Pink Wall PD-15 Meets Again: More Density OK, Now The Work Begins

Last night marked the second meeting of the Pink Wall PD-15 task force gathered together to address increased density in the area. As a reminder, the Pink Wall is essentially the northeast corner of Preston and Northwest Hwy.  PD-15 is roughly the space between the Preston Tower and Athena residential high-rises. If you missed last week’s roundup, click here.

This second meeting began to tackle the issue of density and what the neighborhood’s desires are for the area.  Of course before we got there, we heard more on the shifting sands of how this could play out procedurally within city government.  I’m not going to go into detail here (again) because questions remain and I want to be crystal clear versus continually negating what was said previously.  It’s annoying that city officials just don’t know this. Do we need to lock them in a room until their story is straight?

The issue of how the city is calculating current density was brought up again, and I will similarly not belabor that again.  But I did note that in each of the towers, units have been combined over time.  Do each of those combined units free up another residential unit able to be built within current parameters?  As you recall, one of the PD-15 density criteria for development is a total number of residential units.  We’ll see next meeting what the city says to that.

And yes, last week I wrote that finding the bedrock of this issue was largely an esoteric exercise as we’re talking about raising the limit anyway.  However it does matter in that current units + increased units = new total number of units within PD-15.  You can’t set an accurate new total without the rest of the equation.  But I still say, how we get there is largely academic to me … just pick and stick with a number (that’s legally binding) and move on. It shouldn’t be this hard.

Area of PD-15

Up For Grabs

It’s now official: developers have made presentations to each of the four low-rise buildings within PD-15.  Thus far, only the Diplomat has signed a contingent contract with a developer.  How long before the rest follow suit?

This almost guarantees the developers will bypass the PD and head straight for a zoning case with the city.  This magnifies the importance of this task force to quickly get some concrete recommendations in place to enable a cogent argument (for or against) in meeting these challenges at City Plan Commission and council.  Better to do the homework now than going off the cuff when the time comes.

Density is OK

The group was joined by urban planner Scott Polikov with Gateway Planning. While I think Polikov has much to offer, this first session was a little like old-fashioned therapy.  The room sat on a figurative couch expressing its feelings while Polikov took notes. I think the exercise helped crystalize thoughts in the room, but I’ll be looking for part two when he interprets our disjointed dreams and helps guide us to realistic conclusions.

Several people around the table came to the high-rise conclusion without my prodding, and it makes sense.  Placing a high-rise parallel with Northwest Highway and between the two towers is the best location. It offers the best views (and therefore is the most salable/rentable).  It’s minimally intrusive to the existing towers. It won’t overlook the neighborhood any more than the existing pair have for the past 50 years. Also, concentrating density on Northwest Highway removes some of the pressure for higher density further north into the neighborhood. A concrete-and-steel high-rise is a much higher quality construction method (versus wood) for a building that will last 50 to 100 years (like the two existing towers already past their 50th birthdays) instead of 15 or 20 years of the stucco travesties littering the city in the last decade or two.

And quality was one of the recurring themes within the group.  Not $1,000-per-square-foot quality that’ll take a decade to fill (you know who you are), but appropriate quality to the area.

With that previously unspeakable concept out of the bag, and seemingly met with little or no resistance, we’re able to talk about it in the larger context of the overall neighborhood.

Unit Size

Since it’s almost a given that whatever is built will be rentals, neighborhood stability is a concern.  Renters tend to move more often and don’t put down the same roots. This is especially true when there is a large component of small one-bedroom units that become a pricey flophouse with high turnover.

Note: The city cannot in any way mandate the ownership scheme of the building.  The PD-15 documents cannot legally be changed to ban rentals. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by debating rental versus condo. There is no legal control available.  Move on.

What the neighborhood can do is steer developers to projects with larger sized units.  It was mentioned by many that one of the reasons people live in the area is because you can get a big condo for a relatively small amount of money. Others pointed out (the obvious) that retirees have flocked to the area and that they like the spaciousness of the units.  Personally, I live on a floor with eight units.  Six of the eight units house one person while two house two. There are 20 bedrooms in total; 12 of which are not slept in unless I’ve been drinking.

