The City Council approved an interesting rezoning request last week. They were considering whether to allow for 26 single family homes to be built on a 3.5-acre lot off Forest Lane that has basically sat empty since the city bought it in 2006. Existing zoning would have only allowed for nine homes.
Fifteen years ago, the city allotted bond dollars to build a library there. That never happened. But the city still owned the land, and the bond covenants require whatever money it got from selling it to refurbish the nearby Preston Royal Library, one of the system’s most popular and in need of a little TLC.
Anyway: today, it’s essentially a parking lot. After scrapping the new library idea, the city decided in 2018 to sell the land, but nobody has made an offer anywhere near what the purchase price was. That is, until a developer—Forest Park Development LLC—offered a good price if the city would rezone the land to allow for a little more density.
A little more density. Like, very little. This is not an affordable housing story. It’s not market rate apartments. It’s 26 single-family homes that will sell for about $1 million each. The surrounding neighborhoods freaked out. Melshire Estates borders the property. They don’t want it. (Or, at least, the respondents don’t want it.) But homes like this are important, too. These are 26 single-family residences that will be purchased by someone with means that would have bought another home elsewhere, likely well over asking.
This rezoning case is an early test of the new Council. The developer played ball on the design and made some adjustments: larger setbacks, no second-story windows on homes facing the neighborhood, moving the power lines, planting more trees and replacing any that die or are damaged, installing 6-foot-wide sidewalks.
To some council members, it was offensive to hear the vitriol from the surrounding neighbors. This is, after all, an unused piece of land. Its sale will go to rehab a library. And what the developer is proposing is just … single family homes on smaller lots than you’ll find in this part of town. Here is Councilman Jaime Resendez, of southeast Dallas: “It’s a little frustrating to me hearing so much opposition for a project that would be welcomed with open arms in District 5. If it fails, I think we need to be pushing for workforce development housing. … This is an area of opportunity.”
He ticked off what’s nearby: Whole Foods, Tom Thumb, Medical City Hospital, the Galleria. “Jobs,” he said.
Opponents say they want the land developed. Just not this way. Some spoke about their desire to subdivide the property into seven or eight tracts, which would make the homes go for about twice as much as what was proposed. There is concern that buyers would not be keen to spend $2 million to front busy Forest Lane. They believe it will add traffic to already congested streets, but city engineers found “it will not have a negative impact on the existing street system.” Others say the councilwoman for the district, Gay Donnell Willis, was not receptive to hearing their concerns. She said ahead of the vote that she was researching the matter, which has been percolating for years.
This is where the City Council plays an important role. While the City Plan Commission recommended approving the zoning change, staff did not. For a simple reason: the minimum lot size will be about a quarter of what the surrounding single-family zoning allows. That was enough for staff to suggest walking away.
“While single family is consistent with the surrounding uses, the applicant proposes to develop the lots in a manner that is not consistent with existing land uses,” wrote staff’s report.
Ahead of the vote, the Dallas Morning News characterized this as sort of a NIMBY line in the sand: if the city can’t get these built, how will it ever get affordable housing built? And that is a worthy point. But what it really showed was how the other council members looked at a housing deal outside of their districts. Dallas needs more homes. It needs low-priced homes. It needs expensive homes. It needs all of it. And North Dallas needs it.
The city will never build its way out of its housing shortage if it allows neighborhoods to remain in stasis, particularly with a plot of land that has sat unused for more than a decade. Council agreed, and only two members—Far North Dallas Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn and neighboring representative Jaynie Schultz, both of whom spoke about their relationships with residents in the neighboring Melshire Estates—voted against it.
Melshire homeowners came out against it. (Mostly. About a third of the residents in the notice area didn’t respond, which is important and lost when opponents say “95 percent” of nearby neighbors were against the deal. That math is incorrect.)
The opposition was furious. There was a public meeting late last month that was so vitriolic that Councilwoman Schultz briefly lectured the public about decorum before she voted against the rezoning. Her colleague, Gay Donnell Willis, represents the district and supported the zoning change, much to the chagrin of many of her constituents.
“Strong neighborhoods invite change and progress that delivers quality homes in neighborhoods, grounded in respect for each other as well as community values,” she said. “A neighborhood that understands preservation doesn’t mean standing still.”
Watch for this in other neighborhoods. Dallas needs the housing at all price points. And when a developer makes changes to meet some neighborhood concerns, the Council seems to be asking: what’s the big deal with a little more density?
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