Let’s set the time machine for Oak Lawn in 2007. On March 28 and 29, the Dallas Morning News reports that Gables Residential had been soundly denied a rezoning request for a complex known as the Carlisle on the Katy Trail that would straddle Carlisle just northeast of Hall Street. The developers had hoped to get the OK to build the complex 20 stories high, sailing far above its neighbors. That’s the blue in the photo above.
The Oak Lawn Committee, the volunteer neighborhood group that has vetted developments in Oak Lawn and Uptown and Knox since 1983, did not support it. City staff didn’t recommend. The City Planning Commission rejected it. Then the City Council denied the project with prejudice. In English, “with prejudice” means “go away, and don’t try this crap for at least two years.” That’s as toast as you get in a zoning case.
For clarity, Gables’ proposal was a pair of (ugly) 200-foot towers that had been cut to 180 feet. By the time the Planning Commission and the Council dumped them, the towers were 70 feet.
Councilmember Angela Hunt, who was the district’s representative at the time, was described by neighbors as “leading the charge” against the zoning request. She supported the findings of the Oak Lawn Committee and the neighborhood, both of which wanted no part of Gables’ plans to eradicate the low-rise, low-density, affordable housing stock on the east side of Turtle Creek. (In land use parlance, this is zoned MF-2.) Let’s travel to those News articles.
Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, who represents the area where Gables is proposing to build, says she’ll ask the council to deny Gables’ zoning request “with prejudice.”
“The overwhelming number of residents who will be affected by this change are opposed, and I am elected to represent them,“ Ms. Hunt said.
“I have not had a case come before me where such a large majority of residents are so vehemently opposed to a zoning change,” Ms. Hunt said. “There’s a reason we have zoning: so residents have some certainty as to what the future of the community will look like. To me, there’s a high level of proof needed to get a zoning change, and this project doesn’t cut it.”
Times have changed. Hunt, term-limited out in 2013, returned to her day job as a zoning and land-use attorney at the downtown firm Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr. Today she is a registered lobbyist at City Hall, sometimes finding herself on the side of the type of big-name developers that she once fought against from the horseshoe.
Exit Gables—Enter Exxir
In 2007, Gables had (overconfidently) purchased the Carlisle complex instead of placing it under a contingent contract, which would’ve provided Gables with a way out of the deal if it couldn’t convince the city to up-zone the land to build the project it wanted. Then the 2008 recession hit, and it took the company until 2010 to unload it. The buyer was Exxir Capital, the development firm run by the Nazerian family, the folks known for being responsible for the under-construction development east of Bishop Arts, at Davis and Zang. Exxir weathered the recession and, in 2015, was ready to up-zone the property to a similar height and bulk of the vanquished Gables plan.
Hunt, no longer on the Council, was hired as a City Hall lobbyist by Exxir. In the midst of lobbying, Exxir hosted an event in mid-2015 at Arlington Hall for area residents and City Hall high-flyers like AC Gonzalez, the former city manager. They showed the results of an internal competition Exxir had instigated with their worldwide architects to design a project for the Carlisle lots. The London entry is shown above.
Exxir’s—albeit heart-stoppingly more attractive—project is on the same lot Hunt had railed against as a member of the City Council. Yet now she is on the side of the developer. She claims it’s a “very different project.” While it is true that the new project would include multiple uses that the old one didn’t, like ground-floor retail, the physical bulk of the dual high-rises is eerily similar to what was proposed a decade ago.
However, after that initial burst of activity in 2015, the Carlisle project lost steam as Exxir concentrated on its projects in Oak Cliff. Expect it to return at some point.
Lincoln Katy Trail
With the chief defender of the neighborhood now working with Exxir at least as of July 2015, a renewed sense of opportunity saw three low-density properties in the block surrounding the Vine condos courted for development in 2015 (Carlisle at the Katy Trail, Turtle Creek Terrace and Sutton Place). Arguments started between folks wanting to sell and those wanting to stay. Essentially, the “stayers” were often accused of “stealing the sellers’ retirement.” Like a lottery ticket, developers told landowners that scratching off the current zoning would bring big bucks.
I asked Hunt about how her work might affect prices. “I find your theory doubtful that developers are speculating on land in Uptown because of me,” she said. “Anyone who thinks that doesn’t know how zoning works at City Hall. Councilmembers are accountable to their constituents, not zoning attorneys.”
The developers in these instances—Lincoln, Lennar, Alliance, and Exxir—are some of the largest in the city. For them to be spending the time and money to attempt to move these projects forward, they have to see an “opportunity” that wasn’t there in 2007 when Gables was dismissed with prejudice.
Hunt’s other area projects include Turtle Creek Terrace, located just across Hall Street from Exxir, between Carlisle Street and the Katy Trail. At the same time Exxir was getting started in 2015, Lennar tried to up-zone Turtle Creek Terrace and failed. Today, Lincoln Property holds the option (the gray in the top graphic). On July 19, 2017, Hunt filed to be a City Hall lobbyist for Lincoln with the expressed subject, “Unfiled zoning case on Carlisle and Hall Street.”
On September 11, Hunt and others from Lincoln met with neighborhood representatives and began floating trial balloons with some Oak Lawn Committee members touting the Lincoln project. Sources tell me that, in every instance they were aware of, the Lincoln proposal was flatly panned. The design (seen above) is another unremarkable apartment box, this time with 329 units. It is three times the height of what’s there now and twice the height of the Vine condos across the street. (Click here for a deeper dive into the Lincoln Katy Trail project.)
It’s also important to note that, with the 2015 Exxir proposal and this proposed Lincoln project, 291 market-rate affordable housing units would be lost. Turtle Creek Terrace currently has 115 units. Lincoln is proposing just 16 affordable units in its 329-unit project, which represents less than 5 percent affordability and a tenth of what’s there now.
Starbucks and Toll Brothers
Earlier this year, Hunt represented two sides of the same argument in another part of Oak Lawn. The Starbucks development team hired her to navigate the zoning change required for a new coffee shop on the corner of Oak Lawn and Congress avenues, next to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
It’s a busy corner. Congress jogs unevenly across Oak Lawn, and Starbucks wanted a drive-thru. The traffic would already be bad, given the intersection’s offset, but it was made worse by only a single entry-exit on Oak Lawn Avenue that wouldn’t allow left-turn entries or exits. It’s likely that this will force traffic through the neighborhood as de- and re-caffeinated customers circle the block to enter and exit (those that don’t illegally jump the road bumps that will be installed). The Starbucks grudgingly passed the Oak Lawn Committee and was all smiles at City Hall with Hunt and neighbors voicing support. It passed.
At the same time, Hunt, hired by neighborhood residents, was back at 1500 Marilla fighting the Toll Brothers project, on the next block from Starbucks. This time she argued to the City Plan Commission that the increased traffic (which will actually be less than Starbucks, according to traffic studies provided to the city) and narrow roadways would hurt the neighborhood. Some of the same pro-Starbucks voices were now against Toll Brothers.
That project was approved by the Oak Lawn Committee and sailed through the City Planning Commission with unanimous approval, but remains inexplicably stuck on the Council’s desks. The developer has spent nearly two years modifying its plans to meet the desires of the neighborhood and the Oak Lawn Committee. It has the right to build 400 units; it wants 271. Its plan includes sidewalk setbacks and townhome-style construction facing the street, obfuscating the high rise that soars behind it. Its design is a compromise.
While Toll Brothers was navigating the Oak Lawn Committee, that project kicked off another campaign. In the summer of 2016, Hunt was retained by many of the same neighbors concerned about Toll Brothers. She became part of a group appealing to City Hall to examine potentially downzoning this same area of Oak Lawn from its 1960s MF-3 designation that allows for high-rises.
It’s interesting to see Hunt representing interests seeking to limit height by down-zoning an area zoned for high-rises, while at the same time petitioning on behalf of developers to up-zone areas where she’d previously fought to retain existing, less dense zoning. Many of those who have spoken against the Toll Brothers building live in their own nearby high-rises that may have their views diminished by the new complex.
