The basic engine for city subsidies is the Tax Increment Finance District, or TIF, which I would explain except that I have been warned by Dallas Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans that I'm not smart enough. You know, I'm University of Michigan. I think before you're allowed to try to explain TIFs, you have to be at least Stanford, possibly even University of Texas Plan Two. So I modestly demur.
But the basic idea of TIFs when they started was that they would be used to spur development in very risky areas, where sane developers would fear to tread without serious incentives. Here's the problem: The Dallas City Council wants to give all the TIF money to the rich, powerful suck-ups who can invite them to the charity ball, and they're totally gutless half the time when it comes to projects that could really use the help.
In fact, the bigger story over time is probably the stuff the city has refused to help with. Last week I went out with Larry Duncan, a four-term council member who was term-limited out in 1999, to tour the area where the Georgetown II apartments once stood, six miles southwest of downtown, near Bruton Road and Buckner Boulevard.
I went there as a reporter in the late '80s to write about some kind of fracas. Very scary. I remember driving around thinking, "OK, this time I definitely go home in a box."
And Georgetown II only got worse in the '90s. It was owned by Chicago slumlords who defaulted it back to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD couldn't get a handle on it. Of more than 600 units, 40 percent were occupied by squatters. In 1993, the Washington Post sent a reporter here who did a story that said: "As a symbol of HUD's troubled housing programs, there could be no better example than Georgetown II.
"For six years, HUD watched as a once-comfortable 620-unit housing project turned into a neighborhood eyesore, beset by drugs, gangs, drive-by shootings and murder."
Duncan, who was on the council then, helped put together a consortium of neighborhood groups to buy the place from HUD and redevelop it, along with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, and the community development arm of Bank of America. He toured me around last week, and I don't see how anybody could call the project anything but a brilliant success. Where hundreds of scary-bad apartments once stood, new rolling streets now are lined with tidy brick homes occupied by many first-time homeowners, next to a restored and much smaller apartment complex.
John Ware, who was city manager in the '90s when Duncan was trying to get this deal done, wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole, and neither would most of the city council. No subsidy from this city, sister.
Know why? Too risky. But there it is today--a huge success.
So here is what I would say. Sure. The city should use tax subsidies to encourage high-risk, high-value developments that won't get done without subsidies. But it should not give tax subsidies to sure-thing developments that are going to get done, subsidy or not.
What we are missing in all this is a philosophy, some principles, standards, a road map that says, "This is when we do it, and this is when we don't."
What we get from the city instead is a lot of inconsistency, which just creates chaos. Mayor Laura Miller, for example, has been 95 percent steadfast in opposing incentives for people who don't need them. But she supported incentives for Lucy Crow Billingsley's new 7-Eleven headquarters building in the arts district.
That makes everybody crazy. I hated the incentives handed out after the Billingsley deal to kabillionaire oilman Ray Hunt for his new headquarters downtown. But I have to admit: If Ray sees Laura dishing city dough to Lucy, then Ray has a right to want some city dough too.
One of the arguments my more ardent callers are giving me is that it's not right to say no to hometown developers if you gave a big incentive to somebody from Cleveland--a reference to Forest City, the people doing the huge Merc Complex renovation downtown. But, wow, where does that end? I guess it wouldn't be right to turn down wavy-haired developers if you've been generous with bald guys in the past.
I just hope the bridges don't fall down, meanwhile, because we're all going to be living under them before this kind of thinking is over.