Trinity Park or Trinity Toll Road?

Last month, I began working my way through the master plan for the Trinity River Project, along with maps and drawings showing what lies ahead for the project. Although I’m on the Council’s Trinity River committee, we haven’t been given a primer on the overall scope of this project, and I wanted to fully understand it.

I was very, very disappointed in what I found: This is a roads project.

Yes, you read that right. All those rumors you’ve heard, all those Jim Schutze articles you’ve read, they’re right on the money. The vast majority of the public funds for this project will be spent on a six-lane highway INSIDE the downtown levee. (To be clear, the levees are the little hills that run along both sides of the Trinity River basin.)

So you’re thinking to yourself, why on earth would we put a huge highway — a toll road — inside the levee that is supposed to contain the biggest park in the world? Frankly, I have no idea.

I’ve gotten various explanations about the toll road. Some say we must have a road there or we’ll have traffic problems in Dallas (imagine). Some say I-35 is overwhelmed and must be expanded, and this is the single, best, and only way to do it.

Others offer this explanation: Without the road, we couldn’t pay for the park. Here’s how that theory works. We’ve got to dig out a bunch of dirt to create the man-made lakes. TxDOT needs a bunch of dirt to build up the levee for the road, so they’ll buy that dirt from us, and we’ll basically get the lakes dug out for free. Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion that at the end of the day, TxDOT is going to say that the City was going to dig out the lakes anyway, and we’re lucky that they took all that dirt off our hands, and here’s the bill, thank you.

Up to now, when people have asked me what I think about the Trinity River Project, here’s what I’ve said: Whether I like it, love it, or think it’s the worst project ever, my responsibility as an elected official is to effectuate the will of the voters who approved the Trinity River Project bond in 1998.

So what exactly is the “will” of the voters? I think we can deduce that in two ways. The simplest is to look at what residents wrote on comment sheets and questionnaires the city sent out at the time the project was being developed.

I reviewed all of the comment sheets, and when residents were asked about the most important part of the project, they said “the parks.” When asked what they thought about the transportation part of the project, they stated some variation of “NO HIGHWAY! NO TOLLROAD! THE ROAD WILL RUIN THE PARK!” Often in capital letters. Usually underlined.

Another way we can discern voter intent is to look at what residents ask most about when they want to know what’s going on with the Trinity River project. People ask me all the time, “When is the Trinity River park going to be ready?” “When will we be able to canoe down the lakes?” No one has ever, ever asked me, “When is the huge toll road going to be built?” People want the huge, glorious park that they were sold and that they voted for. People want flood control and protection. People want the lakes, the wetlands, the Great Trinity Forest. No one wants a big stinking toll road with cars whizzing by. If you’ve been down to the Trinity River, say, around Sylvan Avenue, the nice thing about being down in the floodplain is that you’re surrounded by a vast park with green hills on either side. You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of a city. Loud, polluting cars zooming by inside the hill are going to kill that.

I got this bee in my bonnet after the Trinity River committee met today. We were briefed on the North Texas Tollroad Authority’s possible involvement with the tollroad. I voiced exactly what I’ve stated above, and pointed out that I wouldn’t be supporting a highway along the Trinity Park in any way, shape, or form.

The chair of the Committee, Ed Oakley, pointed out that the tollway was a done deal, and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to vote against it; that the only input we have now will be to create a pretty design for the toll road.

As to whether the toll road is a done deal, only time will tell. As to making the toll road pretty, I say that that is putting lipstick on a pig. We can dress up the tollway any way we like. We can coat it in chocolate frosting and put a big red bow on it, and it’s still a toll road right alongside a park.

Who’s bright idea was this?

Last thing I’ll say is this: I’m a skeptic, if not by nature, then profession (attorney). When I see that all of the Trinity River Project comment cards and questionnaires unequivocally stated, in no uncertain terms, that residents didn’t want a tollroad, yet they got one anyway, it makes me very, very uneasy with the current comprehensive plan process. The city claims to be soliciting resident input on the comprehensive plan, but at the end of the day, I really wonder if it’ll make any difference at all. I get the feeling that the fundamentals of that plan, like the Trinity River Project, have already been written in stone, and we’re going to get what we’re going to get. I worry that in a few years, we’re going to be asking ourselves, “Who’s bright idea was this?”

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Join Dallas’ Biggest Graffiti Paint Out Ever!

Join me, Councilmembers Pauline Medrano and Gary Griffith, and Mayor Laura Miller as we join together to attack graffiti in East Dallas.

This will be the first of two large-scale graffiti paint-outs for our city. Graffiti negatively affects our public safety, our property values, and our quality of life, so please participate and help improve our city!

Saturday, March 25
9AM to Noon
3003 Swiss Avenue at Oak Street (Central Square Park)

Wear your paint clothes and bring sun block and bug spray.

Meet back afterwards for lunch provided by the Meadows Foundation and Carraba’s.

For more info:
Scot Williams
scotw3 @ swbell.net
(214) 793-1881

Improving the Proposed ‘Forward Dallas!’ Comprehensive Land Use Plan

Where should the City of Dallas encourage new business centers and mixed-use developments to be built? What kinds of industries should the city try to attract and where should they be located? Which neighborhoods in our city should be protected and preserved and which need to be redeveloped? These and other important issues are critical to the future of our city. Today, the City of Dallas is unable to answer these questions because we do not have a long-term blueprint for growth. The City is working to change this by developing a comprehensive land use plan.

About a year and a half ago, the City of Dallas began working on a comprehensive plan that would guide zoning and land use development in our city for decades to come. A consulting firm — Fregonese Calthorpe Associates — was hired, and eight public workshops were held across the city to get input from residents. An advisory committee of neighborhood leaders, commercial and residential developers, business owners, and others met regularly to discuss the plan. (I served on the advisory committee for the comprehensive plan, and attended all public workshops until I was elected to the City Council last June.)

In late January of this year, the first draft of the comprehensive plan was publicly released. Two public meetings requesting input have been held since then, and no additional meetings are scheduled. Under the current timetable, the Dallas City Council is scheduled to consider this plan for adoption in June.

I am wholeheartedly supportive of Dallas’ adopting a comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan will allow us to be proactive, rather than reactive, as our city grows. However, it is even more important that we get this plan right. Having read all 454 pages of the proposed plan, I have several concerns about the plan as it is currently drafted. I encourage you to review this plan for yourself at Forward Dallas!, particularly the sections on Land Use and Housing, as well as proposed Development Code revisions.

Below are my concerns with the draft comprehensive plan.

Dallas is already oversaturated with multi-family housing.

One of the purported goals of the plan is to significantly increase the population of Dallas over the next twenty years. While the North Central Texas Council of Governments (“NCTCOG”) predicts that Dallas will grow by 90,000 households over the next twenty years, the comprehensive plan recommends that we make policy decisions and zoning changes that will increase our population by 220,000 households.

My initial reaction to this dramatic increase in residents was “Where will these people live?” On our current path, 55,000 of the 90,000 new NCTCOG households would live in single-family homes, and the remaining 35,000 would live in multi-family housing (apartments, townhouses, and condominiums). The comprehensive plan, on the other hand, proposes that Dallas grow by the same 55,000 single-family homes, but increase our multi-family households by 165,000. To be clear, instead of 35,000 new multi-family households, the plan calls for the city to grow by 165,000 new multi-family households over the next twenty years. That’s more than 4½ times the number of multi-family units currently projected.

While the plan advocates that we dramatically increase multi-family households, proponents of the plan also claim they want to increase home ownership in Dallas. They argue that the vast majority of the proposed new 165,000 multi-family units will be owner-occupied townhomes and condos for low-income families. However, historic trends and current rental/owner occupancy rates simply do not support this claim.

Right now, only 51% of townhomes and only 5% of condos/apartments are owner-occupied. The comprehensive plan home ownership projections are entirely dependent on these percentages increasing to 85% and 75% respectively. As of yet, however, there are no plans on how to achieve such remarkably high rates of owner occupancy. Currently, the only type of housing that produces high owner occupancy rates (85%) in Dallas is the single-family home. If our goal is to increase home ownership, the only realistic way to achieve this is to encourage the new development of single-family homes.

Accepting for a moment that the higher multi-family owner occupancy rates are possible, there is no means by which to ensure that the new townhomes and condos would remain owner-occupied and would not become rental properties as they age. Such “flipping” happens all the time, particularly in depressed economic cycles. This would no doubt further undermine home ownership.

Another troubling fact is that the comprehensive plan predicts that the majority of the proposed additional households will fall below Dallas’ median income of $37,628 in yearly income. (Housing p. 5-13.) I am a strong proponent of affordable housing, and I realize that we already lack affordable housing in Dallas. If we lack affordable housing now, how is the city going to subsidize a huge increase in affordable housing for the future? What will these massive housing subsidies cost the city? How will dramatically increasing the number and density of poor within the city of Dallas affect our quality of life? These are fundamental questions that our plan – as currently drafted – cannot answer.

Do we really want to base our entire future housing model on the hope that we can (1) somehow more than quintuple the ownership rate of townhomes and condos, (2) prevent townhomes and condos from becoming rental units, and (3) dramatically increase affordable housing in Dallas at no cost to Dallas taxpayers? We need to fundamentally rethink this most basic aspect of the plan.

The plan’s proposed population increase has not been coordinated with DISD.

