If you don’t live in the East Village area of Uptown—the neighborhoods clustered near the 42-story red granite Cityplace tower, just east of Central Expressway off Haskell Avenue—you may not understand why the prospect of a Sam’s Club being built there has sparked a citywide controversy. In fact, the outcry over placing a 150,000-square-foot discount warehouse at the northeast corner of Central and Haskell might seem laughable to you. Isn’t there a Target just down the street? And a Kroger? And an L.A. Fitness? And a Taco Bell? And a freaking Big Lots? Given that context and a cursory understanding of the controversy, it’s reasonable for you to roll your eyes and think this is one more example of neighborhood NIMBYism. That’s what I first thought, too.
I was wrong. The neighborhood battle against this Sam’s Club is actually an important test case, one that gets to the heart of how our city runs, how it will grow, and what it will become. I understood the controversy only after trying to answer these three questions: who is to blame for this project being approved over the objections of its neighbors? Why does it matter? How do you solve this problem?
First, some background. Developers have coveted this site for a long time. A commercial real estate source explained to me that Walmart (the owner of Sam’s Club) years ago had identified the highway-adjacent location as its most desirable megastore spot because it would draw from so many neighborhoods (East Dallas, Uptown, downtown, southeast Dallas, Oak Cliff, etc.). So when the company’s developer, Trammell Crow, submitted its zoning plans for the site to city staff, it should have come as no surprise that a big-box store was on the horizon. But those zoning plans were written in a curious way.
A document that proposes zoning for such a development is called a PD. Trammell Crow’s PD made all the required disclosures, noting (albeit buried in the document) that the proposed zoning would allow for a retailer of 100,000 square feet or more. That is well-known code for “big Sam’s Club-type thing.” But the PD also said a few misleading things, such as suggesting the development would fit with the city’s forwardDallas plan. This citywide initiative is all about encouraging walkable, sustainable, neighborhood-friendly development. The forwardDallas plan in no way calls for a Sam’s Club in the urban core. But the city’s group of zoning watchdogs—the Plan Commission, the City Council, and the press—ignored the PD until it was too late and the Sam’s Club had been approved. The resulting fight between neighborhood groups and Trammell Crow has slowed and will probably not kill the store (though it could lead to a lawsuit).
Several people have cast blame on all three of the watchdogs. Dallas Morning News opiner Rudy Bush, who was the paper’s City Hall reporter when the Council approved the project, noted that Trammell Crow did what developers do: make the best (sneakiest?) argument for their clients. “Should we be surprised that they decided to go for the money, the 100,000-square-foot big-box store?” Bush asked in a blog post. No, he said, the blame should fall on Council members and Plan Commission members. Bush even blamed himself for failing to see the ramifications of the PD before it was too late.
Not good enough, says Councilman Philip Kingston. “The argument that, ‘Well, all developers do this,’ I don’t buy it,” he told me. “Everybody doesn’t lie. They have crossed a line.”
I’m with both Kingston and Bush on this. I think Trammell Crow crossed a line, but I don’t blame them, because that is what our system of development encourages. PDs, when done right (PD 193, for Uptown/Oak Lawn), have a restrictive vision that encourages smart urban growth. But crafty developers have figured out how to rig the system. Now they have lawyers write (and get approved) PDs that meet technical requirements but that everyone knows ignore the needs of the surrounding neighbors (both residential and corporate).
So who is to blame? We are. This is our system, and we haven’t put pressure on anyone to change it.
Why does it matter? Because Dallas is in the midst of a huge growth spurt. City staff approves developments every day that will affect the urban core for decades. There has to be a better system for deciding what sort of city we want to be, block by block, lot by lot, than we have now. This isn’t about one neighborhood getting the shaft. This is the canary in the coal mine.
I talked for a long time with Bobby Abtahi, the vice chair of the Plan Commission. He tried to explain just how broken the entire development process is, because it is designed to favor developers over even the most concerned citizens. First he told me a story: when he was a young tax lawyer, he once asked someone the best way to get a favorable outcome for his client. He was advised to write the most confusing argument possible. “Because no government official ever wants to admit that they don’t understand something,” he said.
You see now how Trammell Crow did this? They write a PD in a way that’s not only confusing but doesn’t even follow logic. This is in line with forwardDallas. This integrates with the community. Then, several pages later: oh, yeah. It might be more than 100,000 square feet. Guess who’s not going to say, “This confuses me.” City staff. Plan Commission members, many of whom merely serve for résumé-building purposes. Reporters.
The only people who will notice such skulduggery are vigilant neighbors. The anti-Sam’s Club folks in this fight don’t overreach and make this argument about corporate greed. They make a simple, compelling case: Sam’s Club, you are our neighbor. We should have a say in your approach, because it affects us, and by extension the city. “They were some of the most intelligent, sincere, reasonable people I’ve ever seen talk to the Commission,” Abtahi says.
The problem is, the system is designed to screw them, too. Zoning documents are written to be understood only by real estate lawyers—which, of course, a neighborhood group can’t afford to hire. Plan Commission meetings are usually held during the day, when people work. You want to take an hour off to protest? You might be down there for hours, and your item of interest will never even come up. Want to watch online until your discussion begins? The meetings aren’t streamed.
So these decisions, which greatly affect neighborhoods’ abilities to reinvent themselves in a modern urban fashion, almost always minimize the voice of even the most conscientious neighborhood advocates.
How can we fix this? It’s not just about being more vigilant next time. It’s about changing the system. Other cities are already doing this. Los Angeles has embarked on a five-year plan to overhaul its zoning system in light of what we know about smart growth strategies. Los Angeles has also set up a website for citizens to watch and weigh in as overhaul takes place. A San Francisco nonprofit, Code for America, has launched a pilot program in Philadelphia that asks citizens to answer urban planning questions via phone. The system not only gives voice to those who want to have a say in transportation or development issues, but it also allows those people to opt in so city staff can ask follow-up questions. In Northeast Ohio, they’re asking residents to share data from city-building video games so they can crowdsource ideas and priorities with the help of the area’s growth-savvy citizens.
Dallas is doing none of this. While Councilman Kingston believes the market should push developers toward smartly integrated projects, he suspects the market in Dallas is failing to do that because of laziness on the part of developers, inertia, and too little public input. “We need to modernize the way to do this,” he says. “What people want is a voice in this process. They want participation. And finding a way to get that is what we must do to be a smarter city.”