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The Conclusion of Bitter Elm Thicket Zoning Battle Leaves Dallas With Lessons

Legacy residents won a contentious zoning battle that limits the scale and style of new developments in the historically Black neighborhood of Elm Thicket. The city of Dallas, meanwhile, has a lot to learn.
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In Elm Thicket, new development stands next to old bungalows. Christine Allison

The Dallas City Council on Wednesday closed the chapter on a contentious zoning battle that took nearly seven years to settle in the historically Black neighborhood of Elm Thicket/North Park. It was the conclusion of the city’s protracted attempt at controlling the style of home that can exist in this northwest Dallas neighborhood, where old cottage-style bungalows now sit beside modern, flat-roofed, square-shaped new builds that often tower over them.

The Council approved zoning changes that block new single- and multi-story homes from occupying more than 40 percent of their lots. The previous maximum was 45 percent, which is how most of the city’s single-family lots are zoned. Council’s decision also lowers the height restriction here from 30 feet to 25; allows duplexes to be built on two north-south thoroughfares, Mabel Avenue and Roper Street; and limits the style of roofs on new homes to hip and gable, which require sloping edges and sides that create a triangle.

“I am not against progress. This does not prevent builders from building,” said Councilman Jesse Moreno, whose District 2 includes Elm Thicket. “I want to encourage development in a responsible manner while giving a nod to the existing context and culture of the area.”

The city, in 2016, began to explore how to manage development in this community. City staff proposed changes to “soften the development styles” and address “scale and massing” to make the big homes sync better with the smaller ones. The changes were repeatedly referred to on Wednesday as a “tip of the cap” and “a nod of respect” to the history of the neighborhood, even though council members acknowledged the new regulations will do little to address the rising property values that attracted the city’s attention in the first place.

“My people were told where we could go, where we could live,” said Jonathan Maples, the president of the Elm Thicket/North Park Neighborhood Association, who led the community effort in support of the changes. “This city has a history of systemic racism and redlining. … I ask you, City Council, which side of history are you gonna be on?”

The 521-acre northwest Dallas neighborhood is bounded by Lemmon Avenue to the west, Inwood Road to the east, Lovers Lane to the north, and Mockingbird Lane to the south. It was established as a Freedman’s town, was redlined in the 1930s and 1940s, and served as a relief valve for Black homeowners who were pushed out of the State-Thomas neighborhood by the construction of Central Expressway during those same decades.

When Love Field was a training base for the U.S. Army Air Service in World War I, there was military housing just beyond Roper Street. A tall hedge still spans the length of Roper, which was used to separate that military housing from the Black neighborhood that stretched just past present-day Mockingbird. The community was also home to the Hilliard Golf Course, Dallas’ first course for Black golfers. The city seized the course in 1954 and about 300 homes to build the airport. The residents moved east as their community shrank.

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Elm Thicket is also known for its dense tree coverage. Bethany Erickson

Supporters of the zoning change spoke of that history. Resident and professor Clarence Glover told the Council how the Works Progress Administration described Elm Thicket in its Dallas guide as “a village of Negro residences and business enterprises in extreme North Dallas.” Others brought up the now-infamous “Tron house,” the $3.9 million gray manse on Wateka Drive that has drawn the ire of legacy residents who hold it up as the reason these zoning changes are necessary.

“This is an African American neighborhood that wants to maintain its integrity, that wants to keep our children and grandchildren living in an area that our parents fought for,” said longtime resident Zac Thompson.

The city’s research shows how the neighborhood has changed in recent years. According to Census data, the neighborhood was over 90 percent African American 20 years ago. By 2016, it had declined to 32 percent. Median real estate taxes increased at least 33 percent between 2005 and 2019, the city found, and home prices doubled in the last 12 years. The city’s own stated goals for the zoning changes mentioned nothing about stopping the flow of development. Instead, the case report expressed a desire to “facilitate greater compatibility, particularly in scale, between traditional and new development.”

“Displacement started in this neighborhood in the 2000s,” said Doug Brower, an Elm Thicket resident who helped lead the opposition to the zoning change. He also owns the property management company Gem Realty. “What’s been happening in this neighborhood started a long, long time ago. This isn’t gonna fix it.”

The city sent 2,382 notices to residents in the affected areas requesting feedback. Of those who responded, 616 opposed the changes while 272 supported them. Despite the bitter battle, Council’s approval was the result of a compromise between the two sides. Originally, supporters wanted to limit lot coverage to 35 percent; opponents wanted it to stay at 45 percent. They agreed on 40 percent, which seemed to allay Council’s concerns.

Most of the opponents who spoke on Wednesday said they moved to the neighborhood in the last 10 years. They questioned why zoning was being used to achieve these goals, why the city didn’t push the supporters of the zoning changes to instead pursue mechanisms such as conservation or historic districts, which wouldn’t have included as much of the neighborhood. (Andrea Gilles, the assistant director of Planning and Urban Design for the city, said the supporters “were less concerned about architectural features and rather the context and character of bulk and mass.”)

Opponents argued that the zoning changes take away their property rights. They say it will limit their ability to sell their homes in the future for as much as they could without the changes. Developers warned that the new zoning would slow the momentum of the neighborhood. That argument didn’t land with most of Council.

“No future builder will be hurt; they’ll simply be asked to operate, some for the very first time, in a more limited way,” said Councilwoman Janie Schultz, whose district is a few miles north. “There remain thousands and thousands of homes in Dallas that will inevitably be torn down, and builders will have their pick of size and budget of pretty much whatever they want in Dallas.”  

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Bethany Erickson

Gilles said about 80 percent of the legacy structures were still “in place.” New construction currently accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the stock. She said she doesn’t believe it’s too late to achieve the city’s goals of controlling the scale of new housing.

This is no longer “extreme North Dallas.” It’s one of the most coveted locations in all of Dallas, central now, close to multiple grocery stores, schools, transit, churches, community centers, and jobs. It’s also one of the few remaining historically Black neighborhoods north of the Trinity River, and its location and the age of the housing stock have attracted developers who have amassed land to build larger homes. Those developments increase property values and taxes, and change the makeup of the neighborhood.

The tensions between the supporters and opposition—the contrasting signs that dotted most blocks, the NextDoor battles, the allegations of underhanded tactics in attracting support for one side or the other—have blown apart the neighborhood. A good chunk of public comment was personal, pointing fingers at newcomers and at leaders of both sides.

Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, who represents Far North Dallas, took the city to task over how long the process took. She said she worked with a nonprofit in the community 15 years ago and saw the beginnings of the changes.

“Everyone knew 15 years ago that we would be sitting here, that we would be having this problem,” she said. “And, frankly, nothing was done. This is an indictment of this entire City Hall.”

The legacy residents pushed for the changes to try to keep what character was left here. The city includes all covered structures in the lot coverage calculations; so garages and covered patios are counted, too. Considering the average lot size is 7,500 square feet, Gilles told Council that the ordinance allows for about 3,000 square feet. A two-story home can account for 6,000.

The debate here came down to preserving how the legacy residents viewed the neighborhood.

The city faces broader housing challenges that manifested here years ago. Dallas will need to learn how to be proactive, to spot neighborhoods with legacy residents who are facing intense development pressures. The way out of the crisis is to find ways to motivate the construction of new housing, slow price increases, and minimize displacement of those longtime residents. There will need to be support for those legacy residents: grants and loans to help remediate homes, guidance around taxes, programs that at least take the financial edge off for folks who wish to stay.

In Elm Thicket, even the city agreed that it waited too long to act.

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Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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