Miller Time for PD-15: Former Mayor Takes Up For Preston Tower, Athena in Letter to Council

Former Dallas mayor Laura Miller working behind the scenes to stall progress.

[Editor’s Note: The opinions reflected in this column are those of the author and are not the editorial opinion of CandysDirt.com. We reached out to Laura Miller for comment. Her response is included at the end of this opinion column.]


Author’s Foreword:  On Wednesday night, I resigned from the PD-15 task force because of behind-the-scenes machinations and actions that I could not agree with once I became aware of them.  Also, I refuse to work with people I can’t trust. This includes representatives from several area buildings, including my own. Those representatives also asked former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller to step in and help their cause. Here’s that story.

Earlier in the evening I was forwarded a letter being crafted by some members of the PD-15 task force but whose pen had been heavily guided by former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller.  I’m told the letter will be sent to council member Jennifer Gates in the coming days. In my capacity as a task force member, my name was listed as a supposed signatory, although I’d not been consulted on its verbiage.

Upon returning home I spoke with my HOA president and co-representative to see if she’d seen the letter.  She had not only seen it, but had been actively involved in its creation.

The letter seeks to put a clamp on any redevelopment within PD-15 that goes against the deeply flawed Preston Center and Northwest Highway Area Plan that was largely hijacked by Miller and written in secret with the help of the business interests in Preston Center.

I believe this is a distraction that does one thing well: it uses the element of time to kill progress. This is a tactic Miller is very familiar with.

You recall the Skybridge and Luke Crosland’s proposed residential high-rise projects in Preston Center?  Eric Nicholson from the Dallas Observer said, “Somewhere in Preston Hollow, Laura Miller is wiping clean the dagger with which she eviscerated two proposed apartment developments at Preston Road and Northwest Highway …” Nicholson was referring to Crosland’s project and Transwestern’s Laurel (which ultimately survived and is under construction).

As I’ve pointed out before, these types of projects were precisely what the Preston Center plan consultants recommended to increase vibrancy in what is essentially the Preston Center west office park and tumbledown food court. What have we gotten since? An old folks home and an office building — exactly what the consultants warned against.

The letter to Gates (full text below) is full of magical thinking that won’t hold up to the process of city government.  The authors, and specifically Miller, know this — and yet the roadblocks are hoped to stall until development runs out of gas and gives up.

What this letter also does is attempt to pull power away from Gates and Plan Commissioner Margot Murphy by assembling a voting block loyal to Miller. Again, shades of the Preston Center task force. Will Gates get steamrolled again? It’s not an attractive quality for someone being whispered as wanting to be Mayor.

The buildings contained in PD-15

Before we dissect the letter, here’s what is known:

According to city staff, to change PD-15 voluntarily, the ownership needs complete agreement. Not 99 percent, 100 percent. At this stage, each of the six buildings within PD-15 gets one vote, and one vote kills. I’m comfortable with this level of representation. The larger the group, the more impossible consensus becomes (and the more time wasted).

If the representatives of PD-15 don’t agree, one of several types of zoning cases can be filed with the city.  A developer can go directly to zoning and file a case with the city, or there can be an authorized hearing where the city kicks off an evaluation of the zoning within PD-15. I have always wanted to avoid these non-agreement scenarios because I don’t see the city having the same interests as the residents. In short, I feel the outcome will be worse.

From there, the process gets hazy. City staff has not given the legal teams representing the developers nor apparently City Plan Commission a straight answer on how a challenge to PD-15 progresses.  This is partly because it is so old, and as a result, incomplete by today’s PD writing standards. But it’s also because city staff only seems to answer questions they’re forced to answer because there’s a case in front of them (not big fans of proactivity).

Next, regardless of whether PD-15 agrees to voluntarily change, or whether zoning cases force change upon it, the neighborhood surrounding any proposed development is notified and gets their vote counted. This is where it gets interesting.

I’m told by several sources that unless specific language is inserted within their HOA documents, the condominium buildings again vote all as one. For example, a project with 35 units conducts a vote, 20 vote “yes” and 15 vote “no.” The HOA board would cast one vote (hopefully) reflecting their majority … in this case 35 votes “yes.” I said hopefully, because there’s no way to stop the board from voting against their majority and casting all votes their way. This was a surprise to me. I thought once a zoning case was filed, the building-wide vote at the PD-level reverted to individual voting at the zoning case level (put a pin in that).

Net-net, regardless of the method — be it PD-15, developer or city-led — there is a way to change PD-15 with or without the consent of the surrounding neighborhood. Dragging your feet only slows the process. Considering there is a burnt building and a cash-rich developer in the wings, development is inevitable.  Re-read that last sentence. There is a 100 percent chance development will occur.

Onwards, to the letter:

The first bullet in the letter wants a “Reaffirmation of the Northwest Highway and Preston Road Area Plan as the official baseline for all future development decisions in Zone 4, which includes PD-15.”

I take exception to this for many reasons. The Preston Center Area Plan poorly represented PD-15 and the whole Pink Wall (Zone 4).  Neither representative was an owner-occupant in Zone 4, let alone from within PD-15 where over half of Pink Wall residents live. Note: The consultants did such a poor job understanding Zone 4, one meeting had a sheet of paper tacked to a wall where building representatives were asked to write in how many units were in their respective buildings.  Our then-HOA president got ours wrong, as did many others.

