Who Really Loses When the Uptown Sam’s Club Construction Starts on Sunday?

This Sunday, the Trammell Crow Company, on behalf of its clients Sam’s Club and the Metropolitan Life Corporation, the primary investor in the project, will blow up old Xerox building just off Central Expressway in order to make way for a big box store.

Boxed_In_01
This Sunday, the Trammell Crow Company, on behalf of its clients Sam’s Club and the Metropolitan Life Corporation, the primary investor in the project, will blow up the old Xerox building just off Central Expressway in order to make way for a big box store right in the heart of the fastest growing, highest tax base, densest area of Dallas.

It is utter madness.

And while I know you have heard the story in some form or fashion, on the eve of destruction, I believe it is worth recounting. There are many lessons in the sorry tale of Uptown Sam’s, and the story should enrage you — not provoking the kind of idle anger where you throw up your hands and go, “Ah, there’s Dallas, yet again,” but rather provoking the kind of rage that makes you want to run down to city hall with pitchforks in your hands. Let’s get to it.

To bring you up to speed. The Trammell Crow Company acquired land just north of the Haskell-Central Expressway interchange on behalf of MetLife, the institutional investor whose money is funding the deal. They submitted for rezoning, rolling out pictures of a West Village-style development, only to sneak some language deep in the proposal that allowed them to, if they so desired, plop a big box down on the spot. Council person Pauline Medrano, on her way out of office, let the zoning slide through, and Trammell Crow tossed their pretty pictures in the trash and began working with Sam’s Club.

They knew they had a winner with Sam’s Club. After all, the same company struck the same kind of deal with the mega-retailer back in the mid-2000s, when they bullied residents out of apartments off Skillman, promised the city that their demolition of the apartments would not disturb a rare urban forest along a creek that was a habitat for an extraordinary number of wild species, and then bulldozed the whole thing, turning the forest into a concrete mess. That Sam’s Club development made a bundle for the brokers on the deal, and was a finalist for “deal of the year” in 2011. Business seems to be trucking along finely for the retailer. Go business.

So, why not try it again? After all, there’s precedent for a big box at Haskell and Central Expressway. The Target that is already located there is one of the most successful locations in the state. A Sam’s Club will do extraordinarily well there, and the brokers will score another huge commission. To get it done, they just had to hoodwink the city and the citizens of Dallas once again, and they pulled it all off rather shrewdly. Again, go business.

Then, last year, residents living near the site realized they were hoodwinked. They didn’t want to live next to a parking lot and a big box. That’s not why they bought their homes where they did. They invested in the area because way back in the 1990s, when Dallas decided to spend all that money burying Central Expressway, the whole point was that a below-grade highway would allow for Uptown density to jump the road and continue to infill the rest of the city. That would help grow the tax base, promote incremental spread of development, and incentivize more developments, mimicking what is happening just a few hundred yards away. On the other side of the road, everyone wants to build more and more and be closer to everyone else and make money by benefiting from everything that a livable, walkable, profitable urban district provides. It was a really good plan. Go business.

So, when the residents found out they had been hoodwinked by Trammell Crow (on behalf of MetLife) they were pretty ticked off. A handful of volunteer neighbors launched a noble fight. They stirred up enough of a dust storm to delay the City Plan Commission’s approval of the Sam’s Club project plan. However, the CPC ultimately only had authority to make sure the proposal fit the zoning—and it did, of course, because the zoning had been slid through. The neighbors, now organized under the East Village Association, sued and tried to get a temporary injunction to stop the construction, arguing that, essentially, they were hoodwinked during the zoning process.

That put the city in a funny spot. On the one hand, their residents wanted the city to support the kind of development that would benefit Dallas, that would follow the dictates of all of the plans the city has spent millions of dollars and thousands of man hours developing over decades, that would best grow the city’s tax base, that would make Dallas more attractive, and that would respect the desire of the people who live there. But the city had already approved the zoning.

Now, were they fooled? Were they lazy? Did they not care? Did city staff know all along about the big box provision in the zoning — that through the entire planning process they knew that Trammell Crow Company was working the deal with Sam’s Club — and did they just brush it under the table because we have a system of government in Dallas in which city staff owe their job security more to making sure they don’t piss off business interests — that they know the face of MasterPlan’s Dallas Cothrum, the consultant who represented Crow, better than a dozen city council members who have come and gone in the last decade? Did they know about Sam’s but also realize that their jobs owe more to keeping people like Cothrum and executives at Trammell Crow happy rather than to being helpful, responsive, supportive, and transparent to elected representatives?

The answer is probably all of the above. But none of that really mattered by the time the East Village Association filed for a temporary injunction against the development. If the city fought Trammell Crow, Sam’s Club, and MetLife, they knew they would have a huge lawsuit on their hands. So the city’s lawyers went to work, not for the citizens of Dallas, but for the three large corporations who were screwing them.

A judge ruled against the East Village Association, after first admonishing the developers, but saying that, ultimately, the “city had done enough to force her to deny the residents’ request,” as the DMN reported at the time. The East Village Association hoped to take the case to trial, but then city lawyers started playing lawyer games with its residents (the people whose tax dollars end up in their paychecks). In a flurry of legal filings, the city argued that the East Village Association had no standing to bring the case forward. A judge ruled in favor of the residents, but then the city appealed. That’s where the legal end of this sits, with a case sitting in the Fifth Court of Appeals. There it will likely sit, waiting as Trammell Crow goes ahead with clearing the land and constructing the store for Sam’s Club. The store will likely be open and operating before any legal decision is final.

This week I spent some time speaking with Jonas Park, the tireless leader of the residents’ fight against Sam’s Club. He has one more hope, he says. There are a collection of 100-year-old oak trees on the lot that will be bulldozed to make way for the big box. The city still hasn’t issued a permit to take those trees down. Under the city’s current tree ordinance, the trees can be removed if the developer promises to pay into an arbor fund or replant enough new trees so that their combined trunk width is equal to the caliber of tree removed (yes, according to city code, a dozen saplings is equal to a 100-year-old oak). Park hopes that the permitting process for removing the trees offers another chance to stymie the development. He did mention the idea of chaining himself to a tree. Power to him, I say. But I covered the Timbercreek Sam’s Club development back in the day, and remember the impassioned environmentalists that mobilized in an effort to save the hawk habitats. Park has proven he has fight, but I feel like I’ve seen this movie before.

So where does that leave us? Well, it means that in all likelihood there’s going to be a Sam’s Club in Uptown. And, in all likelihood, you are going to shop there. Millions of people will shop there. After all, when Trammell Crow says “target users” want a Sam’s Club, they are right. The Sam’s Club will be successful by Sam’s Club standards; it will make money, create sales tax revenue, line the pockets of the brokers at Trammell Crow, and ensure a steady maturation of the funds invested in the land by MetLife. It could even end up, like the Target, one of the most lucrative Sam’s Clubs in Texas. Go business.

But that kind of business success is not the point of the story. The point of the story is that who really loses at the end of the day is business. And, by extension, it’s the city who loses. And, yes, the residents are losers, and those of us who dream of denser, more attractive, more livable Dallas are losers. But real, huge loss lies in the opportunity cost of putting a big box in the center of our urban core.

Why?

Because if the city had done its job and followed the dictates of all of its plans, it would have enforced zoning that ensured that whatever development happened on that land promoted the highest and best use of the land. Promoting the highest and best use of the land would ensure that the property values grow, that the tax base grows, that the city would become both richer and more efficient, and that the amount of economic activity in the area — jobs, sales tax revenue, property tax value, secondary businesses, social exchanges, civic identity, branding, reputation, and all the other quantifiable and unquantifiable virtues of urban places — would have been greater than they will be with this big box. Instead, by kowtowing to the particular interests of these particular developers, the city has lost a tremendous amount of money. That means we, the citizens of Dallas, have lost at tremendous amount in this deal.

The deal makes sense for Trammell Crow and MetLife. It is cheap and it is easy. The economics at the location would support dense development, but if a developer is not required to build densely, the economics also support a big box. And the profit margin of plopping down a big box is substantially higher. Plus, it’s easier. You can underwrite and finance a big box development on a cocktail napkin at happy hour with your buddy from MetLife in between chatter about boozy memories of two boxers clobbering each other at last year’s Fight Night. Penciling out and finding financing for mixed-use is complicated, it takes time, it takes effort and work.

