The Closet Lobby

David Dean, a former Texas secretary of state and now a professional lobbyist, knows how to get what he wants. Unfortunately, what Dean wants and the tactics he's employing to get it have stirred up a donnybrook among residents of the Swiss Avenue Historic District.

Dean and his wife, Jean, want a closet.

Not just any old closet, either: Dean wants to add a 450-square-foot chamber roughly the size of a two-car garage to his recently acquired Swiss Avenue mansion. The home, a 1916 Georgian Revival formerly occupied by a widow, sits at the corner of Swiss Avenue and Parkmont Street, right in the tempestuous heart of the city's first historic district and birthplace of Dallas' historic preservation ordinance.

Ordinarily, a man's desire to build a place to hang his coat is a private matter, but that's not the case on Swiss Avenue, a clannish 'hood where the smallest alteration to one's home or garden is a matter of intense and, more important, legally binding public scrutiny. On August 1, the city's landmark commission adopted the recommendations of city planners and members of a neighborhood task force and voted to deny Dean's request. The commissioners decided that the closet violated the city rules because it wasn't consistent with the historic character of the home and neighborhood. Worse, they thought, approval of the closet would set a dangerous precedent for the district, where significant alterations to the exteriors of homes are a no-no.

Commission decisions, which have been challenged fewer than a half dozen times in more than 20 years, usually mark the end of these debates, but Dean is appealing his case to the city council, which is scheduled to review the matter on September 27. The appeal, rare as it is, marks the first time a commission decision will be challenged since the city council adopted a revised historic preservation ordinance in January.

"Nobody will say the words out loud," says Swiss Avenue resident and closet-foe Steve Clicque, "but I don't see how this can't become a discussion of 'do we want to get out of being a historic district?'"

Dean says his intention is simply to build a closet and make his new home, which has an appraised value of $554,440, habitable. "We're simply wanting to get a modest addition to a home, which we feel is very, very appropriate," he says.

Dean declined to discuss his case in detail, saying he didn't want to prejudice it before it gets to the council. Specifically, Dean wouldn't say whether he would sue the city if the council shuts the door on his closet, though a legally worded letter of appeal he submitted to the city on August 11 suggests that could happen. In the six-page letter, Dean claimed he was treated unfairly by various unnamed city employees, neighborhood task force members, and landmark commissioners who are guilty of "violating our rights" and engaging in the "abuse of due process."

"The language has the air of potential [litigation]," says city council member Veletta Lill. "[But] I don't take threats of legal actions into my considerations."

Lill, the chief sponsor of the city's revamped preservation ordinance and whose council district includes Swiss Avenue, won't comment on Dean's closet because she hasn't fully reviewed the case. She has, however, met Dean. Though he was pleasant enough, Lill says, his full-court press has put her on the defensive.

As the case progresses, residents of the historic district are drawing familiar battle lines. On one side are the closet foes, who are worried that a Dean victory will attract a "mind-boggling" demand for more additions on Swiss Avenue and destroy the painstakingly restored look of the neighborhood. On the other side are Dean's neighbors on Swiss, who argue that the closet looks nice, and if its construction creates a demand for more additions, well, the city will just have to deal with each one on a case-by-case basis.

For weeks, rumors have been flying that Dean, aware of the fissure in the district, has enlisted the support of the Swiss Avenue Women's Guild (also known as the Swiss Misses), who, it is further speculated, held a letter-writing campaign inside the home of the head Swiss Miss, Suzanne Palmlund. Although Palmlund wasn't talking to the Dallas Observer, there is supporting evidence: namely, about a dozen pro-closet letters penned in time for the landmark commission meeting by Dean's neighbors, all of whom live on Swiss Avenue and some of whom are known guild members. Most notably is a letter from David Palmlund III, Suzanne's husband, who wants the city to review and revise its entire preservation process so people like Dean will be encouraged to move into the inner city.

"With sometimes strict, insufficiently defined, often biased and inconsistent interpretations of ordinances, forcing residents to go through costly and exhausting exercises only to find that their request was never fairly considered, is not encouragement," Palmlund wrote. "This is not the way to welcome those who want to make a difference to a house, a neighborhood and ultimately Old East Dallas."

However, it doesn't appear the letters are helping Dean's cause. In fact, his lobbying effort may be having the opposite affect: Even the three landmark commission member who voted in favor of the closet are galled that Dean is taking the case to the next level. One of them is Allison Reaves Poggi.

"I'm sorry that he just couldn't take the commission's ruling on it. He knew what kind of neighborhood he was moving into and what the rules were," Reaves Poggi says. "I didn't think [the closet] looked so bad, but now [it's] the repercussions to the neighborhood I'm concerned about. Probably, if I had the opportunity, I would change my vote."

Commissioner Ann Piper, who voted against the closet, is more direct in her assessment of Dean's campaign.

"He's just been obnoxious all the way through and that, I guess, started at the beginning," Piper says. "He has been lobbying. He even sent out an invitation to all of us to come to an open house to see this house so, outside the task force and the commission, he could twist our arms."

Closet opponents take exception to the argument that the city's preservation ordinance and the way in which the city's preservation officials interpret it are inflexible. As part of Dean's remodeling effort, the landmark commission granted him two exceptions, one to build a security fence and another to enclose the mansion's porte-cochere in glass. Officials say they have struggled to find an alternative solution to Dean's need for more closet space, such as building it onto the back of the house, not the street side.

Evidently, a rear addition doesn't work with Dean's interior design scheme: While he has proposed three different ways of building the addition, all of them still entail building it on top of a sun room at the front. Rather than heed the commission's advice, Dean is now hoping to convince the city council members that their underlings are running wildly out of control and need to be reined in.

"We have recently learned first-hand that some Landmark Commission and task force members apparently vehemently disagree with the City Council's authorization for additions in certain portions of the exterior of certain residences and have at most every juncture attempted to discourage, intimidate and sadly corrupt the facts and the City of Dallas administrative processes...," Dean's appeal states.

Commissioner Piper, echoing the sentiments of her colleagues, says Dean is full of it. "He's like a little kid who is having a tantrum because he is not getting his way," Piper says. "He acts like we all have some axe to grind. We're all just volunteers who are trying to do something for our city."

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley