Protecting Real Neighborhoods from Disneyfication

Great op-ed today in the NY Times celebrating real neighborhoods and the zoning laws that protect them, and lamenting the Disneyfication of our cities:

It’s funny how we crave the authentic, the unspoiled, the genuine — the un-globalized and un-homogenized and un-gentrified — only to destroy them.  And then, as if in remorse, attempt to create unthreatening Disney versions of the authentic, the unspoiled and the genuine….

I’m grateful for my New York journeys and for the zoning laws that make them possible. Wholesale gentrification deadens. There’s an untamed thread that binds button stores and stir-fried intestines with chili: They’re genuine. The fight for the genuine in the world’s great cities is also a fight for jobs, workers and creativity.

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Today at the City Council meeting….

Here are some highlights from today’s council meeting:

Apartments Crime Reduction Program – We approved an ordinance that will require apartment complexes with excessive crime rates to participate in a mandatory crime reduction program administered and enforced by the Police Department. Run-down apartments are a breeding ground for crime, so this new program is absolutely critical. As I said today, though, we can’t make crime prevention a burden that’s born solely by our police; we must invest MUCH more in code enforcement.

Little Forest Hills Conservation District – (District 9) On Councilmember Kadane’s motion, we denied this CD. On zoning cases, I generally defer to the councilmember who represents that district because (1) I believe the voters in that district elected that person to reflect their values (which will be reflected in the councilmember’s zoning decision), (2) voters can vote out someone who makes zoning decisions they don’t agree with, (3) that councilmember has usually worked closely with the community on zoning cases and can best represent their position. I am very supportive of CDs because I’ve seen in my own neighborhood how beneficial it’s been. Someone at the meeting suggested that CDs reduce property values. The facts belie that claim: property values have risen significantly in the M Streets and other CDs in our city; people like the certainty of knowing what type of development can go up around them. Councilmember Kadane had asked the LFH CD proponents to attain 65% support from all residents, and they fell short, with 58%. I know how hard their worked, and my heart goes out to them. I hope LFH is able to find another way to protect their trees and keep themselves “funky,” such as through a planned development district, as was suggested today. Otherwise, I fear we’ll lose what is one of the coolest neighborhoods in our city.

Goodwill Drop-Off on Haskell – Here, Goodwill wanted to put in a small building that would serve as a drop-off for donations. It wouldn’t have had any retail component at all. Surrounding neighbors worried about an increase in traffic on an already busy street, as well as the possibility that people would drop things off while the site was closed, resulting in litter and a haven for the homeless or theives. I worked with Goodwill and the neighborhood for months to try to reach a compromise, and delayed this case more than once. As a matter of right, Goodwill could put in a retail store today without special dispensation from the city, and that is a more intense use than a drop-off. However, at the end of the day, 41 property owners voted “no,” and 41 voted “yes.” With such a split, I couldn’t justify a zoning change. To me, the zoning on the ground is the default, and the property owner has to show a compelling reason to change it. Part of that reason may be that the neighborhood strongly supports the change. Here, that wasn’t the case, and I couldn’t support a zoning change. Goodwill is such an amazing organization and does so much for our city. I wish the neighbors had been able to reach a compromise here.

Far West SUP – Residents near the Far West club at Gaston/Grand had grown frustrated with problems stemming from the club — crime, noise, traffic, etc. Usually, bars have to have a short-term “specific use permit” that lets them operate under certain conditions. The SUP process involves a public hearing and approval of the City Council. A bar that causes problems runs the risk of the neighbors opposing the renewal of the SUP, so the bar has an incentive to be a good neighbor. That is dependent on an SUP that expires every couple of years. Here, for whatever reason, the City Council gave the predecessor to Far West a 99-year SUP. That’s nuts. At the request of the neighborhoods I recommended the city reduce the time period for the SUP and put other restrictions in place. After working cooperatively with the club owner and residents, we were able to reach an agreement on a 5-year SUP with traffic and safety requirements. I’m very proud that we were able to make this change.

Dog Run for CityVet on McKinney – I postponed this for a month so the applicant can work with the surrounding neighbors on trying to reach a compromise.

GPS System for Garbage Trucks – At a cost of $700k, the GPS system is supposed to help track trucks, reduce inefficiencies, and save money. That sounds good, but having ridden on a garbage truck, I saw firsthand some of the problems our sanitation workers encounter that slow them down: overgrown alleys being #1. If we cleared the problem alleys, we’d speed up service and prevent our men from speeding down streets to make up for lost time (not that they should be speeding anyway). I don’t really think we’ve got the money to do this, given today’s economy, but if we do have an extra $700k, I think we should spend it on giving our sanitation workers a raise. They make minimum wage right now, and $700k would almost get them to a living wage (a $3/hr. increase). Alternatively, we could spend that on cleaning up alleys, or hiring 1-2 mechanics that are needed to fix air-conditioners and heaters in the trucks (that are frequently broken). A majority of the council, including me, voted to postpone the matter and have a briefing to get more info.