On a certain level, I don’t blame the developers in this case. I find how they handled the entire deal profoundly unethical, duplicitous, and fundamentally damaging to the city they work and live in. But I’m not surprised. I used to work in real estate; I know how these people think. The logic of the Sam’s Club development is entirely typical. But that’s why we have government. That’s why we have zoning. That’s why we have a public process. And the story of Uptown Sam’s shows that, on a fundamental level, none of these things really work in Dallas. They don’t work because city staff is entirely unaccountable. They don’t work because our politicians are often lazy, incompetent, or compromised.

And when government doesn’t work, you know it’s time to get out the pitchforks.

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Comments

  • WallStreet

    In the second paragraph, it should be “throw” not “through”. You throw up your hands.

  • D. Shapiro

    Where am I going to store 48 rolls of paper towels in my 520 square foot Uptown studio?

    • NJE

      Yep! That’s all I keep thinking. I wonder if the developers realize that the same people who make that Target one of the most lucrative in the state also live in all of these swanky apartments nearby that literally have no storage space. I live in the nice apartments right next door to this. I’m bummed it’s not going to be something else simply because I have no use for a store that sells in bulk. People living in this area have no use for a store that sells in bulk.

  • Tam Tagon

    In this deal, I think hornswoggle is a better description than hoodwink.

  • Raymond Crawford

    To witness Dallas City Attorney Mark Caso tell the Judge that the residents had no standing in the eyes of Texas because they didn’t belong to a neighborhood association, was truly an example of the City of Dallas driving an 18 wheeler over residents. To make it even more interesting, Caso lives in Plano. GrowNorth!

  • Ben S

    Those are remnant Post Oaks on the east side of the property. Old remains of post oak savannah that stretched across that part of Dallas, across the Freedman’s Cemetery and across State Thomas and Little Mexico to where UTSW now stands.

    Given their species and size they are probably as old as Dallas itself. Dendrochronology was done on a post oak of similar size that was bulldozed for construction at the Texas Horse Park placing it in the 125+ year old class. Even larger oaks were bulldozed for the Trinity Forest Golf Course. No one so much as blinked an eye at bulldozing those or the trees at Timbercreek.

    Those old trees at the new Sam’s Club site were actually part of one of the first golf courses in Dallas. The name of the course escapes me at the moment. John W Smith, a Peter’s Colonist settled the land there and was the first dry goods merchant in Dallas under the name Smith and Patterson. His company ran the first bale of cotton by flatboat down the Trinity from Dallas in 1851.

    • Peter Kurilecz

      never heard that story about the site being one of the first golf courses. would love to know more

    • Carl Smith

      The name of the golf course was Belmont Park Golf Course. The name of the neighborhood that sits next to the site is Belmont Park Neighborhood. I know this because when I bought my home in Belmont Park 30 years ago, I was first of a younger generation to start locating to the neighborhood as the older residents started dying off, and I asked my at the time 80+ year old neighbor across the street about the neighborhood and she gave the this history of it. She had bought her home when it was new in 1944 and was one of the first residents of the area. She also told me there used to be a creek running through the area before it was filled in for the development.

  • CRITIC

    World class city?
    Becoming world gross city !
    Dallas will never become Monaco, Montecito, or Beverly Hills because there is no architectural review board.
    Heck, we can’t even control billboards along highways
    It is cheap to build here so you get a cheap product and developers love DFW for this

  • B in TX

    I hate big boxes as much as anyone, but isnt D Mag a corporation? A big, bad business? I am thinking you dont have standing to make snarky ‘Go business’ remarks.

    • Neal K

      I agree with Peter’s article, but this not a completely unfair point. I remember seeing DART buses in the 90s with ads plastered on the side reading simply “Where’s Our Arena?” with a little red “D” logo underneath.

      I also recall that around the same time D published a nasty hit piece on Richard Rainwater, the CEO of Crescent Real Estate Equities without disclosing that Trammell Crow family members were investors in D Magazine at the time (Crow was a direct business competitor to Crescent).

      More recently, Tim Rogers informed us in this very comment section a couple of years ago that D would no longer report on the sensationally corrupt process for awarding concession contracts to vendors at Love Field (e.g. Eddie Bernice Johnson owning a piece of Hudson News). Why? Because a “D” branded store was about to open at the airport.

