Sunday, October 1, 2023 Oct 1, 2023
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By Sally Giddens |

JULY 13. 1988, SHOULD HAVE BEEN A great day for Gary Ahr and the rest of the Bryan Place homeowners who had volunteered thousands of hours to work with the city on new zoning for their neighborhood. Their homes had been built on commercially zoned land, so Ahr, president of the Bryan Place Homeowners’ Association, and a core group of homeowners, city planners, and other property owners had been hammering out new zoning since 1983, trying to protect their homes and organize the various land uses that converge in their neighborhood on the edge of downtown. But on that very day, while the Dallas City Council approved the zoning plan, another branch of the city government was granting a building permit to an entity that the residents of Bryan Place feared could irreparably damage the environment they had been working for so long to protect.

If the holder of this menacing building permit could have been cast in the role of the typical commercial developer “threatening the integrity” of a neighborhood-say, the builder of a tan parlor-video rental-washa-teria strip-the Bryan Place folks could no doubt have won immediate council support for their cause. Many such uses for the property adjacent to Bryan Place would no longer be allowed under the new zoning plan without a special use permit. The nightly news could have picked up on bureaucratic blindness and zoomed in on angry homeowners and their equally irate council representative. Hadn’t the City of Dallas always supported the concept of intown housing? Hadn’t the city long ago shared in the risk of developing Bryan Place and making it work? Surely the city wouldn’t desert its shining symbol of inner-city living now!

But Bryan Place was threatened by no typical developer. It was the very powerful and influential First Baptist Church of Dallas :hat filed for a building permit on that day in mid-July. And the church planned no typical commercial development, but a new home-ess shelter, a mission that addresses a growing need in our community. The building hat would house the new First Baptist ministry to the homeless faces Ross Avenue in the block just east of Central Expressway. It stands not ten feet from one of the Bryan Place homes.

“It was beyond amazing,” Gary Ahr says. “It was unbelievable. We should have been celebrating. But instead what we had worked on for so long was getting slapped in the ace.”

Four days later, the residents sent out a letter-their fourth written plea-to 400 leacons of the First Baptist Church ques-ioning their actions. The Bryan Place resi-lents had known about the church’s plans since February and had been quietly negotiating to find an acceptable alternative. This was not a normal case of the NIMBYs, where homeowners support a social service but “Not In My Back Yard.” The Bryan Place residents, long ago dubbed Dallas’s first “urban pioneers,” were more open-minded than you might expect a suburban neighborhood to be. The Bryan Place residents brought up legitimate problems with the homeless ministry site-it had inadequate parking, virtually no outdoors area, and faced a busy street. Further, the residents maintained, this site was not located in the vicinity of the other services provided in the city for the homeless. Homeless people seeking shelter would have to traverse Central Expressway and a heavily trafficked intersection to reach the building. The residents had also made known their willingness to support a family shelter, as opposed to the Baptist mission that would primarily serve single men.

Yet the residents’ primary concern was with their own safety. Rosie Jones, the single woman whose Bryan Place condo is nearest the mission site, wrote the church leadership about her concerns, She reminded them that in a documentary about the present church mission (on Ross Avenue inside the freeway loop), church officials had referred to the people who come there as “drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes, and pick-pockets. . .everything that belongs to the lower level of living and life.” And now the church wanted to make these people Rosie Jones’s neighbors.

“It scares me to death,” Jones wrote, “knowing that potentially two to three hundred of these people will be turned out on the street, ten feet from my home, every evening, with no place to go and nothing to do until morning.”

But despite ongoing negotiations, the Baptists had gotten their building permit and had begun clean-up work on the building. “We find ourselves at a roadblock,” Ahr wrote the church deacons, “left to resort to the less pleasant scenario we shared with you last spring-one in which no one wins.”

That scenario included threats of lawsuits. Negotiations broke down in July, though the Bryan Place residents felt they had worked diligently toward a compromise. With the Central Dallas Association, the residents had helped raise $200,000 to help absorb some of the monetary loss the church might sustain if it relocated its shelter. (Various analyses by the CDA, the Bryan Place residents, and independent appraisers show that the Baptists overpaid for the land and building by as much as $13 a foot, which made finding a new buyer at the Baptists’ purchase price of $330,000 more difficult.) The CDA consortium had found an alternative site for the mission, one that some church officials agreed was superior to the Ross Avenue location. And finally, a potential purchaser was found for the site, one willing to pay much more than real estate brokers working on the deal had originally anticipated.

But the Baptists wanted more. They were not willing to accept any loss whatsoever in relocating the mission. The church wasn’t willing to participate in any solution if it meant it had to spend additional money.

