By Laura Miller
Editor’s Note: CandysDirt.com continues to expand, explore, and evolve to serve the real estate needs and curiosity of North Texas. We focus daily on this fast-growing region which is metamorphosing before our eyes, reshaping some of our most beloved neighborhoods. Whereas we always want to bring you the inside story and scoop, sometimes we have to go outside our staff to become the best informed. It is our mission to not just earn your trust and confidence in our reporting, but to fill a void we see missing from conventional daily journalism: the inside stories about where we live. We want to connect you to the highest caliber voices in our midst, and we will do so from time to time with guest contributors. Today, we welcome former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller who serves on City Councilwoman Jennifer Gates’ Task Force Committee to develop a Preston Center and Northwest Highway Area Plan that will examine existing conditions and future needs & improvements within the area.
A few observations about the new office tower St. Michael’s wants to build next to its church on Douglas Avenue from the perspective of a Preston Road and Northwest Highway Area Plan Task Force member trying to find the right balance between new development and current traffic and parking problems:
Besides being a terrible idea (the church’s property serves as a much-needed buffer between high rises and homes), what is also unsettling about the proposal is that it was purposely kept from the Task Force. When you’re spending $350,000 to analyze one neighborhood — $250,000 of taxpayer money and $100,000 in private funds — a full picture of what is going on under your nose is obviously necessary for a successful result.
Unfortunately, the Task Force only found out about this project because this past fall, a concerned citizen gave me a copy of a confidential Request for Proposal (RFP) that real estate attorney Jay Grogan had sent out on Aug. 3 on behalf of St. Michael’s and All Angels Church (SMAA). The 10-page RFP described the proposed office project in great detail and required interested developers to pay a $5,000 non-refundable application fee; the winning bidder (which has been selected but remains unknown) was also required to make a non-refundable $25,000 donation to the church. Since our Task Force meets so rarely, the first opportunity I had to raise the issue with the group was Dec. 3, although I had called several members previous to the meeting to see if anyone knew about the proposal (no one had).
There was one paragraph in the 10-page RFP that particularly surprised me:
“We have had several conversations with Councilwoman Jennifer Gates about the likely development of the site. As the organizer of the Stakeholder Task Force for the Northwest Highway and Preston Road Area Plan, Ms. Gates has a strong preference that zoning cases be delayed until the Task Force completes its work. At present, the Task Force expects to complete its work on or about May 1, 2016, though there is strong support among its members (NOTE: Jay Grogan is a member of the Task Force) to complete the effort sooner. This is generally consistent with the RFP timeline indicating a “Zoning and Platting Period” of 2/15/16 to 8/15/16, though it could be that an actual submittal might occur closer to May 16, 2016.”
Jay Grogan was appointed to our Task Force by Councilwoman Gates to represent Zone 3, or Preston Hollow East — ironically, it was that neighborhood’s vigorous opposition to the traffic that would be created by the Transwestern proposal (the first of several controversial zoning cases) that prompted Gates to create the Task Force in the first place. Grogan was a surprise pick — Preston Hollow East homeowners didn’t know who he was; unlike the other representative for Zone 3, Ashley Parks, Grogan had not participated in the Transwestern fight and had never been active in his homeowner association.
Of the 13 Task Force members, nine of us are homeowner representatives. (I represent the homeowners in Zone 7 — Preston Hollow on the west side of the Tollway.) Until this week, none of us were known to be involved in any commercial development deals in the area.
The other four Task Force members, representing Preston Center proper, are commercial property owners — Bill Willingham (Jamba Juice building, among others), Leland Burk (8215 Westchester, medical building), Bill Archer (La Madeleine building and others) and Mark Roppolo (PegasusAblon, real estate developer). They are obviously, naturally supportive of more commercial development in the area. Burk has also made it clear that he would like to demolish his two-story medical building and build a residential tower. To his credit, before the Task Force was assembled, Burk withdrew the prior owner’s zoning request to build up to 29 stories on the property (which the Plan Commission never voted on due to strong opposition), and he is now waiting for the Task Force recommendations to decide how high a building he will pursue (under current zoning, he can build no more than nine stories).
Although the perception outside the Task Force is that we homeowner representatives are against any new development, that is not the case: There are varying degrees of support for different types of added density in certain locations, but the one constant theme we all hear from homeowners through online surveys and Task Force workshops is that most people who live in the area don’t want to see any more up-zoning in and around Preston Center until we have solutions for traffic and parking.
In fact, at our next meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb.16, at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center — which the public is encouraged to attend — we will be comparing the traffic and parking that exists now to what it would look like if every landowner in Preston Center decided to build out their property to the currently allowable maximum height and density. That should give us a realistic picture about what our recommendations should be regarding redevelopment of the city-owned parking garage and traffic solutions that could include a tunnel under Northwest Highway to divert through traffic from the surface road.
But now we have a much bigger problem. Because projects like St. Michael’s go way beyond current zoning. The church’s empty lot is currently zoned MF-1(A) – three-story apartments are all that can be built there.
Compare that to the church’s current proposal — an office building the size of The Richards Group’s new 18-story office tower built last year at Central Expressway and Lemmon. That tower sits on top of a 10-story, 713-space parking garage, about the same size as the church’s proposed garage.
So what would a project that size do to traffic in Preston Center?