One of the City’s goals is to better coordinate with DISD. However, until two weeks ago, there was no clear plan for coordinating with decision-makers at DISD to address the significant student enrollment increase that would result from implementation of this plan. The leadership of DISD is unaware of our comprehensive plan and has not discussed its possible implications on the school system. The plan, which calls for dramatic population growth, will have a significant effect on attendance zones and school population. It appears that after my comments regarding this very issue at the last council briefing, advocates of the plan have engaged with DISD demographers. This is a good first step, but in addition to the demographers at DISD, we also need to talk with the school board and the new DISD superintendent about this proposed dramatic population increase.

The plan fails to identify “successful” or “stable” neighborhoods.

The plan places a lot of emphasis on “successful” and “stable” neighborhoods, and often states that such neighborhoods will be protected from zoning changes. Unfortunately, the plan does not identify these neighborhoods. If we haven’t defined or identified these neighborhoods, how can we possibly protect them? Similarly, if we haven’t identified areas ripe for change, how can we focus our energies on improving those areas? We need to identify areas of change and areas of stability, even though doing so may be controversial and challenging. Our consultants identified such areas when they worked on Denver’s comprehensive plan, and the same can be done for Dallas. Our neighborhoods deserve no less.

Proposed reduction in parking requirements will overburden our neighborhoods.

The plan advocates that we reduce parking requirements for businesses and multi-family housing. However, without a reliable, usable mass transit system already in place, under-parking commercial and high-density residential developments will result in severe parking deficits and problems for our neighborhoods and businesses. When businesses and apartments are under-parked, parking often overflows into surrounding neighborhoods, changing the character of our residential areas and resulting in additional litter and decreased safety.

Dallas residents love their cars. Simply reducing parking availability is not going to force residents to use mass transit, particularly when our mass transit system is, at best, in its adolescence. Useful mass transit must come first, then we can discuss reducing parking requirements.

It is important to point out that this is not simply a neighborhood problem. Unrealistically low parking requirements also scare away businesses. At our last comprehensive plan advisory committee meeting on March 6, Dallas resident and The Container Store co-founder John Mullen pointed out that he would refuse to locate his retail stores in a city with low parking requirements. He explained that in a “strip center” situation in which one or more restaurants share a parking lot with retailers, under-parked restaurants are a disaster for the retailers. Restaurants have significant parking needs during peak hours, reducing the spaces that are available for the retailers’ customers. When retail patrons can’t find parking spaces, they go elsewhere and the retailers lose business. Reducing parking requirements would only exacerbate the problem.

In addition, I must say I was disappointed at the last comprehensive plan advisory committee meeting when the comprehensive plan’s author, John Fregonese of Fregonese Calthorpe Associates, stated that the best way to address parking issues is to reduce parking space requirements, allow severe parking problems to develop, then let the affected businesses sort out the best solution. To me, that is reactionary and represents the antithesis of planning. Isn’t the whole point of developing a plan to address problems before they occur, not wait until after the problem happens and hope for a solution? Even assuming such an approach represented good planning, the facts do not support this theory. Otherwise, we already would have found solutions to the parking shortage problems on Lower Greenville and in Oak Lawn. Instead, we see significant overflow into our neighborhoods, resulting in litter, vandalism, trash, and traffic for our residents.

There may be some businesses in Dallas (such as big-box stores) that have parking requirements that are too high. I am open to reducing parking requirements when the situation merits. But to reduce parking requirements across the board disregards the current parking deficit problems in our city and the burden it places on our neighborhoods and retailers.

There are no requirements to increase greenspace in more densely populated areas.

Despite statements of generic support for parks and greenspace, the plan does not require greenspace as part of dense new developments. If we are going to more densely populate our city, we need to incorporate policy statements into the plan that require (not just “encourage”) set-asides for greenspace.

The “Vision Illustration” must be re-thought.

The proposed comprehensive plan includes a “Vision Illustration” for our city. The vision illustration is a map of Dallas with areas colored to represent residential neighborhoods, urban neighborhoods, the downtown area, mixed-use districts, campus districts, etc. So why is this map called a “vision illustration” instead of a “map”? Because under Texas law, a city’s zoning must follow its comprehensive plan map, and plan proponents don’t want to have to change the map every time the city makes a zoning change that doesn’t follow their map.

Fair enough. But there are problems with this map. Although proponents try to play down the importance of the map, the comprehensive plan itself states that the map will guide future development, and proponents have admitted in public meetings that it will be used in making future zoning decisions. So we must get it right.

Unfortunately, some areas of the map are colored wrong. For example, some areas are marked “urban neighborhood” (such as Northern Hills and Perry Heights) when they should be “residential neighborhood.” Uptown is colored “downtown.” We don’t need to start upzoning our wonderful Dallas neighborhoods to make way for more apartments and townhomes, and we don’t need Downtown to gobble up Uptown, which has lower building heights. The bottom line is that the map (or whatever it’s called) is important and we need time to discuss it and go over it in detail.

