After a session going well past 5 p.m. last Thursday, the City Plan Commission finally heard the case for Toll Brothers’ desired residential high-rise at the corner of Welborn Street and Congress Avenue. In the end, there were fewer fireworks than most expected.
Dallas Cothrum from Masterplan set out Toll Brothers’ case. In a nutshell, it was “here’s the bad high-rise we could build within zoning” … “here’s what a shorter, equally dense building looks like” … “here’s the better high-rise resulting from work with the neighborhood and Oak Lawn Committee.” In numbers, they could have built over 400 units within zoning, now they’re wanting 271 units.
And as is the CPC way, the opposition spoke first …
First up was former city council memeber Angela Hunt, “phoning in” her absent client’s opposition. Hunt highlighted traffic (the same traffic that was no problem weeks ago when she was currying approval for Starbucks a block away), crowded streets, and fire safety.
The issue of fire safety was interesting to see evolve. As near as I can tell, it was never brought up prior to the June 14 Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 79 people. To review, that fire was caused by a faulty refrigerator and allowed to spread due to a combination of a flammable exterior cladding and a lack of internal sprinklers.
As I wrote after Dallas’ March 3 fire at Preston Place, sprinklers are the single-most effective method for containing fires. In Dallas, all multi-family buildings have required sprinklers for decades, and this building would be no different. Preston Place was built in the 1970s just prior to the citywide ordinance.
The fires you’ve heard about recently — Grenfell, Preston Place, Marco Polo in Honolulu — all had a lack of sprinklers in common. Many of the other high-rise fires that have happened in the past few years also had another thing in common — flammable exterior cladding. The Toll Brothers’ project will use no flammable construction materials on its exterior nor in its concrete, steel, and glass shell.
The bookend on fire safety was the argument about fire trucks being able to access the Toll Brothers’ project given the area’s narrower streets. As OLC President Brenda Marks testified, when she lived across the street from the proposed development, an embarrassing series of events saw a fire truck called to her door, and it had no problem getting through.
Personally, I see the whole issue of fire and emergency services’ access as a red herring conveniently appropriated from the headlines and pressed into service.
In fact all these arguments against a high-rise — traffic, congestion, fire safety — are a smoke screen (yup, definitely a pun). I say this because the opposition has repeatedly stated a willingness to support the prior, shorter configuration with just four fewer units. Surely the same traffic, congestion and fire arguments would hold for that plan, no?
The real reason is the weakest and so not their signature argument: View.
Of the three naysayers, one neighboring the proposed development and a semi-retired architect, waxed-on about appropriateness, but finally came to his real point. The view outside his home would be changed by a high-rise. But as an architect on 1999’s Reinzi apartments a few blocks away, he certainly understood the potential impact of his neighborhood’s zoning. It’s also hard to believe he’d trade a view of the proposed street-level townhouses for an open parking garage with headlights pointing into his living room offered by the shorter plan.
While strangely missing from the CPC meeting, many local residents have spoken out about view blockage, several being owners at the 290-foot tall Plaza development a block away. You see, they got their views using the same zoning Toll Brothers wants, but now think they’re entitled to block development that infringes on those views. As a high-rise owner, I completely understand that rationale, and may soon be facing it myself. So I totally get wanting to protect something you think you own (but don’t). A high-rise home ends at the glass, not the horizon.
Of the supporters, we had OLC President Brenda Marks
Her job was to clarify some fear, uncertainty, and doubt sown by the opposition that somehow the OLC had not done its due diligence regarding this proposal. She also said that a conversation about the appropriateness of the current MF-3 area zoning might have been worthwhile decades ago when the area was rezoned, but “that horse had left the barn, and was likely dead by now.”
The other supporters (there were a few more than the opposition) were quick to point out the changing area and the need to address population growth with increased density. We can’t just keep building tract homes until we reach Oklahoma.
When the CPC vote was finally asked for, there were a few minor amendments like requiring the proposed cellular antennas to be mounted on the high-rise versus on any type of pole or spire extending beyond the top of the building. Important, but largely uninteresting details.
Just before the final vote, Commissioner Margot Murphy, lone opposition to Starbucks, gloatingly pointed out that she’d compared the traffic numbers for Starbucks (1,637 added trips) to Toll Brothers (1,401). This has been my point as well. How can the neighborhood be seemingly more supportive of a project with larger traffic implications and yet cite traffic as being a major concern here? Because, as I said, traffic isn’t the real issue.
As my headline gave away, the Toll Brothers high-rise unanimously passed CPC.
While not done-done yet (still has to pass city council), this process saddens me. Toll Brothers had the guts to put in the time and do the work. The result of Toll Brothers’ work will be a better development than would have happened had they just used straight city zoning. In contrast, developer Teixeria Duarte chickened-out.
The minute Teixeria Duarte got a whiff of the downzone movement last August, they stopped neighborhood negotiations and high-tailed it to city permitting for a pair of Oak Lawn high-rises, one at Hood and Dickason, plus a second on Hall Street across from Lee Park and surrounded on three-sides by the Renaissance condos. Those projects will doubtlessly be less than what could have been achieved had they not turned tail. They’ll still make their money, but I fear Oak Lawn will be poorer for it for decades to come.
This is the second time I’ve seen this happen. “Do-gooders” wind up scuttling the very things most beneficial to their neighborhoods. At Preston Center, vocal opposition — including city council member Jennifer Gates and former mayor Laura Miller — helped kill plans for a residential high-rise and grocery store in Preston Center. After two years of “study” those projects were precisely the sort of development recommended by the consultants to craft a walkable destination in Preston Center. So much for the Preston Road and Northwest Highway area plan.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.