      Source: http://frontburner.dmagazine.com/2013/04/11/about-the-d-magazine-newsstand-at-love-field/

      All that said, pretty much any publication beyond a home-operated blog is “corporate” in some way in that it tends to report on the people and companies it depends on for ad revenue. So no one is completely pure. Readers just have to be informed and make their own judgments.

    • Peter Simek

      B in TX: That was my attempt at irony. I”m making a pro business argument. If you read the whole thing, I hope that is clear.

  • Mavdog

    I don’t believe you are accurate in your position the Trammell Crow Company was above board in their plans for the Xerox site.
    Yes, the folks at Crow say they talked about having a “big box” on the site when they met with the neighbors, but those same neighbors dispute that version. Their recall is the Crow representitives spoke about a mixed use project such as was on the other side of Central, hence the name “East Village”.
    Typically a free standing big box store doesn’t get a name like “East Village”, multi tenant shopping centers get named.
    Also, Crow exec Denton Walker is quoted as saying “We did talk to everybody and anybody, absolutely, That’s why our zoning reflects a conceptual plan: We wanted to have the flexibility to talk to everybody and determine the highest and best use. We talked to every retailer out there.” However the lease with WalMart (Sam’s Club) was begun on the same day (according to the DMN article) that Crow agreed to purchase the site from Xerox. Clearly it was a Sam’s Club development from the very beginning.
    I agree that the right to build a single tenant big box store was right there for everyone to see, right there buried in the middle of the zoning ordinance that was passed. Anyone who took the time to read thru it line by line would be able to see it.
    Ask this: why was the right to build a 100,000 SF general merchandise retail building not stated at the very beginning, on the front page, with all the other permitted uses? The only answer is the applicant did not wish for it to be seen easily, they wanted to make it as opaque as possible.
    Yes, hoodwinked, deceived, used, all those words apply to the conduct by Trammell Crow Company in this case. They went the easy, lazy route to make a quick buck rather than work to make the development as good for the community as it could be.
    Shame on them.

  • Carl Smith

    As the President of the Belmont Park Neighborhood Association at the time the developers meet with us the residents of the neighborhood, I can tell you that you don’t know what you are talking about. You were not there. We were flat out lied to by the developers and their representatives. We were NOT shown pictures of a big box store. We were shown something completely different. When Trammell Crow told us that were the developers of the Timbercreek development and asked if were familiar with that development I asked in front of a room full of people if there was going to be a Sam’s club there and was told NO in front if a room full of people. You can ask any of the residents that WERE there and they will confirm this. YES the city staff was deceived also because they were given an ALTERED email from me as President of the neighborhood association showing the neighborhood’s support for the project. I have the original and the altered one turned into the city.

    • Aubrey

      Was it in writing? Something this important has to be in ink and not just words. It looks as if there was a lot of balls dropped.

  • Tony Farrer

    As a Dallas Native, never more than 5 miles from downtown in 55 years.. DALLAS IS A FANTASIC CITY !! for the developers who like to RAPE it for $$$$ and have no taste or respect to worthwhile architecture or gorgeous full mature trees. Trammell Crow doesn’t know how to build ANYTHING without gutting the lot and chopping up trees, as if the ‘couldn’t’ build around them ? Sam’s Club, Walmart are just the fruition of the very GREEDY Walton family that contributes little to charity (by comparison) and pukes out of their mouth the amount Sam Walton and the Foundation FIRST donated to charity before his death as their current charitable contributions. BUT then what do you expect from buildings and box stores when REPUBLICANS rape, run, rule and ruin a city, state or country.. at least not in total.. GET RID OF THEM at EVERY LEVEL !!

  • OxBowIncident

    I cannot wait to see someone trying to take their flat of dogfood, bulk paper towels, big bag of frozen chicken breasts, and 55″ tv on the most centraly located Dart Rail line acces nearby. A “live, eat, shop” East Village would have been far more appropriate there. BTW the designer of Timbercreek Village has no concept of traffic flow. There is a new bumper on the media of NW Hwy every week because of that ill planned entrance.

  • Tony Farrer

    As a Dallas Native, never more than 5 miles from downtown in 55 years.. DALLAS IS A FANTASIC CITY !! for the developers who like to RAPE it for $$$$ and have no taste or respect to worthwhile architecture or gorgeous full mature trees. Trammell Crow doesn’t know how to build ANYTHING without gutting the lot and chopping up trees, as if the ‘couldn’t’ build around them ? Sam’s Club, Walmart are just the fruition of the very GREEDY Walton family that contributes little to charity (by comparison) and pukes out of their mouth the amount Sam Walton and the Foundation FIRST donated to charity before his death as their current charitable contributions. BUT then what do you expect from buildings and box stores when REPUBLICANS rape, run, rule and ruin a city, state or country.. at least not in total.. GET RID OF THEM at EVERY LEVEL !!

