Texas Lawyer Tries to Block Possible Bush Library Site

Southern Methodist University wants to plow aging condominiums next to campus to build George W. Bush's presidential library, but a condo owner who is trying to stall the bulldozers says the school used fraud and strong-arm tactics to grab the property.

The resident, a lawyer named Gary Vodicka, sued the university and scored a victory in court this week when a judge gave him three months to conduct new inspections of the condition of the condominiums.

Lawyers for the university say the school acted legally in buying out all but two of the previous condo owners and gaining control of the homeowners' association. They accuse Vodicka of trying to make a buck off the school's interest in the library.

It isn't clear whether the ruling will stop the demolition or hurt the university's chances against three other Texas colleges that also want the library.

SMU is widely considered the favorite. First lady Laura Bush received a degree in elementary education there in 1968 and now serves on its board. Vice President Dick Cheney was a trustee from 1996 to 2000, and several other top White House officials also have ties to the school.

Even if the buildings are flattened, the dispute could shed light on the behind-the-scenes campaigns to land the Bush library.

Vodicka sent subpoenas to all four competing schools — the others are Baylor University, the University of Dallas and a West Texas group led by Texas Tech University — for details about their secret bids to the library site-selection committee. He said he needs the information to show that Southern Methodist has played dirty in taking title to the condominium project where he has owned rental units for 17 years and lived for 10 years.

Texas Tech this week agreed to give Vodicka a video it made for the selection committee and correspondence with the White House but declined to turn over its detailed proposal. The other universities are reviewing the subpoenas, according to officials for each.

A call to the White House regarding the status of the library wasn't immediately returned Thursday.

The two-story condominiums, called University Gardens, aren't much to look at. The painted brick walls are faded yellow, the asphalt driveways are pocked with potholes, a few window panes are filled with plywood, and a 6-foot chain-link fence circling the property completes the grim look.

University officials have denied trying to raze the 340-unit complex to make room for a presidential library. But in court this week, John O'Connor, the school's controller, confirmed it is among the possible sites.

SMU began eyeing the condos, built in the 1960s, while Bush was still Texas governor in the late 1990s. The interest increased after Bush was elected president in 2000.

The college, through a realty company it formed, quietly bought condominium units until it had a majority of seats on the board of the homeowners' association.

In June, a title company hired by the university hand-delivered packets to residents that included a consultant's report that described mold in a few units, water damage to some floor joists and said all the roofs would need replacement.

The consultant estimated the cost of repairs at $12.4 million, with millions more in other upkeep over the next 10 years.

"It's financially not feasible to rehab buildings that go back to the '60s or '70s," said Brad E. Cheves, the school's vice president for development.

Vodicka claims the university let the condos deteriorate by failing to do routine maintenance for three years, with the goal of having them demolished.

Two weeks ago, SMU put the fence around the complex, leaving only one entrance clear for Vodicka and his three renters to get in and out. He said the place looked much different a few years ago, when it was home to a mix of students and senior citizens.

Vodicka said the university subverted a Texas law governing condominium properties to pack the homeowners' association board with its own employees, who then declared the property in the wealthy area known as the Park Cities obsolete.

"SMU is trying to take my home by this scheme of declaring the property uninhabitable. Isn't this a great location?" Vodicka said. "You can't find any place as good as this and as inexpensive as this in the Park Cities."

University officials say the school had the right to put anyone it wanted on the board. They contend Vodicka is now a squatter on their land, and they filed a countersuit charging that the three units he is renting out for $450, $500 and $600 a month belong to the school.

"Mr. Vodicka knows his check for above market value is waiting for him at the title company office," Cheves said. "He probably was on the losing side of the association votes and he's unhappy about it because he wants to make more money from his investment."

John E. McElhaney, the university's lawyer — his law firm was once led by White House Counsel Harriet Miers, a Southern Methodist graduate — said as the owner, the school can tear down the condos once Vodicka's inspectors are done. He said the judge's ruling in favor of Vodicka won't make a difference, and that there is no purpose for a trial once the buildings are gone.

Vodicka disagreed.

"It's not up to SMU to destroy the complex and destroy the evidence," he said from a balcony overlooking a courtyard pool filled with leaves. "It's up to a jury."