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Local Government

Laura Miller on the Failings of Jennifer Gates and the Battle To Save Preston Hollow

She's back!
By Tim Rogers |

Laura-MillerIf you haven’t yet, take a second to check out our new neighborhood guide. It’s a pretty robust tool that our little web team built. If you know someone who is moving to Dallas or thinking of moving, point him to this resource. One thing that makes it great is a series of essays about various Dallas neighborhoods. For example, here’s what Adam McGill has to say about his neighborhood, Lake Highlands. We asked people all over town to tell us why they live where they do and what they love most about their hood.

One of those people was Laura Miller, former D Magazine and Dallas Observer columnist, former mayor of Dallas, current Preston Hollow resident. The essay she turned in — well, it wasn’t like the other essays. It was more of a polemic than it was a love letter to Preston Hollow. In her sights this time: Councilwoman Jennifer Gates; Gates’ appointee to the Plan Commission, Margot Murphy; and Mark Cuban. Laura isn’t real pleased with what they’re doing to her neighborhood.

The piece clearly didn’t work for our neighborhood guide. But it also couldn’t just go to waste. “Put it on FrontBurner,” Laura told me, “or I will come over there and punch you in the throat.” I made up that quote. But I stand behind my reporting.


The Fight for Preston Hollow
By Laura Miller

My three favorite streets in Dallas are Lausanne Avenue (in Oak Cliff); Dentwood Drive (in Preston Hollow); and Tokalon Drive (in Lakewood). Lucky for me, I’ve lived on two out of three.

What links the three, located in three completely different parts of town, is big trees, and plenty of them; shady, meandering streets lined with charming architecture; and peace and quiet. In Oak Cliff, where we lived for 17 years, we knew and spoke frequently to all of our neighbors and loved our small 1928 Tudor and the proximity to Bishop Arts and Aunt Stelle’s Sno-Cones. But our kids went to schools in North Dallas, and that daily, round-trip commute was brutal. So we decided to move north.

In 2004, we moved into a house near Inwood and Northwest Highway. The sudden juxtaposition to a plethora of mega-groceries, bookstores, restaurants, and dry cleaners was a jolt. In fact, my strongest memory on moving day was realizing, as I unpacked boxes, that I could actually get in my car and drive five minutes (instead of 25 from Kessler Park) to The Corner Bakery at Preston Center to buy my favorite chicken sandwich.

Which, 11 years later, is no longer a possibility. Because the biggest threat to Preston Hollow today is traffic and gridlock, and Dallas City Hall will determine in the next 12 months whether that gets tolerably better or disastrously worse.

Preston Hollow’s greatest asset is geography — located in the quiet center of a bustling city. It began as a 56-acre farm purchased in 1924 by Ira DeLoache, who quickly sub-divided it and began selling big residential lots out of his “country real estate office” — which later became Ebby Halliday’s Little White House at the corner of Northwest Highway and Preston Road. Preston Hollow incorporated as a separate township in 1939, but five years later, residents voted to become part of Dallas. Since then, it has bleeded out and, most notably, been cut in two by the Dallas North Tollway. Its current boundaries are generally Midway Road on the west, Northwest Highway on the south, Hillcrest on the East, and Royal Lane on the north. (Sorry, Preston Hollow Village — the mega-retail complex being built at Central Expressway and Walnut Hill — but you’re no Preston Hollow.)

To put Preston Hollow’s traffic congestion problems in a nutshell, Northwest Highway has become LBJ Freeway with stoplights.

That’s because there is no other school-zone-free stretch of divided, six-lane roadway stretching east-to-west between I-35 and Central Expressway. For most of each weekday, those 8 miles become one impenetrable wave of lurching, honking, sun-scorched metal. Scofflaws, including me, create byzantine routes through small, residential streets to avoid the traffic. That pretty well knocks out everybody’s peace and quiet.

For years, Preston Hollow has managed to stay out of the news. But things have heated up dramatically since Councilwoman Jennifer Gates was elected, in 2013, and real estate developers began proposing, in rapid fire, a rash of high-density, big-traffic-generating projects in and around Preston Center, our southern boundary. Residents were so instantly enraged by an eight-story residential project, proposed by Transwestern, to replace two-story apartments across from Ebby’s Little White House that yard signs spread like a summer rash in opposition.

The frustration grew sharply when residents found out their new councilwoman would have to recuse herself for a financial conflict of interest due to her father and her husband both being employed by real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle, which was involved in the deal. Gates’ appointee to the Plan Commission, Margot Murphy, not only was hostile to neighborhood pleas for help, she took pains to point out why she didn’t have to care. “I am not an elected representative of District 13,” she told me at the height of the battle.

Preston Hollow residents aren’t used to being ignored.