  • jimrain

    It’s right there, clearly stated under “Main Uses Permitted,” on the second page of the ordinance (http://dallascityattorney.com/51P/Articles%20Supp%2032/ARTICLE%20889.pdf):

    SEC. 51P-889.107. MAIN USES PERMITTED. … (b) The following additional uses are permitted on the Property:
    — General merchandise or food store 100,000 square feet or more.
    — Home improvement center, lumber, brick or building materials sales yard. [Outside storage is limited to a maximum of 10,000 square feet.]

    It sure seems to me that the “Main Uses Permitted” section of the ordinance is where one would look to figure out what the property legally can be used for. It’s there in plain sight.

  • Mavdog

    You are providing the Ordinance establishing PD 889, which codified the change in zoning.That is after the fact, subsequent to the application for re-zoning and approval process.
    The discussion is about the zoning application by Trammell Crow Company which buried the 100,000 SF free standing general merchandise retail store in the back pages.

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    How To Stop A Divorce And Save Your Marriage?

    My name is Mellisa Lopez .i live in NY, USA , am a woman who love and cherish my husband more than any other thing you can imagine on earth continent. My husband was so lovely and caring after 3years of marriage he was seriously ill and the doctor confirm and said he has a kidney infection that he needed a kidney donor, that was how I start searching for a good Samaritan who can help,doctor has given me a periodic hour that he will live just 26hours left, that was how I ask the doctor if I can be of help to my husband that was how he carried out the text,the confirming was successful, I was now having this taught that since 3 years now we got married I have not be able to get pregnant can I be able to get bring again? That was the question I ask the doctor, he never answer his response was did you want to lost your husband? I immediately reply no I can’t afford to loose him. After the operation my husband came back to live and was healthy I was also ok with the instruction given to me by the doctor, after 3months my husband came home with another lady telling me, that is our new wife that will give us kids and take care of us, that was how I was confused and started crying all day, that was how my husband ran away with his new wife cluaralle. Since then I was confuse don’t no what to do that was how I went back to the doctor and tell him everything, he told me that, this is not just an ordinary it must be a spiritual problem that was how he gave me this email ([email protected] ) that I should tell her all my problem that she can help that was how i contacted her and I do as instructed. After 3days and I have done what she ask me to do, my husband start searching for me and went back to the doctor, that was how we well settle she also told me not to worry that I will get pregnant, this month making it the fifth Month I contacted her am now 3months pregnant. These great spell cater is a great man, if you are any kind of problem you can contact him here on his email ([email protected] ) website address: http://enchantedscents.tripod.com/lovespell/

  • jimrain

    Exactly the same language was in the application materials presented to the Plan Commission on May 2, 2013.

    “General merchandise or food store 100,000 square feet or more” was right there under the heading “Main Permitted Uses.” That’s where any reasonable person would look to see what uses would be allowed under the proposed zoning.

    I’m not saying Crow or MetLife are good citizens. This is terrible land use for that area. But the city and the neighbors should accept responsibility for being too stupid or too lazy to see what was there in plain sight under “Main Permitted Uses” in the zoning application. Crow wasn’t playing Three-Card Monte with a stacked deck. The city and its citizens weren’t hoodwinked. They were asleep.

    And the same thing will happen again unless they wake up and learn to read.

    http://dallascityhall.com/meetings/plan_commission/cpc_ageneda_050213.pdf

  • Willie

    You’re wasting your time feeding this troll. He’s a Trammell Crony.

  • Ben S

    Oak Grove Golf Course was the name. It was opened the same month as Stevens Park, Tenison Park and Randall Park in the spring of 1923. It was a municipal golf course and often labeled as “municipal links” on maps of the time. It closed in 1935 due to lack of play during the Great Depression. Spence was built on a portion on the golf course grounds in 1939.

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  • Tex

    This is a big win for regular folks who live on a tight budget. Let the yuppies shop elsewhere if they don’t like it.