When D went to press, negotiations between the church and the Bryan Place residents-having been on-again, off-again-were on again. Lanny Elmore, minister of outreach for the church, said as long as there was hope of a no-cost resolution, the church would keep trying. “Presently, though, work on the new building is on hold.” Elmore said early in October. The Bryan Place homeowners were all keeping their fingers crossed, hoping for a positive solution to the complicated problem.

The Bryan Place versus First Baptist dilemma has been one of the quietest-yet one of the fiercest-battles for land use rights this city has seen. Many important issues are at stake-the right to develop land as current zoning and an owner see fit; the need to care for this city’s growing numbers of homeless; and the city’s support for intown housing. The problems that arose, says councilman Craig Holcomb. who represents Bryan Place, are not surprising, given that many diverse needs and land uses converge near what we call the “central business district.” Clashes, he says, are inevitable.

But as the Bryan Place battle wears on, other developers have begun to see the dilemma as a specter of doom for intown housing. Why? Because throughout the battle, the City of Dallas was notably absent from the fray. It appeared that the issue- with the powerful Baptist church at the helm and a growing underclass below the decks-was just too stormy for the city to navigate.

“We couldn’t,” says assistant city manager Jim Reid. “We did try to help the CDA in mediation. But the code allows them [the Baptists] to do what they are going to do. We couldn’t help in a regulatory sense.” Still, Reid says, that doesn’t mean that intown housing is not a current and future priority of the City of Dallas.

The city has long been criticized for paying such lip service to intown housing, yet taking no concrete steps to make housing happen-or to save it when it is in jeopardy. But, Reid says, some strides have been taken, even if they are baby steps. The city has been working with property owners in the State-Thomas area north of downtown to create a tax increment financing district. It would create a special fund from a portion of taxes paid by property owners in the district to make special public improvements there. Three years ago, the Dallas City Council passed comprehensive zoning for State-Thomas that cleared the way for residential development. And farther north in Cityplace, Reid says, the city has insisted, in granting Cityplace its planned development zoning, that Cityplace developers include housing in each phase of the project.

Unmoved by Reid’s vision of progress, Ahr says that Bryan Place is the city’s only substantial current intown housing project, and as such is due the most support. Certainly Bryan Place is the largest single cluster of intown housing-with its 400 families and a model homeowner group. In contrast, State-Thomas boasts some seventy-five to eighty housing units, and Deep Ellum can claim about half that number. Ahr believes that if the city treats its biggest customer badly, that sends a message about the way future customers will be treated. If what has gone on with the Baptists and the homeless shelter is any indication. Ahr thinks the city’s abandonment of Bryan Place will serve to discourage rather than encourage future development.

“That is the worst part about all of this,” says Dave Fox, creator of Bryan Place while he was head of Fox and Jacobs.’ ’It is a credibility issue. A commitment issue. When push comes to shove, is the city really interested in intown housing?”

BUT THERE’S A LARGER QUESTION: why should the city be interested in intown housing? Why not just let downtown be a financial district where everyone goes home at sundown? Because urban planners have warned time and again that single-use districts die an inevitable death when employers move out of downtowns and nearer to the residential areas where their employees live. Commuting, they tell us, is a temporary state, one employees will live with for only so long, With construction on Central Expressway looming, the intown housing issue has grown even more troublesome. And pure-office downtowns are also more vulnerable to downturns-as our present economy illustrates. When a downtown is made up of various uses-residential, retail, and office-it is more tenacious during the down times.

And of course there is the matter of vitality. A downtown where people can actually live has a current of life common to great cities, a vibrant quality Dallas has yearned to achieve. Residents who live “intown,” like the 400 families in Bryan Place and the pockets of residents in the State-Thomas Historic District and in Deep Ellum. say they like living in town-near restaurants, the Arts District, and the cultural offerings of Fair Park. Some of that vibrancy, they say, is already there.

Ultimately, if the city is really interested in achieving significant intown housing, it will have to write a check. A recent report completed by the Central Dallas Association’s Housing Committee with HSM/Grubb & Ellis Advisors Inc. explains why. The CDA study, which included a survey of downtown workers to help determine the market, shows there is demand to rent intown housing. According to the study, 13.2 percent, or 15,602 downtown employees, indicated they were “very likely” to move intown. But when affordability is factored in, only 453 of these downtown employees said they could afford to pay the $715 a month in rent a typical intown one-bedroom garden apartment would command to cover a developer’s costs (at $1.10 a square foot). A high-rise apartment would typically require $1.15 per square foot to cover costs, which boosts the rent to $748 for a one-bedroom unit. (Currently in Bryan Place, condominiums and single-family homes rent for between 60 and 80 cents a foot.) So we’re back to the city’s writing a check: even people who want to live intown demand a subsidy before they will do so. And it’s ludicrous to expect a private developer to do the subsidizing.