According to a traffic study formula used by cities nationwide — that 1,000 square feet of office space produces 11 daily car trips — the church office tower would add 2,750 car trips a day to Douglas Avenue, where the new entrance to the church, school, office tower and parking garage would be located. (The church also wants to move the St. Michael’s Woman’s Exchange store from Highland Park Village to the first floor of the tower, adding additional retail traffic.) At peak hours, 275 new cars will go through the already impossibly backed up traffic signal at Douglas Avenue and Sherry Lane, just 220 feet north of the proposed development. That would completely landlock the condominium owners at 8181 Douglas: their driveway is located between the proposed office tower and the traffic light. (After seeing Robert Wilonsky’s article about the church’s plans in The Dallas Morning News last week, those surprised owners are gearing up for a fight.)
Jay Grogan told me last week after the article ran that he believes he was transparent on the issue of the St. Michael’s project — that he made references to it in Task Force meetings over the past 10 months. “I do not think I said, ‘Oh, by the way, mark it down that we have excess land we are going to develop,” he said. “But later in the process, as the church thought we should pursue this more deeply, I did say — not in detail — when something came up with undeveloped land, don’t forget that St. Michael’s has excess land.”
Sorry. That’s not transparent. Actually, I don’t recall any comments from Grogan about “excess land,” but I vividly remember the night that, in retrospect, I believe he had a duty to tell the Task Force about St. Michael’s plans — and purposely did not do it.
At our meeting on July 28, we had an important discussion about the need for absolute transparency in our work. The issue arose because Leland Burk had discovered a potential conflict-of-interest on the part of our newly hired consultant, Kimley-Horn, whose team was being introduced to us that night. Burk had noticed Kimley-Horn’s name on some engineering documents for the proposed sky bridge being proposed by Crow Holdings in Preston Center. As a result, the Task Force’s lead staffer, North Central Texas Council of Governments Director of Transportation Michael Morris, told us that night that he would hire an outside firm if we ever needed to analyze the impact of the sky bridge. Morris also told us that he had asked Kimley-Horn if they had any other potential conflicts of interest, and the answer was yes: church driveways. “Church driveways is a Kimley-Horn specialty,” Morris told us that night, according to my notes. “If we get into anything with driveways regarding churches, I will put it in another bucket. We’ll get someone without church clients. So you have confidence in the Task Force.”
At that point, Jay Grogan said something to the effect of: “You know, St. Michael’s is going to be doing something at some point.” Which no one remarked upon — and I took as a positive sign since it’s no secret that St. Michael’s school carpool lines are the bane of that neighborhood.
Then Grogan got a second perfect opportunity to tell us about St. Michael’s plans.
Curious about the driveways conflict, Task Force member Burk asked Morris: “You seem intently focused on churches and ingress and egress. Is there an application filed by a church? There are five to seven churches in this area.” At that point, Betsy del Monte chimed in, pushing the subject back to the sky bridge, and Morris responded to her question.
Both Grogan and Gates just sat there, not saying a word. Six days later, St. Michael’s RFP was dated and sent out.
Grogan believes that as a volunteer member of St. Michael’s planning committee (he does not get paid for his work, he says) and a 20-plus-year resident of Zone 3, he is particularly well suited for the Task Force. “I want to take care of my neighbors and my community, and I also want to take care of my church. I have no financial interest. Zero. But I really feel like I have perspectives from each side that maybe no one else does.” (As we were walking out of the December 3 meeting, in which the RFP was discussed, a homeowner in Zone 3 asked me if Grogan would be representing his interests as a homeowner or the church’s interests as a high-rise developer; I told him he’d have to ask Grogan.)
Grogan downplays the size of the church’s proposed development: “There will NEVER be a 250,000-square-foot building on that site. It will never be that big.”
But that is not what the RFP says. Page one, fourth paragraph: “Required Improvements” are an “office project containing 200,000 rsf [rentable square feet] to 250,000 rsf or more with adjacent structured parking facility containing 500 to 675 or more parking spaces.” (The church also has the right, according to the RFP, to “add up to 150 spaces in the parking structure for SMAA exclusive 24/7 use”.)
The only thing that really matters now is Jennifer Gates. She alone will decide whether St. Michael’s gets an office building — that’s how zoning cases work at City Hall; the council member makes the motion to approve, deny or delay at City Council (no matter what the Plan Commission recommends), and 99.9 percent of the time, council colleagues go along with the council person.
Gates was cool to the project when interviewed by The News last week, predicting that the church’s neighbors would oppose it. She also said she told St. Michael’s “I would not change any zoning in that area until after the study.”
If Gates doesn’t want a giant office building where there is currently an empty lot with a playground on it, there will be no zoning case to approve it. Developers don’t pursue projects if the council member opposes them. But so far, at least according to the RFP, Gates isn’t telling St. Michael’s no. She’s telling them to wait the Task Force’s work is over before filing its case. That’s a definite maybe, and that’s how she has approached every zoning case she’s had, resulting in bad feelings on both sides. If this zoning case gets filed, it will be the start of yet another time-consuming fight in Preston Center — one that our Task Force’s year of work is supposed to put to an end to by coming out with sensible recommendations and a path forward.
Meanwhile, if any other Task Force members are quietly working on a big Preston Center development with big traffic implications — or if Councilwoman Gates knows of any more — please let us know. We need to know.