UNT Law School in Downtown We unanimously authorized the City Manager to enter into final negotiations with the University of North Texas to establish a law school in what is currently the city courthouse. (We desperately need a new courthouse and will include that in the 2010 bond program.) The legislature has to approve the law school, but I am very hopeful that it will pass this session.

Lastly, I’m not shy about speaking up when I disagree with the Mayor, so I want to take a moment to compliment him on the way he handles public hearings. One, he is very respectful of the time people take out of their schedules to come down to City Hall, and tries to move up cases involving large groups of people. Before I was elected, I remember coming to City Hall and spending 8 hours waiting for our neighborhood’s case to be heard. This is a welcome change.

Two, even when a group’s time to speak before the Council has expired, the Mayor lets opponent/advocates come to the microphone and enter their name and opinion into the record. This takes a little time, especially with large groups, but I think it really shows a great courtesy to citizens who have taken off work to spend their afternoon at City Hall.

“Dirt Skirt” Ordinance Approved

Do you know where the ground is? Some unscrupulous builders don’t.

To help them out, today the City Council unanimously approved a new ordinance that would prohibit “dirt skirts.” What the heck is a “dirt skirt,” you say? It’s a mound of dirt that some builders have used to let them build their structures taller than is legally permitted. They mound up dirt, usually at the four corners of the building site, to redefine where the ground is. That’s important because the city measures height from the “ground.” You mound up some berms around your building, measure from the top of the berms instead of the real ground, and voila! You’ve squeezed out an extra 12 feet in height. That’s great for a builder, but it’s terrible for surrounding neighbors who suddenly have a gargantuan building beside them that exceeds the legal allowable height.

Many residents in East Dallas are familiar with the property on Oram that underscored the need for this change. Today, we closed this loophole and adopted a definition to describe where the ground is.

This change in ordinance had passed the Plan Commission last December, so I pushed to get it on the agenda without further delay. I am proud to have gotten this ordinance passed today with full council support.

Woodard’s Zoning Case

This post is a couple of weeks late, but I’ve been working feverishly on the city budget.

Two weeks ago, the council voted on a request for a specific use permit by Woodards Automotive on Ross Avenue.

The Woodards zoning case was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make on the council. I met with nearby residents, met with the Woodards, read and re-read SUP requirements and the PD standards, lost sleep on it, and came to a decision. Not that any zoning decision is easy, but this one was particularly difficult.

On the one hand we have a family-owned business that’s been on Ross 80 years and employees 38 people. They are good people who, by all accounts, do good work. They had asked for a 20-year SUP that would allow that property to be used for automotive services (NOTE: the SUP runs with the LAND, not the BUSINESS, so if they moved tomorrow, that land could be used for automotive services by someone else for 20 years). They also asked to be exempt from most of the landscaping and streetscape requirements of the Planned Development District for Ross Avenue that was approved in 2005 (wider sidewalks, etc.).

The zoning that prohibits automotive uses on Ross Ave. was approved in 2005, before I was elected to the City Council. The streetscape and zoning standards were intended to entice new development along Ross. I wasn’t on the council then, but the conclusion was that among other issues, auto uses (all 32 of them) were holding back the street from redevelopment, so those uses were prohibitted.

In 2005, most of the auto businesses got three years to relocate. Woodards and several others got five years. On Monday, the Board of Adjustment denied two Ross property owners (whose time limit was up) an extension to continue to operate. A third property owner who had submitted an extension request withdrew his. A fourth (which I understand is owned by Mr. Rasansky) continued to pursue his request for an extension.

I then thought, yes, but Woodards has been in business for 80 years. Shouldn’t that be grounds for an exception?

I thought on that for a long, long time. But here’s the problem with that: the zoning change — the SUP — runs with the land, not the business. There’s no way around that, and there is absolutely no legal way to tie the SUP to the business. If that’s the case, why is this piece of land different from the 31 others that have auto uses? I was concerned that granting the SUP here would open the floodgates to all the other properties with auto businesses, and then what would be the purpose of the PD?

I had developers who had invested and were investing along Ross tell me that they were investing based on the new zoning that outlawed auto uses. Many nearby residents came down and pleaded for the council to stand behind the PD that the community had worked so hard on, and deny the request for an exception.

When I met with Woodards, I asked them if they were granted a 4-year SUP, if they would move at that point. They said they didn’t know; the market might not be right then. So there was no certainty that an extension would help them relocate. (However, if at the end of two years in 2010, they still have not found a place to relocate, they can seek an extension from the Board of Adjustment.)

What it came down to for me was: if we create a new zoning standard to transform an area, how do we carve out exceptions and still obtain the intended results? How do we fairly decide who meets the standard for an exception and who doesn’t?