From the day Jerry Bartos was elected to the council, in 1987, to the day Mitchell Rasansky left, in 2009, if you were a developer with an idea that wasn’t already allowed by right, that existing property owners didn’t like, you were advised — up front and early — not to bother to even file a zoning application. That forced developers to negotiate, with steely-eyed plan commissioners and council members holding their feet to the fire. Some people called that approach “anti-development.” Others called it “pro-neighborhood.”

Those days are over.

After Commissioner Murphy antagonized constituents on two zoning proposals in quick succession last year — Transwestern and Highland House, a 29-story residential tower slated to replace a two-story medical building — it became obvious to residents that they were on their own. Adding high-octane fuel to the fire was Mark Cuban. After 20 years buying up 10 acres of single-family estate properties in Preston Hollow — along Northwest Highway, between Ebby’s Little White House and the Tollway — Cuban decided to not only announce his intention to up-zone from residential to office tower, he did it in his typical Shark Tank manner by demolishing the houses, and most of the trees, and the brick privacy walls, instantly destroying his neighbors’ quality of life. When an adjacent homeowner with two little kids was immediately burglarized, the wife’s emails to Cuban begging for help were met with disdain. “I would like to think that having purchased the property, I have the right to use it as I see fit,” he said in one email response.

These three nuclear warheads, aimed directly at Preston Hollow, resulted in residents pleading with Councilwoman Gates to stop the chaos by appointing a group to study the area’s significant problems — parking, traffic, and deteriorating infrastructure — before any more zoning cases were approved. At a town hall meeting last fall to discuss the formation of the Preston Road and Northwest Highway Area Plan Stakeholder Taskforce (which I now serve on), Councilwoman Gates got a hearty round of applause when she told the 200 people assembled: “I can’t put a moratorium in place on zoning; anyone can file a zoning case. My wish is we all take a breath, and we don’t move anything forward until we’re done with this study.”

It never happened.

Highland House did disappear — but on its own, thanks to the property’s new owner, Leland Burk, who voluntarily withdrew the case in the spirit of the Area Plan. Cuban’s properties are still a jarring, jeering eyesore. And Transwestern, after throwing in the towel to get those pesky yard signs down, is now back with yet another high-density proposal, leaving area homeowners dejected and exhausted; that fight will be two years old this winter.

The latest battle is over a proposed sky bridge from the old Sanger Harris building (now Marshall’s and DSW Shoes) to the top deck of the city’s two-story parking garage. Not only would most Preston Center employees lose their current parking, leaving them nowhere else to go (except the surrounding neighborhoods), but neighbors loathe the traffic congestion that will necessarily result from an additional 2,500 cars a day headed for Preston Center and the single ramp that will take them to the top of an already completely full garage. (The developer has its own half-empty parking garage at the other end of its building but likes taking over the public parking better.)

After eight months saying she hadn’t made up her mind and postponing a decision several times, Councilwoman Gates brought the sky bridge to the City Council on June 17 for a vote. All three area homeowner associations opposed it; a majority of Preston Center business property owners opposed it; eight of 13 members of Gates’ Area Plan Taskforce opposed it; and seven of the 15 city council members opposed it — at least for 12 months, until the Area Plan could be completed and adopted by the City Council. But Councilwoman Gates bucked them all in favor of the developer. On a vote she won by a single vote — hers — she kicked the can down the road until November, ordering her Area Plan Taskforce to spend the intervening period studying the pros and cons of the sky bridge.

The next day, Gates told me how she begged the developer on the morning of the vote to please wait until the Area Plan was finished. “They said no,” she said ruefully. (It left no impression whatsoever when I explained that she was the elected official, not the developer.) “In retrospect, maybe I should have moved to approve [the sky bridge] and let it fail.”

This chronic vacillation has forever changed the otherwise placid landscape of this part of town. For the first time, the physical and mental border between rural Preston Hollow and urban Preston Center has all but dissolved, with angry commercial building owners and worried homeowners united and growing in number. The Taskforce, created in a spirit of cooperation, is now seriously divided, with a majority wondering if it’s just an empty suit. And other area neighborhoods watch and worry. Right now, homeowners around Hockaday are fighting a proposal to turn some of the residential townhomes at the northwest corner of Inwood and Forest into retail — an alarming prospect, since the ocean of existing retail on the opposite corner is some of the ugliest in North Dallas. As usual, Murphy is belligerent and Gates is coy, asking homeowners to prove that the “majority of the community” is against the proposal.

Ironically, Councilwoman Gates loves Preston Hollow for all the reasons we do. “The meandering, bar-ditch country roads work because the neighbors maintain [their yards] all the way to the asphalt,” Gates says. “The tranquility of the neighborhoods, the well-manicured lawns, the neighborhood feel, the quality of homes. And the access to good schools. It’s the people, and the strength of the neighborhoods.”

And under our new councilwoman, the neighborhoods are getting stronger by the day.

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