The January 11th City Council meeting was a solidly entertaining affair, with inspired supporting performances by wacky citizen guest speakers, two well-developed subplots involving real estate intrigue, and a contentious, ripped-from-the-headlines finale that really makes you think.
Item No. 51 concerned the approval of a new Kroger location in District 14 topped with mixed-use residential housing of the sort that Dallas has been encouraging in recent years, with a percentage of space given over to low-cost units. District 14’s Councilman Philip Kingston, a key proponent of these sorts of developments, praised Kroger for its history of responsible corporate policy — which is indeed remarkable given how easy the city has made it to win concessions rather than giving them, as we’ll see in a moment.
Item No. 54 brought a much odder round of praise. Ellen Taft, head of a major Dallas homeowner’s alliance, had led the charge against First Industrial on a proposed light industrial expansion along Mountain Creek Parkway, which her group initially worked to oppose altogether. As it happens, though, “they have the right to build the warehouse. We weren’t aware of that.” Now speaking in favor of passage, Taft thanked the firm for making several changes by which to ease neighborhood concerns.
Item No. 55, thankfully, entailed a good half-hour of high comedy as residents of Turtle Creek spoke for and against a new “Walkable Urban Residential District” in which Gables Residential plans to put up a 20-story complex with green space and pedestrian passages. Leading off for the nays was some fellow by the name of Giro something-or-other, who argued that the building would block the sunlight — a reasonable enough prediction if we assume that it’s planned as a solid, matter-based structure rather than some ethereal crystalline pixie-tower. He also warned that such a tall building would present a “hazard” for airplanes flying into Love Field. Less crazily, the Greek noted that the building’s 750 units would increase population density, and that this would be a bad thing due to an existing traffic problem that he proceeded to wildly exaggerate, claiming that residents couldn’t get out of the garage during peak hours. Aiding him in this effort was Cal Donski or someone whose name sounded very much like Cal Donski, who, being a man of our time, denounced a recent traffic study of the area that contradicted his opinion on the matter.
Next up was a pink-clad woman named Monica who acknowledged that while Gables representative Katy Slade was a woman of integrity, “Katy’s job simply is to get this pushed through while pissing off the fewest number of local neighbors.” The job of her bosses, meanwhile, was “to maximize profits,” in apparent contrast to the residents of her own high-rise, all of whom presumably work for the Peace Corps. The injustice of the situation clearly weighed on Monica, whose voice cracked with ill-regulated emotion throughout the next three minutes as she proceeded to make the case against allowing more people to move into the area while simultaneously warning that young people were already leaving due to “shoddy construction.”
Poor Katy Slade was up next; she noted that Gables had held 14 different meetings with various homeowners associations about the project and had granted an array of concessions based on the ensuing conversations, that 80 percent of those members balloted are actually in favor of the new building, that the plan allows for pedestrian traffic through the property and would therefore make the neighborhood more, not less, walkable, and that the site would include 30 percent green space, well above the 8 percent zoning requirement.
Katy received backing from Jim Garrett of Blackburn Street, an elderly and slightly grizzled ultra-Texan who’s lived in the neighborhood since the ’90s and who explained how great the area is and how he walks to the grocery store and takes the trolley places and has a pool and likes to watch the developments go up. “And the Gables did a beautiful project on McKinney, went there today, found me an easy parking place, walked in Whole Foods, had a great bowl of soup. Place was packed!” Garrett was plainly very excited about the new building, maybe more so than the actual developers.
The item passed without opposition.
Wednesday’s main event turned out to be Item Nos. 59 and 60, which involved the release of city parkland to First Baptist Church as well as the sale of additional park space to the developer Fortis by which to put up a new parking garage it claims is needed to ensure that a prospective tenant, Jacobs Engineering, finalizes its intended move to Dallas. Councilman Kingston moved to oppose the item with prejudice on what he termed basic civic principles. He said, “We do not sell city park space for parking. And we do not give city land to First Baptist Church.” Councilman Ricky Callahan in turn opposed Kingston on economic development grounds, saying, “Some say they could just move to other buildings. But why should they have to? Why would they want to?” Omnicom, too, he claimed, was in danger of leaving Dallas on similar why-shouldn’t-they-get-whatever-they-want-from-the-city grounds.
Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates summoned Willis Winters, head of the Parks Department, who explained that the park itself would be unchanged but that the airspace within 10 feet of width from the structure is what was actually being sold as an easement to allow the parking garage to comply with building codes pertaining to ventilation; the proposal would merely prevent any future construction by the city on that land.
Kingston called the idea that Jacobs Engineering would cancel the move to Dallas unless Fortis got the extra parking “laughable” and, indeed, said it had “been contradicted by what Jacobs said in my office two weeks ago.” Omnicom, he continued, may have to move to another building but likewise has no plans to leave the city itself. Meanwhile, “There’s parking all around this building. It’s just more expensive than Fortis wants to pay for it. … All you’re doing here today is a giveaway to Fortis.”
Councilman Mark Clayton followed with a rundown of all the other reasons why the item was inappropriate and unnecessary, citing the presence of two seven-story parking garages in walking distance from the building and noting that many of Omnicom’s employees were under-25s living in Uptown and thus able to get to work via DART. He said, “If we’re going to spend a quarter billion dollars a year on DART, if we’re going to unanimously say we want a second line downtown to expand public transportation, and the first time we get pushback on having public transportation being used at the expense of cars for a project that’s already agreed — I just don’t get it.”
Gates summoned for questioning Jonathan Landau, CEO of Fortis, who had already promised Jacobs Engineering that he’d get approval for the parking garage in question. Upon taking the podium, he proposed to “set the record straight on some of the items …”
“Let’s not do that,” Rawlings interrupted. “Let’s just answer the questions.”
“Did they tell you they’d still be coming without the parking?” Gates asked.
“No, as a matter of fact, I got a phone call 30 minutes ago from one of the Jacobs representatives asking did we get the approval,” Landau said, in a tone meant to convey the seriousness of the situation. “They are very concerned about the parking problem here. And I can’t imagine they said they would come here without the parking. Obviously I wasn’t in any of these meetings or discussions that have been referenced but I would be shocked.” At no point did he say outright that Jacobs had told him they wouldn’t make the move without the parking.
Fortis got the land in a 11-4 vote.