land.

This is 2014. Not only is there no sewer in the area, the city now says it never promised one, never designed one, wouldn't know how to build one anyway and could never have physically brought a sewer line down the main thoroughfares in the area because of the slope of the land.

Assistant City Manager Theresa O'Donnell explained to me recently that it would never have worked to put sewer under the roads in the area. "Sewer, of course, not to be crass, runs downhill."

Apparently the streets in the area all run uphill. But, if they run uphill, don't they also have to run downhill? This stuff is not my strong suit. It's why I'm in journalism. I was referred to Dallas Water Utilities, the agency that produced the document given to Pitre nine years ago showing a sewer line down Houston School Road, now University Hills Drive.

I wondered why they ever produced drawings for landholders in the area showing a sewer line straight down — or up — University Hills Drive, if the doo-doo ... well, you get it. Assistant DWU Director Cesar Baptista told me, "Oftentimes the city is asked to do like a quick study based on current zoning."

I asked about the downhill doo-doo. He said that was possibly not the real or most important reason for not building a sewer into the area. He said the real reason was that no developer had shown up yet with a plan and with committed financing for a project that would justify sewer construction.

"The developers, by code, are responsible for financing and engineering and designing and then constructing the lines to their development," Baptista told me. "Going in, they all know that. That's part of the rules."

O'Donnell said the same, and suggested Pitre and other landowners in the area have a self-interested agenda in pushing for infrastructure ahead of firm development plans. "They would like to put the infrastructure in because, of course, their land would be much more valuable if there were utilities to it already."

Her remarks dovetailed with an explanation I had received weeks earlier from Tennell Atkins, the City Council representative for the area. "If you are sitting there with property saying, 'Bring me my water and sewer line,' that might be the wrong water line, the wrong sewer line in the wrong direction, whatever," Atkins said. "We need a plan."

All of what O'Donnell, Baptista and Atkins told me makes sense in the context of normal business operations in the city. Where it ceases to make sense, at least for me, is in the context of the city's "Grow South" initiative. Championed by Mayor Mike Rawlings, Grow South is aimed at promoting the economic development of the city's southern hemisphere. Implicit in the idea that City Hall should proactively tilt the balance in favor of southern Dallas is an assumption that City Hall has tilted the balance against southern Dallas in the past. In other words, southern Dallas now needs infrastructure to spur development, because it suffers a deficit brought about by a richly documented history of racism and the deliberate withholding of infrastructure in the past.

The past is part of what worries Pitre. He is a guy who grew up in the projects, kept himself out of trouble, started his own business and slowly began acquiring land decades ago. Now he sees Grow South as a conspiracy threatening everything he has saved and waited for all his life. He thinks City Hall is working to disincentivize development by withholding infrastructure again as it has before. But now instead of merely expressing racism, he thinks the purpose behind withholding sewer and other basic urban infrastructure from his area is to hold down land values until some insider or group of insiders can acquire his land cheaply and be in position to benefit when the pipes finally show up.

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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