“A group wanted to explore design standards for the neighborhood as well as the possibility of transferring developments rights from the interior of the neighborhood (where streets are smaller) to the exterior (major thoroughfares),” Hunt said of the meetings at City Hall.
I’m a fan of transferrable development rights, but this is the first time I’ve seen that concept used in this discussion . I quizzed a few others, including people on the Oak Lawn Committee, and our memories are all in the same boat. If that’s part of the solution, it’s definitely worth listening to. However, the Turtle Creek, Cedar Springs, and Maple “exterior” boundaries of this area are already quite developed, leaving little room for this relocated density.
Let’s move to another edge of market-rate affordable housing in the Knox area. You may have read my recent coverage of a proposed up-zoning of properties located at Cole and Armstrong by Alliance Residential on CandysDirt.com. There have been three iterations and two proposed structures. The first two versions contained 340 small apartments within an ultra-dense five- and seven-story envelope on a pinch over two acres of land. The second, below, is for the same number of units but with the bulk relocated into a 240-foot tall high-rise on the front quarter of the property.
Regardless of the version, the plan calls for massive increases in height and density, along with the replacement of 74 affordable apartments and townhomes with 340 apartments. The smallest would be a one-bedroom unit of 510 square feet. Estimated rents were reported to be north of $2.80 per square foot. Some of the units didn’t even have a bedroom window, resulting in bedroom walls not reaching the ceiling. There was a measly affordable housing component in the second iteration. The third iteration now suggests 10 percent of units being affordable.
Shortly before the new high-rise configuration was presented to the Oak Lawn Committee in early October, Alliance hired Hunt to advise their Winstead legal team.
Away from the Horseshoe
In April 2017, Hunt’s council successor, Philip Kingston, was in the midst of fighting off challenger Matt Wood for his District 14 seat. Residents in East Dallas began receiving a push-poll by phone. One of the questions: “Do you have a favorable opinion of Hunt?” It continued, prodding whether “it’s ethical that she represents developers and uses her friendship with Kingston to get favors for her clients” and, knowing that, whether the called person still had “a favorable opinion of Hunt?”
D’s Tim Rogers, in reporting the push-poll, wondered why whoever was organizing the polling would choose to jab at the well-liked Hunt. Some in the Oak Lawn area have begun to scrutinize her time lobbying on behalf of developers, which is likely how that question wound up in a political race. Now, of course, politicians should be able to generate an income once they’ve left office. That said, it doesn’t pass the sniff test to me when a politician joins the organization that he or she had previously been tasked with regulating and keeping honest.
Part of Hunt’s response illustrates that our thoughts diverge on this. She told me: “You seem to suggest that I have somehow betrayed my constituency by serving as a zoning and land use attorney after leaving the council. But Jon, I am no longer on the Dallas City Council. I am not an elected official, I don’t have a constituency, and I no longer decide zoning cases. I am a private citizen representing developers and neighborhoods in zoning cases.”
At City Hall, Hunt was the champion of the neighborhoods she represented against overzealous developers. This earned her respect from District 14 constituents, the Oak Lawn Committee, and many more throughout the city. She told me that by working for developers she’s “committed to seeking collaborative, win-win solutions” for the neighborhood.
Tony Page, president of The Vine condominiums that’s set to be surrounded by two of the projects Hunt has lobbied on behalf of, disagrees. “When does it end? We’ve been fighting for a decade to keep the MF-2 housing, only pausing during the Recession,” he said. “Is the price for living in a hot area never-ending vigilance against developers who want to blot out the sun? Who wants to live that way? Worn down isn’t the same as win-win.”
Even after leaving City Hall, Hunt opined in the Lakewood Advocate in January 2015, months before being hired by Exxir, “Instead, start listening to your neighborhoods … help us shape a new city that puts neighborhoods first.”
If the Oak Lawn Committee and neighborhood residents aren’t the embodiment of the neighborhood, who is? In the end, Hunt is an attorney fighting for her clients—her constituents are no longer the ones paying the bills.
Below are Hunt’s full comments to the author’s questions: