City Council Approves Junius Heights Historic District

I am pleased to report that this afternoon the City Council unanimously approved the Junius Heights Historic District. Congratulations to the neighborhood residents who worked long and hard to preserve the character of this beautiful East Dallas neighborhood!

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Proposal to Improve Farmers Market

On Monday, the council’s Economic Development & Housing Committee was briefed on a plan to improve Farmers Market. In general, I am supportive of the plan. The Farmers Market, located in the southeast quadrant of Downtown, has an outdoor market with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as an indoor market with meat and specialty coffees and teas.

The Market is an important city asset, providing a place where local farmers can sell their products. Unfortunately, the Market has had some challenges responding to the needs of residents and vendors, and the goal of the study was to develop a plan to improve the market and increase business.

The plan suggests infrastructure improvements, creating a better traffic flow, having an independent management company oversee the Market, and focusing on unique local businesses (as opposed to national chains).

Vendors attended the meeting on Monday, and one of their concerns was that they did not feel involved in the process. I will be holding a meeting with them, and also meeting with Friends of Farmers Market to get input.

I welcome your thoughts. (angela.hunt@dallascityhall.com)

Councilmember Blaydes expressed concern about the proximity of the Market to the Homeless Assistance Center, and explained he didn’t want to support funding for the Market because the HAC would be such a detriment to business.

I would point out, however, that private investors are quickly purchasing property in this location and planning hundreds of new townhomes and apartments. They don’t seem to be deterred by the HAC. If they are investing there, and bringing new residents to the Farmers Market area, we should similarly invest in this important city asset.

You may review the proposal here.

Lower Greenville – Proposal to Remove Some Head-In Parking Spaces for Patio

Late Friday afternoon, I learned that the City Council’s Economic Development Committee’s agenda for April 17 included an item to do away with certain parking spaces to put in an outdoor patio on Lower Greenville. I was surprised that this came up on a committee agenda without hearing about it ahead of time.

As a member of that committee, I requested that the item be delayed by a month so that I could get more information and talk with residents. I understand how critical parking is for Lower Greenville, and once I get more information, I will let residents know.

Rumors About the Comprehensive Plan: True or False?

As many residents know, the City is in the last phase of creating a comprehensive plan to guide land use and development for decades to come. As I’ve discussed here before, I feel very strongly that we need a comprehensive plan to guide the future growth of our city. However, I have serious concerns about certain aspects of the proposed plan, and believe some changes must be made before it is approved. If you haven’t read my concerns about the current draft of the project, you may do so here.

There have been rumors flying around about the comprehensive plan, and I want to set a couple of things straight.

RUMOR #1: “People criticizing this plan don’t want the City to adopt a comprehensive plan at all.”
FALSE. I obviously can’t speak for everyone who has concerns about this plan, but everyone I’ve talked with who is critical of the plan nonetheless supports the concept and wants to see it succeed. They just don’t like some of the aspects of the current proposal.

I for one am VERY supportive of developing a comprehensive plan to guide growth in our city. If I weren’t, I would not have served on the advisory committee, attended all the townhall meetings, and read the 454-page plan page-by-page. I want this plan to work, and I want it to be good. The right plan will be good for neighborhoods and developers alike. It will anticipate and guide growth while protecting stable neighborhoods. It will encourage greenspace, pedestrianism, and mass transit. My criticisms of the plan are reflective of my deep desire to get it right.

RUMOR #2: “People criticizing this plan are trying to derail the process.”
FALSE. Closely related to Rumor #1, this rumor is predicated on desire by plan critics for additional time to review this massive (450+ page) document.

This process is being rushed. The facts speak for themselves. With only two public meetings and no revised draft in hand, the Plan Commission was initially scheduled to approve this incredibly important and complex plan on April 6, and the Council not long thereafter. After I expressed my grave concern with this timeline, the schedule was revised to offer an extra month to review this dense document. Why are proponents so afraid of extra time to ensure we get this right?

The newest schedule, created last Thursday, is no better:

April 20 – First half of new draft of Comp Plan released. (Vision Statement and Policy sections.)
April 20 – Plan Commission briefed on Plan.
May 2 – Second half of new draft of Comp Plan released.
May 4 – Plan Commission briefed on Plan. Plan could be voted on by the Plan Commission on this date, even though they will have had only TWO DAYS to review the second half of the Plan (Implementation and Monitoring sections).
May 18 or 25 – Plan Commission votes on Plan.
Late May or early June – Council votes on Plan.

We MUST have additional public meetings and time to vet the most recent version of the document and determine whether residents’ input has been incorporated into the plan.

RUMOR #3: “Critics of this plan want to freeze our zoning as it is and oppose any changes.”
FALSE. Even the most die-hard neighborhood advocates I know agree that there are neighborhoods and areas in our city that need to be redeveloped. But we also need to recognize and protect those areas that are stable and successful. This plan, as of yet, pays lip service to quality neighborhoods, and doesn’t demarcate or protect them in any meaningful way.

Denver’s comprehensive plan shows very specific areas for stability and transition on their map. Minneapolis’ comprehensive plan map shows specific neighborhoods and areas to protect, areas that are redeveloping, and areas that need redevelopment. Why can’t our plan protect neighborhoods like these plans do?

RUMOR #4: “Critics of this plan oppose any new multi-family and only want to see single-family homes built.”
FALSE. We’ve got some great examples of good quality multi-family in District 14: West Village and Mockingbird Station come to mind. These are great mixed-use, transit-oriented developments.

However, we’ve also seen terrible failures like Vickery Meadows, where too many apartments clustered together in one area lead to increases in crime and put a burden on our school system. Nothing in this plan ensures that we would get West Village and not Vickery Meadows. Most of us agree that the city will necessarily increase in density as it grows. Let’s make sure that we ensure high-quality construction, focus on transit-oriented development, with low concentrations of multi-family so we don’t create slums.

Secondly, I do believe that the mix of multi-family versus single-family called for by this plan is setting us up for failure. Seventy-five percent of all new households built would be multi-family. Why would we want to encourage such an imbalance, when single-family homes have proved to be a stabilizing force for neighborhoods?

Council Approves Red-Light Cameras

On Wednesday, the City Council approved the use of red-light cameras to automatically ticket anyone running a red-light at certain intersections. The cameras snap a picture of cars running red-lights, and then a private company sends out the fine to the car’s owner.

The matter was on the Council’s consent agenda (where dozens of items are grouped to be approved in a single vote), and I did not pull it to address the issue independently. I’ve had my say about the red-light cameras, and it is clear that the majority of the council approves of them.

A few years ago, my mother and step-dad were hit by a driver who ran a red-light, so I have a particular interest in this issue. On first blush, red-light cameras are a no-brainer. Who doesn’t want to decrease traffic accidents and fatalities? But therein lies the question: Do red-light cameras really increase public safety, or are they just a revenue generator for cities?

The research suggests the latter. In fact, a recent Washington Post article analyzing the use of red-light cameras in Washington, D.C. revealed that accidents and fatalities did not decrease where red-light cameras were used. A study by the Federal Highway Administration confirms that rear-end collisions actually increase where cameras are used.

Seeing I was in the minority on this issue, I have requested that city staff keep extensive records on collisions and fatalities at the intersections where we are posting cameras. After a year’s time, we will compare the post-camera statistics with the pre-camera numbers. That way we can tell if the cameras are actually improving safety. If they are more of a hazard than benefit, and if they’re just a revenue-generating mechanism, we’ll need to reconsider. I, for one, remain skeptical, but hope to be proved wrong.

Affordable Housing in Downtown

Anyone who’s been Downtown lately has seen the multitude of cranes dotting the landscape. The amount of development going on in Downtown, Uptown, and Victory Park is amazing. These projects bring property tax dollars to our city, and a renewed sense of vitality and growth.

At the same time, I am mindful of the fact that most of the residential projects being built are geared toward the affluent, with one property I know selling its units for about $600 per square foot. While this is tremendous news on many levels, we also need to make sure that we are planning for more affordable housing in our city core, to ensure that folks from all walks of life are welcome in our Downtown. I am convinced that providing a range of housing opportunities for all income levels will not only fill a need among low- to moderate-income residents, but will also help create a healthy Downtown that will endure various economic cycles with resiliency.

That is why I have been so supportive of the affordable housing project proposed by Central Dallas Ministries, a non-profit organization. CDM has proposed a $23M affordable housing project (all of which is subject to property taxes) at the abandoned office building at 511 N. Akard.

Originally, CDM had proposed constructing a total of 209 units, with 100 units being “single-room occupancy” units (“SROs”) set aside as permanent housing for the formerly homeless. Another 100 units would be affordable housing, and the remaining 9 would be market rate. NO homeless services would be provided on-site. The ground floor would be for retail and/or a small cafe, and two floors would be used for CDM offices.

I’m going to digress just a minute, so bear with me. First, what is an SRO? An SRO is an efficiency apartment designed for only one person. Ideally, it has its own kitchen and bathroom (like the 511 N. Akard project), though some do not. SROs have proven very effective at getting people off the street and back into a normal lifestyle.

The use of SROs as an effective tool to combat homelessness was a key point in the City’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Adopted in 2004, the plan set forth policies and practices that the city would need to adopt to address homelessness. Among the primary points was a recommendation to increase SROs in Dallas. (The goal is over 700 such units.) Right now, Dallas has 130 SROs. For comparison, Houston has over 1000.

I should also note at this point that using 511 N. Akard for affordable/homeless housing did not require a zoning change from the city. In fact, the only reason the city had any input at all into this project was because CDM was asking two things from the city: (1) the City’s support for the project to receive financial support from the State of Texas and (2) $1.7M from the Homeless Assistance Center bonds (which provided for some funding for SROs).

Now, back to 511 N. Akard: I met with CDM and neighboring property owners, and corresponded with many others about this project. While many nearby property owners were supportive, some expressed concern that there would be too great a concentration of homeless, which might bring its own share of problems.

In response, CDM reduced the number of units set aside as permanent housing for the homeless from 100 to 50, with 150 affordable housing units, and 9 market rate units. In response to concerns about safety and other issues, we placed a number of conditions on the property in return for the city’s financial support. The conditions allow the city to approve the management company, retailers, and security plan, among other things. A criminal background check will be conducted, and no sex offenders will be allowed to live there.

There are some developers that just don’t want affordable housing in Downtown. I heard one remark that this is too great a concentration of affordable housing, and that the “optimum” mix is 20% affordable versus 80% market. Well, if he’d agree to make 20% of his units affordable housing, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Instead, these developers who decry the evils of affordable housing refuse to provide such housing opportunities, and leave it to non-profits to carry the load. That’s fine, but those developers shouldn’t cry about it when such projects are proposed, particularly when they were quite content to seek and accept public funds for their own projects.

Before fully committing to support the project, I wanted to do a little research on SROs and how they’ve affected the surrounding community in other cities. In particular, I wanted to see how Texas cities dealt with SROs. One of the projects I looked at was New Hope Housing in Houston. I spoke with them at length about their projects in downtown Houston. Importantly, they are in Downtown near upscale lofts, and with an all-girls school nearby.

Laura Hipps from New Hope told me that New Hope experienced the “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome at the beginning, but soon won over its neighbors by (1) working with them in the design phase and (2) proving to be a good neighbor. I also called up the all-girls Catholic school to see if they had had any problems with the New Hope, and at first they didn’t even know what property I was talking about. When I explained, the school representative said “Oh, yeah, I know where you’re talking about. I drive by that every day in on the way to work. They’re a great facility.”

On March 28, the City Council met in special session and approved the city’s support for the project and the use of $1.75M in bond funds. Unless all other funding is in place, we will not be out any money, so there’s no risk. Last week, I spoke in favor of the project at a hearing before the State of Texas. CDM will know by June if the project will receive state support.

Two weeks ago, I visited New Hope to tour two of their Downtown Houston facilities. (See the pictures.) What impressed me most was how clean the properties were, and how there was NO loitering in front of the facilities. (I think that’s because there are no on-site services and entry is restricted.)

I also had the opportunity to meet with Perry, a resident at New Hope. Perry is a Vietnam vet who had had a couple of strokes. He had been living on the streets until he came to New Hope six months ago. Although mostly self-sufficient, Perry needed a little help, structure, and support, along with a roof over his head. Perry gave me a tour of his new home, and it’s great — very homey. Other residents include seniors and others on fixed income. Residents also have a communal library, garden, and TV room.

I was very impressed by New Hope, and appreciated their hospitality. We really need to step up here in Dallas and plan for where we want to put SROs throughout our city so they aren’t all clustered. The homeless aren’t going away, and we need to follow through on the recommendations set forth in our 10-Year Plan.