Clyde Jackson, who is interested in intown housing because of his Plaza of the Americas development downtown, says renters are the only probable market right now. He says he still has plans on the drawing board to build a residential tower atop the Plaza of the Americas parking garage. Later, he says, renters may be willing to become owners, but right now, the waters are untested.

High-rise living has not been an overwhelming success in this city. The LaTour condominium project developed by Cam-peau on McKinney Avenue is testament to that. A year after the project was completed in 1983, it became obvious that the building was not going to fill up with individual buyers. When a block of condominiums was converted to lease, occupancy quickly shot up, reports Wayne E. Jones, vice-president of Campeau High-Rise Homes of Texas Inc. Today. Jones says, LaTour is all but full, and Campeau gets $1.05 a square foot from its renters. The profile of residents there is pretty typical of the market indicated in the CDA study: empty nester professionals, 50.6 percent single, 71 percent under forty-five.

A growing number of people think that money the city is prepared to spend for a downtown retail mall (sec related story on page 78) would be better spent on housing.

Stanley Marcus, one of this city’s preeminent retailers, thinks the city’s contest for developers bidding to build a downtown mall is too little, too late. Instead, Marcus suggested in a letter to the Dallas City Council in mid-September, the city would be better served subsidizing a downtown or near-downtown residential project. “Such developments,” Marcus wrote, “would by their very nature encourage retailers to come to the downtown area to serve their residential customers.”

Landowners like M. Thomas Lardner of Lchndorff Management, which owns property in the State-Thomas area, say the city has no choice but to share the risk with the next developer of intown housing. Lardner thinks if the city funded a pilot project-at least 200 units-with $4 million to $5 million, and if that project worked, then other developers would follow suit and use their own money. There is some precedent for that request. In the days of the planning of Bryan Place, the city was willing to take at least part of the risk, says Dave Fox.

“We saw that there was a chance of putting together a critical mass within a price range, and we were willing to spend our own money. But at any time, if we couldn’t get that critical mass together, the city committed to buy it back from us at our cost. Then they could hold it for future development. In the end, that didn’t happen. It didn’t cost them any money, but the point was they were willing,” Fox says.

But. says Lardner. it will take more than just the city’s showing its support for a “current customer,” and more than retail, more than tax breaks and incentives, for housing to work in or near downtown Dallas. Most important, it will take consumer demand. Lardner chaired the CDA Housing Committee, which, as the most comprehensive study of the intown housing issue ever undertaken in this city, sought to answer that all-important question. Though the city has studied intown housing in the past, the CDA effort was very specific. It included analyses of eighteen specific housing sites-eleven within the freeway loop and seven on its boundaries. But most important, this study included an action plan for (he city to achieve (he long-lalked-of goal of intown housing.

Intown housing faces specific challenges, the CDA study maintains, so the city needs to meet (hose challenges-things like traffic congestion, incompatible land uses, and perceived security problems-head on. To create an urban neighborhood, the study suggests that the city do the following:

Empower one individual or organization to lead the effort.

Pass a housing policy through the city council to reaffirm the city’s commitment.

Identify all parties likely to be affected by intown housing and develop a consensus among them.

Create a not-for-profit housing develop ment organization with a full-lime staff per son who is knowledgeable of (he housing process and who has worked with both the public and private sectors. This organiza tion’s board of directors should include the city manager, a member of the architectural/ urban planning community, and represent atives of the financial, development, and general business communities. It will be this organization’s job to develop a master plan for intown housing and become involved in its implementation.

The not-for-profit housing organization should work with the city as the city does the following: designates areas for intown hous ing; addresses the difficullies of developing an urban neighborhood; streamlines the ap proval process to expedite intown housing development; determines the steps the city will take in granting special densities and ar ranging special financing.

● The not-for-profit housing organization will work with the private sector as the private sector does the following: determines financial techniques it is willing to use, in cluding low-interest loans, equity purchases, rental guarantees, foundation grants, and donation of foreclosed properties to a non profit development organization; uses its ex pertise to develop and manage market-rate intown housing.

The City Council got its first glimpse of (he study in October, and we will no doubt be hearing about it for months to come before we will finally know if the city of Dallas is “really interested” in intown housing. In the meantime, a small movement toward intown living continues to grow, slowly. Bryan Place residents become a stronger and stronger homeowner voice. Lower property values in Deep Ellum have given new lite to the once-too-expensive “artist” living spaces in warehouses and storefronts. One by one, the gingerbread Victorians are being renovated in State-Thomas; more were born again this year than last. And new living spaces continue to pop up somewhat randomly south of downtown in the Cedars area around Old City Park. It seems that while we study and wait for more city commitment, housing does limp along.