Getting Schooled

A group of former condo owners say SMU defrauded them of their homes to make way for the new Bush library.

Even though Leslie Davenport is not a party to the litigation, nothing can keep her away from the Dallas County district court next October. That's when Southern Methodist University is scheduled to defend its reputation for what Davenport claims was the unconscionable treatment her mother and others suffered at the hands of a school willing to intimidate and deceive in its plan to grab land for the George W. Bush presidential library.

The lawsuit features two plaintiffs, attorney Gary Vodicka and dentist Robert Tafel, who, though unyielding, do not appear to be acting out of any lofty political principle — no hot stick in the eye for an unpopular ex-president. Their complaint is more pragmatic. They allege that as former residents of what was once the 350-unit University Gardens condominium (where Davenport's mother also lived), they were subjected to a protracted scorched-earth strategy orchestrated by the university to defraud them of their homes.

The complex has been flattened now and reduced to rubble, its residents long gone, but that doesn't erase the memories that Davenport has of the place where her mother Pat moved in 1986 and planned on spending the rest of her life. Leslie recalls how nicely her mom fixed up her two-story townhouse, carefully hanging pictures of her children on its off-white walls. She felt safe in Dallas's Park Cities, her home bordering SMU's stately tree-lined streets and red-brick Georgian Revival buildings.

Attorney Gary Vodicka is now suing his old alma mater, alleging SMU defrauded him and other residents of the University Gardens in its plan to acquire land to build the Bush library.
Mark Graham
Attorney Gary Vodicka is now suing his old alma mater, alleging SMU defrauded him and other residents of the University Gardens in its plan to acquire land to build the Bush library.
The empty site in front of the SMU campus is where the University Gardens condominiums sat for nearly 40 years until being demolished to make room for the 25-acre George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Mark Graham
The empty site in front of the SMU campus is where the University Gardens condominiums sat for nearly 40 years until being demolished to make room for the 25-acre George W. Bush Presidential Center.

But by April 1999, SMU began gobbling up condos at University Gardens, purchasing 10 percent of the units within months and filling them with students, some of whom acted rude to the residents, most of them elderly. The school's general counsel, Leon Bennett, who remains involved with the case but could not be reached for comment, met with anxious residents in August of that year to assure them that SMU wasn't up to anything nefarious. He told them the university just wanted to make sure the complex didn't fall into the hands of a developer, who might raze the complex and erect a high-rise that would be a towering eyesore to the colonial-style campus.

Bush, then in his second term as governor, had only two months earlier announced that he was joining a crowded field of candidates for the Republican nomination for president. So the idea of a Bush presidential library located on their 12-acre complex never crossed the minds of the residents; on the contrary, Bennett told them that SMU had no immediate interest in the complex, though in 15 years or so, it might consider the site for student housing or an intramural field.

But at the 1999 meeting, many of the residents already were convinced that the only developer from whom they needed protection was SMU. Their fears were exacerbated by 2002, when the university continued to purchase units even though, under the bylaws of the complex, SMU owned enough of a stake (26 percent) to prevent any grasping developer from taking over the property. Although SMU made no secret of the fact that it was interested in housing the Bush library, the school remained vague about its exact location.

In 2002, after SMU began buying units at a furious clip, Pat grew frightened. SMU wanted to buy her and other residents out, offering them an extremely low price, Pat thought, for her home and a nearby unit she owned and rented out. Pat spent many nights on the phone with her daughter, worrying about her home and her finances. She owned both units outright — they were security for her retirement — but if she accepted the university's low-ball offer, she couldn't maintain her quality of life. If she didn't agree to it, the university said it would take the offer off the table. And with SMU rapidly acquiring a controlling interest in the complex, no other buyer would purchase her home.

All these negotiations seemed far too sophisticated for her; she finally gave in and sold both units in 2003. But before selling, she wanted to give the university a piece of her mind and handed SMU's brokers a two-page letter, writing that she was selling her home "totally against my wishes," and that "quite frankly, I'm terrified about how I'm going to be able to take care of myself during my remaining years."

After the sale in 2003, Pat moved into a Lake Highlands townhome but couldn't make ends meet without the assistance of her ex-husband. Within months of the move, she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, and in May 2007, she would die from the disease.

Although no one blames SMU for her death, Leslie is convinced that her mother's condition was exacerbated by the pitched fight over her home. "All the doctors we went to asked if she had been under a lot of stress," Leslie says. "It's very sad to know that the last years of my mother's life were filled with such trauma and turmoil."

The story of SMU's efforts to secure the George W. Bush Presidential Center has been reported as a story about a philosophical rift between SMU's administration and dissenting faculty and alumni who wanted no part of the proposed library's neoconservative think tank, fearful it would strap an ideological straitjacket on an institution dedicated to higher learning. But that partisan conflict, while of national interest, was just an entertaining sideshow to the story of an aggressive real estate play on the part of SMU and its powerful alumni, spearheaded by Dallas oilman Ray Hunt, to secure land for the Bush library to its east, the only direction the otherwise landlocked university had to grow.

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