Dallas Morning News Achitecture Critic Mark Lamster Isn't a Total Pinhead After All

Categories: Schutze

Rowlandson, Library of Congress
City Hall regulars look on as naive citizen addresses Dallas City Council.

Mark Lamster, architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News, is still new in the job, but he's got a sharp analytical eye. Over the years I have developed my own mental gauge for how long it takes newcomers to figure out Dallas, and I have to say this guy's sort of a rocket.

In a piece in the paper today he says: "Dallasites like to make fun of Houston because it has no zoning, but Dallas has something that might be worse. Call it Do-It-Yourself Zoning. With a decent lawyer, you can essentially rewrite the city's zoning rules to your convenience."

That's it. That's just it. Totally it. He puts his finger right on it.

In spite of cyclical massive efforts going back decades to impose grand visions on the city through planning, the peculiar mechanism of City Hall makes sure that Dallas really runs like a small Southern city in the 1950s. Everything is opaque. Transparency is a code word for communism. Want something done? Get inside. Way inside. Otherwise forget about it.

Specifically Lamster is talking about the incredible proliferation of private zoning in Dallas. Through a legal mechanism called the "planned development district" (actually, we old hands just call it a "pee-dee"), developers can exempt themselves from almost all of the city's big vision planning policies and invent their own zoning on their own land.

They draw a circle around their property and then draw up a kind of little Disney Land of zoning inside that circle, where they get to do whatever they want. Of course they do have to get it past the Plan Commission and the City Council. For people who know how to get that done, it's kind of like walking through the bus station. Unpleasant but easy. For other people it's impossible.

There are two ways to get yourself a pee-dee. The first is DIY. Three steps for that: 1) Join the Dallas Country Club (please don't be of an awkward demographic origin, helps if you don't actually live in Dallas). 2) Make friends. 3) Ask your new powerful friends to get you a pee-dee.

The second way, better for newcomers, outsiders, awkward persons and people who are impatient: hire a lobbyist/lawyer/insider/fixer. I would name them for you here, but I have so much respect for all of their abilities, I feel uncomfortable sounding like I'm trying to lend any one of them a commercial advantage over the others.

But let me tell you, every once in a while some church or school or other private entity has actually come to me, foolishly thinking I could help or advise on their capital project, and I always tell them two things: 1) Never ever mention my name to anyone at City Hall. 2) Hire a top-quality insider lobbyist and get you a pee-dee.

It actually pains me to see innocent well-intended citizens and/or businesses showing up in front of the Plan Commission thinking they can access City Hall straight-on. Believe me. For those people it's a slaughter-house -- like the Artful Dodger's two-minute trial at the Old Bailey in Dickens' Oliver Twist. Funny but horrible.

So how do the consultants do it? The first thing they do is visit key City Council people and figure out some kind of tit-for-tat juggling of the books to help everybody with their pet projects, weaving their client's new pee-dee cleverly into the fabric. Then they work downward, sort of, making sure that lesser appointed bodies like the Plan Commission and the least important people of all, city staff, understand that this is already a done deal up top.

Is the Dallas way of getting things done any different from how things get done anywhere else? Only in this sense: It's almost impossible to see.

I worked for The Houston Chronicle for a while. I wasn't in Houston, but I paid attention to the way things got done down there. Lamster is right in suggesting that the no-zoning regime in Houston is actually more transparent and even more rational than the Dallas system. Some of it is cultural, having to do with Houston being a more truly urban place with evolved organized constituencies and a habit of public discourse. Some it has to do with a more level playing field and a more open kind of competition in Houston. Everybody keeps an eye on everybody else. Houston has tons of special enterprise districts, by the way, but they are all developed according to a pretty rigid standard.

Here the culture is much more small-town and keep-your-head-down. It's understood that people who pay the price and play by the rules, who knock the ball through the wickets and don't get drunk, will finally receive what they seek. In Houston it's about building your deal in public. Here it's all about barricading your deal from the public realm.

The dynamic here is opaque to most newcomers who are not themselves involved in real estate development. They see cranes and cement mixers and go all ga-ga about everything happening, without ever snapping to the fact that nothing is happening the way it's supposed to. Not to be patronizing or anything, but I do think Lamster is an exceptionally quick study. I apologize for calling him "Mark Lamster, New York Pinhead" when he first showed up. Eric Celeste made me do that.

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I would just add that the Trinity East gas drilling permits/City Hall deal were a perfect example of this for about two years as they wound through the system and warped the Gas Task Force votes like un-plotted underwater mountain ranges sending out blips in the civic sonar. Only public outcry and the DO's eventual mapping of those mountains with the release of the Suhm memo prevented a real disaster.

Sharon_Moreanus topcommenter

NTDWTS...top 100. Top 20z.

when will DO a party for the "top commenters "

ozonelarryb topcommenter

I've been harping on Eric to organize a pissup. Start the bidding/suggestions.

Craft and growler? Fair park, appropriately.


@Sharon_Moreanus Funny you should mention that. A few years ago (before the whole "Top Commenters" thing) Wilonsky asked me over a beer at the Windmill if I would be interested in helping him organize an Unfair Park meet-up. Of course, I don't think Ruddski or Myrna had even discovered this site that the time....

ScottsMerkin topcommenter

@casiepierce Ive had a few beers with our esteemed bbq writer Gavin and met a fellow CoA commenter as well. Twas fun


Yeah Jim, he's not a pinhead.

It's not like he's some sanctimonious hypocrite "advocacy journalist" who white-fled from Detroit to Dallas and then spent years writing for a rag that until recently made most of its money off of backpage classified ads for child sex-slaves or anything like that, right Jim?

JimSX topcommenter


Oh, my gosh, you've been away for months. I hope they didn't mistreat you. 


Scumbag. You profited off of child rape. If you had any honor you would kill yourself out of shame.



Boy, you are filled with hatred. Must be a vey sad existence. How long have you been a member of the Tea Party?


War plus lots of colonial slaves= " world-class " city.


At least his mom didn't (maybe) call him "Little Bastard".

TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

Well, you know how it is. If we let things get out of hand with all of this "zoning" nonsense, it could have a chilling effect on the developer / investor class.

Wouldn't want chilly developers, or anything.


This may help to explain the reason that for every Trinity Groves success there is a Victory Park mess.  No consistency in how projects are reviewed and approved by any governing body in Dallas. Dallas is a city mired in the past and the 1950's seems just about right for our governing structure and city services. 


Once again Schutze, your right! Dallas City Hall works with the developers in a small town way; if you do the right things, know the right people and grease the right hands, you get their support for your development. 

Dallas politicos continue to claim Dallas is a "world class city", yet they operate like a small town when it comes to economic development because its all about who you know and who's hands your greasing........... 

A true world class City/System has rigid policies in place so that "World Class Developers" feel comfortable to invest their time and money without the feeling they are going to get the "shake down" or have to play politics.  


@brock81 And what (or who) is a "World Class Developer", pray tell? And what is a "true world class City/System"?  The mind boggles.

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