St. Regis: Council Unanimously Approves Zoning Change

Today, on my motion, the Council unanimously approved the proposed zoning change for the St. Regis Hotel at Cedar Springs Blvd. at the Katy Trail.

I am very protective of the Katy Trail and Turtle Creek — both are great assets to the surrounding neighborhoods and our city. When zoning changes have been proposed in the area, many residents have expressed their concern that if too many tall buildings are constructed right next to the Katy Trail, it will result in a “canyon effect” with shadows looming over the trail.

When I consider zoning cases, I put great weight in the opinions of those who live closest to the property — they have to live with the change. I also consider whether the proposed change would be better than what could be built with existing zoning. When the proposed zoning doesn’t provide improvements or benefits to the coummunity, I have not been afraid to vote against the proposal.

For example, when a zoning change was proposed at Routh and the Katy Trail several months ago, I opposed the change because the proposed development did not significantly improve upon what was already allowed. The property was too narrow for the developer to offer additional setbacks from the trail, he refused to put all the parking underground, and there was no detailed development plan for the development.

Here, I have worked with residents, the developer, Friends of the Katy Trail, and the Oak Lawn Committee to address residents’ concerns and create a development that is far better than what would be built under the current standards.

Height seemed to be a sticking point here. Currently, the maximum height allowed is 200′ (I’ve rounded all numbers for simplicity). Such a building would be wide, would significantly block others’ views of the Downtown skyline, and loom over the trail.

Instead, we slimmed down the tower to allow better view corridors and pushed it 150′ back from the trail to reduce any canyon effect. On the other 78% of the site, we reduced the height of all buildings from 200′ to 95′ (and only 60′ for the townhomes by the trail). Next to the trail, instead of a 200′ tower set only 40′ from the trail, there will be 60′ townhomes set back 57′. The mass of the hotel and residences will actually be LESS than permitted under current zoning.

Other positive changes: All structured parking will be underground; the developer submitted a detailed development plan; St. Regis will construct and maintain a trail connecting the Katy Trail to Cedar Springs Blvd.; and the building will be LEED certified (energy-efficient).

Lastly, the St. Regis will bring significant economic development and tax revenue to our city, with no tax abatements or other incentives from the city. It’s important to note that I do not include this in my calculus when evaluating a zoning case; the proposed zoning must stand on its own with regards to land-use policy, not economic impact. I mention it as a positive effect resulting from this development.

Overall, I am very proud of this project. It was a challenge to me, the developer, and the community to push to make this the best project it could be. I think in the end, we have achieved a project that will be a great asset to the area and our city that greatly improves on what was permitted under the existing zoning.

Whole Foods – The Real Story

I was troubled recently when Whole Foods announced that it was withdrawing its proposal to build a new store on the old Lakewood Minyards site, and instead was going to reuse the old building. What troubled me was that Whole Foods seemed to blame the the neighborhood and plan commissioners for the decision.

See, Whole Foods couldn’t build their new store with the current zoning standards, so they had to get a zoning change. Like any zoning change, the process involved meetings with the neighborhood and the area’s plan commissioners. The process is inclusive, but not excessively onerous.

After a number of meetings, Whole Foods announced two weeks ago that they had decided not to build a new store because of the so-called challenging and lengthy zoning process.

I wante d to set the record straight. I spoke with Whole Foods’ Seth Stutzman two days before they publicly announced their decision, and he explained that after they got into the zoning case, they did a cost comparison of building a new store versus redoing the old Minyards store. They were shocked to see that the redo would cost $4.5M less than a new store. It would also allow for a more environmentally-friendly store.

I asked Seth, if the zoning change sailed through, would they consider constructing the new building? He said probably not, because of the significant cost savings.

I don’t begrudge Whole Foods’ business decision. What bothers me is their attributing their decision to the “onerous” zoning process when the real reason for their decision is financial.

Whole Foods tried to clarify their position, but never explained it to the media as clearly as Seth did to me. So I wanted everyone to have the benefit of this information.

I liked the proposed new store, but I’m sure that Whole Foods’ redo will be great. I’m thrilled they’re coming to Lakewood, and I’m excited about a “green” store. I just want to make sure our inclusive zoning process is not blamed for a business decision.

Vickery Place Conservation District Addition Approved

Today the City Council unanimously approved adding 13 blocks to the Vickery Place Conservation District. The additional blocks will true up the district’s boundaries and will now include all the homes from Goodwin to Richard, Greenville to Homer, the 5100 block of Goodwin, and the 5400 and 5500 blocks of Bonita (with the exception of commercial properties on Greenville).

Neighbors in both the original CD and the appended blocks worked very hard to ensure that these additional blocks were included after the original Vickery Place CD was approved last June.

Congratulations to everyone who were actively involved in this project!