Steering developers to larger units promotes tenant root growth. If you’re a retiree, you have space for 60 years of belongings.  If you’re younger, it’s space to grow. One recent development I wrote about in Knox comprised of 75 percent one-bedrooms, some as small as 510 square feet. The only thing those units are good for is leaving.

Also, larger units cost more to rent, attracting incomes that can afford them. But that’s a double-edged sword.  The Pink Wall is the low-income housing of Preston Hollow and Park Cities. Any new development will increase the costs of the area as a whole, perhaps out of reach to current residents.

Demographically, the Pink Wall is changing.  It will most certainly be younger as the years (and residents) pass. But the neighborhood has to serve the needs of current and future residents, and luckily, I think the differences are slight.

Density as Security

One problem the smaller complexes in the area are struggling with are the ongoing maintenance issues that come with a 50-year-old structure past its life expectancy.  Sure, part of the problem with some of these complexes is their not setting aside the money for maintenance and letting it pile up.  But also part of it is the small pool of owners from which an HOA can charge dues for these issues.

Representatives from the Diplomat said that just one of their issues involves some $200,000 in plumbing repairs whose cost would be split between their 15 owners at roughly $13,000 each. For a 50-unit building that’s a $4,000 fix per owner. For a high-rise with healthy finances, it’s petty cash.

If we are to assume today’s new apartments would at some point convert to condos, that’s more mouths to split expenses with.  Ironically someone mentioned the newer Edgemere on the Parkway, to which I replied their recent $150,000 per unit special assessment probably made them a poor exemplar.

Traffic

Traffic is the hand in the glove of density.  No one would care if a million people lived next door if they saw no evidence of them (and it wasn’t a prison).  But density brings traffic concerns.  So here’s the thing … the current residents largely do not commute and so plan their days avoiding rush hour traffic.  If a slew of similar non-commuters moved in, they’d be largely invisible to the current residents as they both avoided rush hour traffic.  If the future residents were of commuting age, they’d be out during rush hour, but again the current residents wouldn’t.  And besides, the issue with traffic isn’t moving a block or two within the Pink Wall during rush hour, it’s the traffic on Preston Road and Northwest Highway … something this area and its redevelopment have zero ability to impact.  Logically, this makes traffic concerns largely moot.

The one area where traffic makes sense to discuss is traffic flow within the Pink Wall.  How can we maximize flow using the safest routes?

Green Space

One odd comment echoed by several was that existing buildings within PD-15 aren’t great with green space, so why should new construction care.  First, you can’t base future development on the livability measurements employed over 50 years ago in the 1950s and 1960s. Nor can you blame those older buildings for not embracing those new standards when they’re physically impossible. It’s not like the towers are going to demolish part of their buildings to add green space. But green space is also proven to increase the value of surrounding homes.  Developers just want someone else to do it.

Flooding

The area’s water woes were brought up.  In the prior bond, $13 million was earmarked to fix the flooding in the Pink Wall and Northwest Highway area.  Because University Park was unwilling to let the added water pass through, the plan was scuttled and the monies allocated elsewhere. The current bond has a paltry $3.5 million marked for District 13 flood control … a literal drop in the bucket. With the passage of time, the city assumes their flood control plan would now cost $17 million. Since I’m assuming University Park remains an unwilling participant, it’s an academic argument. We need new thinking…

(Climbs atop soapbox …)

Having the city purchase land within PD-15 to use as an underground water vault with a park on top is a solution that doesn’t rely on University Park and solves the issue (here, here for more).

In the end, progress was made even though it often seemed like herding cats as ideas were explored, added upon, or discarded.  We’re still not to the place of contemplating numbers, but I don’t think that day is too far off.  On this, I’m an optimist because I think the alternative of blind redevelopment left in the hands of the city is much, much worse.

 

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 sharewithjon@candysdirt.com.