By far the biggest problem with the Preston Center plan is that it’s not economically viable. That means it’s a recipe for a declining neighborhood. Council member Gates admitted at the last PD-15 meeting that economic viability was not taken into account.

More recently, the PD-15 task force was kicked off because council member Gates held a meeting on July 12 to discuss the future of PD-15 in the aftermath of the Preston Place fire and developer interest in the Diplomat. Over 100 Pink Wall residents packed the house, perhaps more than attended any of the Preston Center meetings.

At that meeting it was explained that the surplus units available (~65), last updated 40 years ago, were not sufficient to attract the quality development the area deserves.  Almost everyone in the room supported raising the limits on development within PD-15. The task force was formed specifically to research and agree to new limits. To now fall back on the Preston Center plan goes specifically against those wishes.

Miller states that I want “dramatically increased development”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want to see what’s possible before making a snap decision.

Bullet Two: “Withdrawal of the ‘Request for Agenda Item for an Authorized Hearing,’ dated 8-3-17, submitted by Plan Commissioner Margot Murphy to David Cossum, Director, Sustainable Development and Construction Department.”

Remember what I said about time killing projects?  Here it is.  An authorized hearing will take two and a half years to be heard due to the queue of other cases ahead of us.  Like any waiting list, putting our name on the list starts the clock ticking, removing it ensures others will get ahead. It’s why the first person to arrive at the restaurant puts the group’s name in for a table.

And just like that restaurant, PD-15 is not bound by having our name on the list.  If when PD-15’s name is called we decide we don’t need it, we just walk away. No harm, no foul.

The only reason to remove your name from the list is to delay, and delaying is a do-nothing tactic. It’s a political tactic. It, too, goes against the July 12 meeting attendees’ desires.

Bullet Three: “Reconfiguration of the Group before its next meeting to reflect proportional representation of the resident population of PD-15.”

This desire is inconsistency at its finest.  These same people were fine with zero PD-15 representation, zero tower representation, and zero owner-occupant representation on the Preston Center task force, and yet now they’re wanting outsized representation here? Go fish.

As I said above, when voluntarily changing the PD, one vote kills. Even though four of the six properties in PD-15 have been approached by developers, one vote kills … and all buildings have one vote. At this level, increasing the number of representatives will just ensure there is no agreement.  Again, playing for time, forcing developers to go through the city labyrinth, hoping to scare them away. It didn’t work for Transwestern, and I doubt it will work here.

If they were serious about streamlining the process, they’d reduce the task force to just the 12 PD-15 representatives.

Now as noted above, I do believe that all surrounding HOAs should insert language into their HOA documents that allow for individual voting for specific zoning cases.  Living in a multi-family dwelling shouldn’t mean you lose the right to be individually counted (you’re individually taxed).  But at the PD-level, it is unnecessary and only bogs down the process.

Finally, the letter ends with, “Our proposal will streamline the immediate goal of finding a path forward for Preston Place.”

It absolutely will not.  If you’ve been following along, the voluntary changing of PD-15 requires 100 percent agreement.  The three remaining low-rise buildings will not unanimously approve a fix for Preston Place without their own fix. Diplomat, with a deal on the table, surely won’t consent … would you? One vote kills.

At the July meeting, city staff said all PD rights are shared rights.  Even the 60-ish surplus units can’t be assigned to any one property without agreement of the other owners. Were Preston Place to file a new site plan that utilized those units, the other low-rises would challenge.

One of the reasons the PD-15 meetings are so annoying is that people refuse to stop wasting time and beating these dead horses. They take the 5-year-old’s approach of asking, asking, asking, asking until Mommy gives in.  In this case, “Mommy” is a city process and it doesn’t give.

Now that we have late-entry Miller running down the clock, the horse is once again being exhumed in the hope the stench of time will scare away developers. After Miller’s Jack-in-the-Box antics at the last meeting, we shouldn’t be surprised.

As I said and you will see below, my name is listed as signatory to this backroom delaying tactic. In its current form, for the reasons listed above, and the broken trust that extends to my own building, I would not sign and as such have resigned from the PD-15 working group.

View the letter here.


A Response From Laura Miller:

“Jon’s focus has been about dramatically increasing development,” Miller said. This ethos runs against the focus of the Preston Tower and Athena residents who have conscripted the former mayor to their cause: to keep the same density in PD-15 and limit redevelopment to the recommended standards in the Preston Center Area Plan.

“I was asked by Preston Tower people to help them because they felt they weren’t being listened to,” Miller added. Regarding her involvement in the letter to Dallas City Council member Jennifer Gates, Miller says: “I was giving advice to the residents of the two buildings. I was helping them to articulate their concerns.” 

Miller said that the configuration of the working group “is incredibly unbalanced.” Of the 12 members, only four of them are Preston Tower and Athena residents. “Yet, 78 percent of all PD-15 residents live in these towers.” This adds more weight to the smaller buildings, she said. “They all want to sell their buildings to developers. They want to take the money and move out,” Miller said. “The majority of the working group doesn’t reflect the majority of the residents.”

Additionally, Miller said that the residents surrounding Preston Center have had to take many battles to City Hall over development and zoning changes proposed by developers. “For the past six years, there’s been a lot of fighting all the time,” she said. “It’s a very poor system.”

 

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.