Who says citizen journalism is boring?

Steve Outing’s criticisms of the first wave of widely recognized commercial citizen journalism sites (there are others that have been under the larger radar screen for some time) came at a serendipitous time for me. Loyal readers will remember that a visit to a meeting of a group dedicated to eradicating crime and encouraging economic development in my neighborhood was a major stop on my Road to the Damascus of wedia. Tonight was the first time my schedule allowed me to return, notebook in hand, to verify that my first rich experience there was no fluke.

It was, apparently, a fluke after all, but not in the way I’d feared.

This one was far more interesting.

I came away with a dozen or so stories and story leads that even the most highfallutin’ old-media journalist would call "real news," at least to the folks in the 13-neighborhood area covered. No softball rotary fundraiser or fun-runs here. A couple of those stories could be widely interesting to people throughout Dallas.

I was there as a constituent of the organization, but not an insider. As a stakeholder, I clearly have a point of view on the things I heard and voted upon. But I was the only one there (other than the secretary) taking notes throughout the proceedings.

In the continuation, you’ll find a list of the items that I think would become news stories that we would "push" to readers in these neighborhoods. I’ll give as much detail as I can, and note where I intend to seek additional information to follow up. Discerning would-be reporters will see several additional angles that could be pursued on many of these.

Even if you’re not interested in these goings-on, the point is this: Real news happens in every neighborhood and on every block in our country (and the world). Those who think that neighborhood or citizen journalism is automatically soft and bland; who ghettoize it in a sanitized side section — are missing the boat.

Setting the scene: A public meeting of the Steering Committee of the Ferguson Road Initiative. Held at the White Rock Church of Christ. Roughly forty people in attendance, including City Councilman Leo Chaney. Fifteen of those forty were official members of the committee. The meeting started at around 7:05 and ended shortly after 9:00. FRI President Bill Coleman presided. I walked in knowing basically nothing about any of the below:

Story #1: As I mentioned in the original post, the southwestern area of the FRI has been the beneficiary of a Weed and Seed grant that is about to expire. The crime-ridden area that abuts my back yard, known to the cops as "Two Points," is under consideration for a new W&S grant. The application process is being led by FRI. Tomorrow, representatives of the Department of Justice will fly in from DC to tour the neighborhood, as one of the requirements of the process. For that tour to take place, the City had to sign a letter of intent with the DOJ. According to Sergeant Rod Dillon of the DPD, the letter only made it through the city bureaucracy today.

Story #2: Crime is down 24% in the FRI W&S area this year (through April), following a 16% reduction last year, and following a continuous downward trend since the institution of the grant in 2001. Dillon said the numbers were so good that he almost didn’t believe them.

Story #3: A full third of the money spent on W&S law enforcement in FRI went to coverage of Mr. M’s Food Store at St. Francis and Senate. Sgt. Dillon says that the store owners aren’t the problem, and I believe him. One night April and I foolishly stopped there late-night for ice cream and the manager thoroughly reprimanded us for our recklessness. $13,340.90 was spent on extra coverage of that store, netting 380 citations. Resulting in jail time were 67 city citations; 78 county; and 13 felonies.

Story #4: As reported last week on The Frontburner, Dallaspolice.net has a nifty new crime mapping feature.

Story #5: According to Sgt. Dillon and another officer (Sgt. Crawford, I believe), one of the biggest problems driving crime citywide is BMV’s (burglary of motor vehicles). In 1999, the state legislature downgraded the crime to a non-enhanceable misdemeanor, citing prison overcrowding. This means that a burglar can get caught stealing stuff out of fifty cars and never spend more than a couple nights in jail. Given that you can sell CD’s, stereos, laptops, etc. stolen from cars very easily, this has become a very attractive crime. Crawford said that a bill to make it an enhanceable offense (i.e. the first time is a misdemeanor, but multiples are not) was in the legislature but that he’d heard from a Channel 8 reporter today that it wasn’t going to make it out of committee.

Story #6: Students at LeTourneau University just completed an independent evaluation of FRI. According to FRI Executive Director Vikki Martin, hiring that out would cost roughly $26k.

Story #7: Councilman Chaney helped the organization find $230k in funds to extend an infrastructure design project. (Chaney was very popular with the group and got a lot of applause and congratulation on his reelection. Sidebar: How many of these type of meetings does each council member attend per month? Good chart possibilities on who is working hard for their constituents.