We need to analyze underutilized zoning rights.

One of the stated goals of the plan is to “increase zoning capacity” in Dallas. That basically means upzoning lower-intensity uses to higher-intensity uses. The comprehensive plan proposal is based on the assumption that we are running out of vacant land and will need to start upzoning our currently developed land. However, we have only catalogued vacant land in our city. We have not yet examined underutilized zoning rights.

Underutilized zoning rights are those rights that a property owner currently possesses that allow him or her to build more intensive uses today, without changing the zoning on the property.

Properties are typically zoned for a number of uses, giving property owners flexibility to develop their property as they see fit. A property would have underutilized zoning rights if, for example, the property were zoned for both apartments (higher intensity) and a parking lot (lower intensity), and the property owner was currently using the property as a parking lot. In this example, more intense development rights are already available on the property; they are simply unused. If we can build apartments on that site and increase our density by using those underutilized zoning rights, we won’t have to use up our vacant land or change the zoning in our single-family neighborhoods to apartments in order to increase our density.

It’s too soon for us to start bemoaning our lack of vacant land or clamoring to upzone low-intensity uses such as single-family neighborhoods when we haven’t even cataloged our existing underutilized zoning rights.

We need to grow in the Southern Sector.

The plan needs a greater focus on developing the Southern Sector. The Southern Sector is our future. It is underdeveloped, and this plan (not just the plan’s marketing language) needs to be devoted to achieving commercial and residential development in the Southern Sector. I was extremely disappointed to see that one of the many missing sections of the plan was the proposal for South Dallas/Fair Park.

Does this plan truly represent the vision of Dallas residents?

Most troubling to me personally, this plan does not represent the “vision” of Dallas residents, no matter what its marketing language says. The city hosted eight public workshops on discrete planning projects at key intersections/transit locations around the city. That small snapshot does not translate into a vision for the other 340 square miles of the city. What is our residents’ vision for the rest of the city? Where do they want to see growth and increased density?

I served on the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee, attended all of the comprehensive plan workshops, and attended the two recent public meetings. I have not once heard residents clamoring for dramatic increases in multi-family housing or reduced parking requirements. I have, however, heard great interest in pedestrian environments, trails, parks, attractive neighborhoods, and beautiful streetscapes. Let’s pursue that vision, not one of apartments as far as the eye can see.

Lack of public involvement and input.

Since the draft plan was made public in late January, there have been only two public meetings to collect input on this complex plan. There need to be additional public meetings after the consultants have incorporated the most recent public comments into the plan. The public needs an opportunity to review an updated plan to see that their input has been incorporated. I would also like to see a greater attempt to publicize this proposed plan.

The approval process is moving too fast.

Overall, the plan seems to be moving too swiftly through the approval process, even though parts of the plan are incomplete or missing, and much additional public input is needed. This is a complex document that will have substantial implications for the future of our city, and we need to get it right.

Dallas’ Policy for Encouraging Economic Development

We had a briefing today in the Council’s Economic Development Committee to discuss the city’s incentives program to attract and keep businesses in Dallas. I wanted to give a quick overview of that program.

Here are the ways Dallas can attract and keep businesses:
– Tax Abatements
– Development Fee Rebates
– Infrastructure Participation
– Right-of-Way Abandonment Fee Rebates/Credits
– Tax Increment Financing Districts
– Public Improvement Districts
– Consideration of Grants and Loans

The city will not give incentives unless the business project would not occur, or would be substantially less beneficial to the city, “but for” the incentives.

The thing that struck me the most about this briefing relates to tax abatements. Tax abatements reduce the amount of property taxes that a business pays to the city for a specified period of time.

Residents often ask me how much money the city “loses” each year due to business tax abatements. There are currently 75 active business tax abatements that resulted in $8.7 million in forgone revenue in 2005. (Texas Instruments’ abatement accounted for $6.3 million or nearly 72% of this amount. Texas Instruments’ abatement will expire after 2007 resulting in the City receiving this tax revenue in FY08-09.) Without Texas Instruments, the city is abating $2.4M a year for businesses. To put that inperspective, our city’s annual budget is $2.2 billion.

Since 1990, the City Council has considered business incentives for over 200 projects with over $4.5 billion in new investment and over 50,000 jobs created or retained.

Since 2003, the City Council has considered incentives through the Program for 19 projects with an associated $429 million in new investment and 5,000 associated jobs.

I would prefer we didn’t have to offer any incentives to keep and attract businesses to our city. Unfortunately, comparable cities around the country, as well as neighboring suburbs, offer incentives, and we have to level the playing field. You may view a list of incentives provided by other Texas cities and other national cities on pages 11 and 12 in the briefing.