I have to thank Dallas Morning News’ Robert Wilonsky for my literal laugh-out-loud Sunday as he broke the story on St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church’s plans to lease land to a developer to build a high-rise office tower in Preston Center. I mean you just can’t make this stuff up.
Flash back to Christmas Eve 2007 when the Church, pulling a Martin Luther, nailed 60-day eviction notices to residents of the Frederick Square Apartments located on church-owned property … and on a Sunday no less! While Martin Luther only nailed 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church, St. Michaels and All Angels nailed closer to 100. I’m sure back in 2007 many made the allusion to Mary and Joseph also being turned out on Christmas Eve a few years earlier.
Flash forward to March 2, 2015, the Preston Center Task Force had its first meeting to present its mission and membership. Jay Grogan was named a representative of Zone 3 (bounded by Preston, Del Norte, Hillcrest and Walnut Hill). You remember Zone 3, right? The chief grumblers on the recently approved Laurel apartments Transwestern will be building on the northeast corner of Preston and Northwest Highway?
According to the autobiography supplied to the task force, Jay Grogan is “actively involved in Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church” located in task force Zone 1. He’s also been “a practicing real estate and business lawyer for more than 30 years.” It’s obvious why his church involvement included being one of three members of their Campus Development Committee overseeing the proposed redevelopment of the former Frederick Square Apartments site.
Why is St. Michael’s scrabbling for more money? In February 2015, the Episcopal School of Dallas announced they were embarking on a plan to unite its younger and older students on their Merrill Road campus. That plan has its own hurdles to jump and is reportedly years away from breaking ground. But that move will quash the rent paid to St. Michael’s by the Episcopal School for the 403 students currently educated on St. Michael’s land. (The main gripe for that project is of course, traffic. Neighbors worry about the twice-daily drop-off/pickup parade of 403 SUVs – I was apparently the last child to ever walk to school.)
And while St. Michael’s will be expanding their pre-school program, the $4,714-13,500 a year tuition (toddler to kindergarten) apparently won’t cover the Episcopal School’s shortfall and the laundry list of building improvements desired.
You remember the Episcopal School, right? They, who in 2012 were spanked with a $9 million judgement for their deplorable actions in a teacher/student sex scandal that resulted in quite a lot of shuffles and retirements among the higher-ups.
In September 2015, after months of negotiations with developers, the church’s Vestry (church HOA-like board) met and (with one abstention) unanimously agreed to negotiate with the unnamed developer for the ground lease (which was to have been completed in December). The lease terms would be based on the eventual construction of a 250,000-square-foot high-rise with 675 parking spaces. (Horn-toot: A (psychic) prediction I made to 8181 Douglas in May 2015.)
As Robert Wilonsky pointed out and Laura Miller echoed, for the entire time the Preston Center Task Force has been in existence, one of its members was working at cross-purposes and in secret. The task force only became aware of the project when developers started calling Councilwoman Jennifer Gates (imagine those calls – ha!). And it was only after being caught with their hand in the wafer tin that St. Michael’s reached out to Gates to discuss the issue.
By my reckoning, this is the fourth task force member (of 13) with a little taint. In addition to Grogan, Zone 1 is also represented by Leland Burk who’s purchased Crosland’s doomed 23- to 29-story Highland House lot (as Matilda Realty) for which he has unspecified plans (but it sure won’t be no park!).
Then there’s the Pink Wall Zone 4. It’s represented by a renter (Patty Niles) and Steve Dawson who actually lives in Zone 3. Dawson has conflicting business interests in Zone 4 (an apartment building that may suffer at the hands of a new competitive development – like the newly approved Laurel apartments he vocally opposed to the bitter end).
Zones 1 and 4 are the most important zones in the task force area comprising the highest residential and commercial redevelopment potential. By my counting, of the five area representatives, three have conflicts of interest and one has no ownership interest at all. Finding this level of shadiness in the area should throw all future development under a credibility microscope. I don’t (so far) doubt the data coming from the consultant, but new development must be viewed through the jaundiced lens of personal gain.
Back to St. Michael’s: It’s fascinating to read their description and rationale for this project in the December 2015 issue of their Archangel publication. The parcel, including the land they threw 100 tenants out of on Christmas Eve 7 years ago, is now termed “the excess land to the north of the main campus.” Ironically, those eviction notices seem to have been part of the “Expanding Our Faith” fundraising campaign.
Also in the newsletter, it’s evident that somewhere there’s a rendering of the proposed building and accompanying St. Michael’s improvements (I mean the developers had to bid on something, right?). The proposed building is even described as having “shared covered parking that would be connected to our new welcome area by an air-conditioned sky bridge.” Wha-wha-what? A sky bridge? I guess that’s OK if it’s used to bring in the faithful … but not the hungry to a grocery store a few blocks away.
What’s puzzling to someone who sees religion’s overarching message as helping others, is the seeming disregard for the larger neighborhood. A 250,000-square-foot office tower is described as being “most consistent with the church’s strategic needs” and generating “the highest revenue for the church, when compared with other land uses.” “Office buildings typically do not need parking at times of peak church usage, unlike residential or retail.” “A ground lease … [provides] … safe, stable revenue to support our ministries, without financial or operational risk to Saint Michael.” Neighborhood consideration? Zip.
Is it too harsh to question the secrecy and motives of any organization that’s seemingly deaf to its responsibilities as a good neighbor and representative of a neighborhood betterment task force (that it’s hosted meetings for)? Does it matter more if that organization is a church versus a Wall Street hedge fund?
Is it too harsh to point out the hypocrisy of after the past year having crafted proposal guidelines, interviewed developers and studied their proposals before finally selecting a developer to then see St. Michael’s representative Lowell Duncan quoted last week as saying, “But I want to emphasize: It’s premature for us to make any kind of definitive decisions at this point.”
All this is pruriently interesting, but the land in question isn’t zoned for a high-rise. It’s zoned multi-family which is reflective of its past as a 2-story apartment complex. Councilwoman Gates and Laura Miller are in agreement on this one. They and the residential neighbors will provide a full-court hissy fit every step of the way. They’re also hoping the results of the Preston Center Task Force back them up. If it does, the church may ironically be replacing those torn-down 2-story apartments with slightly taller 3-story apartments.
The church, on the other hand, is praying for a different outcome and that they’re first in line for any zoning indulgences on offer. If there is room for growth, you can bet that St. Michael’s, Leland Burk, Mark Cuban and others will be there pushing and shoving like single ladies at a bride’s bouquet toss.
Whatever the outcome, I think we can all agree: “God’s work” is nowhere in sight.
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