Story #8: Future feature on camp held at Naval Base in FW where at-risk kids live on base with the soldiers.

Story #9: The rise of Community Development Corporations (CDC’s): Increasingly popular outlet for neighborhood groups to be able to a.) receive property and b.) accept donations. FRI formed one at Chaney’s behest — claim was made that Chaney has been a leader in getting these groups started. The FRCCDC is a subsidiary of FRI and is applying for 501(C)3 status. It is also run by a small board, so can act with more "agility" than a typical community group.

Story 10++: This was the big feature. Charlie Magee wants to develop a townhome community called The Villas at Ash Creek at the Northeast corner of Ferguson and Lakeland. This requires a zoning change from R-7.5 (detached homes) to TH. There is some controversy, because there is concern about what the development would do to the flood plain; about the density of the project; and about whether this is the right thing for the neighborhood. There have been a lot of meeting with individual neighborhood associations on this matter.

This one is complex, and I can’t pretend to have all the information necessary to report this fully, so I’ll note the facts and the questions I’d follow-up on:

  • No background given on Magee and other developments he may have done. I would have asked had the meeting not run so long. All I could find on him online was a zoning approval on a development at CF Hawn & Woody Road and his 2004 membership on the Texas Board of Appraisal Review.
  • Magee would develop the land and then sign on a builder. There can’t be any commitments until he gets the zoning, but he opined that the townhomes would be in the $200-250k range. "If you want to see what it’s going to look like, drive around Uptown." Perry Homes was discussed as a contender.
  • The John West family still owns the vacant land.
  • Magee had one of his employees, Carl Crawley (sp?), a former city planner with him. Crawley knew and seemed quite friendly with Chaney.
  • Side-story: Crawley said (and Chaney and others confirmed) that Dallas has a very unusual, if not unique situation with Planned Developments. Allegedly, the City Code severely limits the restrictions that Council and put on a PD. However, a developer can "voluntarily" agree to more onerous restrictions as part of a zoning petition, which the council can then enforce. This sort of passive-aggressive governing sounds par for the course Dallas to me, but Crawley claimed that we were "the only city in the country" where it works this way. Is that so? Why? Should it change?
  • Magee has already agreed to a lot of restrictions. To whit:
  • Max 87 units
  • No vehicular access on Lakeland
  • No apartments
  • Dedicate land along Ash Creek in Conservation Easement
  • Provide additional evergreen screening
  • Provide open area accessible for owners
  • Fences/screening along Ferguson
  • Concrete sidewalks along Ferguson and Lakeland
  • Every unit has 2 car garage (This argues for 3-story townhomes.)
  • 25 foot building setback from Ferguson
  • Minimum 30′ between fronts and backs of facing townhomes
  • Clear brush along Lakeland
  • Provide street lighting for Lakeland
  • Provide park benches or similar amenities along Lakeland
  • Plant 100 six-foot Crepe Myrtles
  • Provide walking path
  • Judy Hall, President of the Casa Linda Forest Association, representing 424 homes:
    • Lots of concern in her neighborhood
    • 40/66 affected homeowners showed up for meeting
    • Big issue is density and perception that they are like apartments
    • Neighborhood has gone from firmly against to willing to discuss. Another negotiation tomorrow.
  • Delores Wolf, President of The Enclave Association:
    • Very much in favor of townhomes
    • If we want to be a "sexy" neighborhood that attracts Starbucks, etc., we need to accept change.
    • "Most exciting thing since the hotel was demolished on I-30 or the Walgreens was built"
    • Other options: Commercial (which is likely to be low-end and would have no restrictions), apartments.
    • Side story: Said something about a CVS deal falling through?
    • Do we want to scare developers off?
    • Originally skeptical; has no connections to Magee. Says he’s been very responsive

    Two votes were taken: A straw poll of all attendees and a poll of the official members of the committee. The vote was on the zoning change with the existing restrictions.

    Straw Poll:

    • 28 for
    • 5 against
    • 5 abstain

    (I voted for. April abstained.)

    Committee vote:

    • 10 for
    • 1 against
    • 4 abstain

    Bonus story: One of Dallas’ (if not Texas’) most architecturally unique homes will go on the market next week. Ordinarily, I’d give all the details, but the owner was speaking as a private citizen and didn’t necessarily mean to make a public announcement, so I’ll sit on it (for now).

    Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.