There are two columns today on the Oak Lawn Committee’s (OLC) latest meeting because there were really two agendas. First, was the business of reviewing the Crescent’s proposed redo of 2401 Cedar Springs and then the internal battle to wrest control of the committee towards a more developer-heavy make-up.
It began with a few bylaw changes proposed by a committee made up of four prior OLC presidents and Kyle Lyon who was later nominated as vice-president for the coming year. The changes were simple enough and targeted at strengthening the OLC’s position within the city’s development process. Those three changes were:
- Limiting membership to people who live, operate a business or own property within the PD-193 boundaries, but excluding investors who own shares in an entity that holds title to property. While every owner views their ownership as an asset, it was viewed that those who are merely investors (e.g. stockholders) were most interested in their investment over the neighborhood as a whole. It was said this change would affect one member.
In large part because of this proposed change, OLC vice-president Leland Burk sent an email to The Melrose Hotel, without OLC board knowledge, alerting them to the coming change and broadly hinting they would not be welcome under the new rules. The OLC board only found out when The Melrose started calling for answers. It was a disrespectful action, meant to whip up controversy.
- Requiring a two-thirds majority before supporting any project. It was pointed out that it’s very rare when a project doesn’t receive that level of support. In the couple of years I’ve been writing about the OLC, I only recall it happening once – Lincoln’s Katy Trail project that was ultimately kicked by City Plan Commission. I know there was Plan Commission angst at having to clean up the OLC’s mess. For reference, the highly contentious Toll Brothers’ project in Mansion Park had more than two-thirds support. Lincoln Katy Trail passed OLC by a single vote. Support or rejection could hinge on one or two members’ travel schedules or illness. The two-thirds cushion tackles that issue for those few times it would be required.
Burk figures in here as well. He continues to be the lone supporter of Lincoln’s Katy Trail plan on the OLC board. Increasing the bar for contentious projects isn’t in his interest – the very projects a new board might see more of. A new board Burk hopes to preside over.
- That an ex officio member be assigned to the executive committee to help as needed when time-sensitive matters arise requiring executive committee involvement or comment without a quorum. Again, another pretty rare occurrence that seems more of a safety valve.
Almost immediately, Dr. Paul Ellenbogen entered a four-part motion that essentially stalls the adoption of the suggested rules changes. Turns out the make-up of the bylaws group wasn’t to his, “Boots” Reeder’s or a few others’ liking. He also claimed 18 instances where the OLC bylaws are unclear or contradictory.
The last time the bylaws were amended was in 2006. In all that time, those 18 issues weren’t deemed important enough to convene a bylaws review (nor did Ellenbogen initiate this one). Timing is also interesting. The OLC bylaws state that rules changes only happen once a year and are voted on during the annual meeting where new officers are also elected (October). Kicking this rules change into their next electoral year means the winners get to decide. Shades of an Obama Supreme Court nominee.
Throughout the cantankerous discussion, Burk repeatedly tried to interject his prepared statements trashing the rules changes. He got a partial read before being cut off.
In the end, Ellenbogen’s motion to stall the rules vote at next month’s meeting passed.
Dueling OLC Board nominees
Continuing the fractious meeting, nominees were taken for next year’s OLC Board. There are four members – president, vice-president, secretary/treasurer and city hall liaison. What I’ll call the “old guard” put forth the existing board members – president Hilda Rodriquez, secretary/treasurer Michael Milliken and city hall liaison Sue Krider but replacing vice-president Burk with Kyle Lyon.
Burk was ready with supporters nominating him for president along with Cricket Griffin for secretary/treasurer, Judith Lifson for vice-president and Barry Hancock for city hall liaison.
Barry Hancock is an interesting and telling pick for city hall liaison considering he’s a resident of Highland Park who owns and develops property in PD-193. He’s had two cases before the OLC in the past 18 months alone. One was a controversial project for a Starbucks on Oak Lawn and Congress Avenues that creates the area’s first drive-thru (on Oak Lawn Avenue no less) while the other was a back-to-the-street Total Wine across Oak Lawn Avenue. Both projects, like Lincoln Katy Trail, were represented by former city council member Angela Hunt. (As a side note, when Hunt was mentioned elsewhere, Burk called what was said inaccurate and that he was “in regular contact” with Hunt). One wonders how many times Hancock will have to recuse himself for a conflict of interest? One also wonders about the validity of an active developer as a neighborhood representative at city hall?
I know little about the other two nominees except that several months ago I was asked by president Rodriguez not to quote Cricket Griffin per her request. I try to respect people’s privacy even in a public forum, but OLC officers are used to being quoted. Griffin’s nomination caused Ellenbogen to withdraw his candidacy claiming two Stoneleigh residents needn’t be on the board.
Former OLC president Brenda Marks shared a story from several years ago of Judith Lifson rear-ending her at the intersection of Lemmon and Oak Lawn Avenues. After both agreed to pull over after getting through the light, Lifson drove away. Marks later found her by running her plate number — better not to rear-end an employee of a plaintiff’s law firm.
Were I an Oak Lawn, Uptown or West Village resident, I’d be worried. I’d be doubly worried if you live in an area ripe for increased, out of scale development.
How does a coup play out?
People have wondered what I have meant in recent months pointing to a more developer infused OLC. Well, this is it. Burk’s official address is in Preston Hollow, Hancock’s is Highland Park. Both are most interested in increasing the value of their business holdings, versus the neighborhood where they (don’t) live.
If this coup d’état plays out and the “old guard” is wholesale replaced, expect a weakened OLC on the heels of emboldened developers. This plays out with a strong board encouraging positive votes for oversized, iffy projects with little neighbor support (lots of people are easily cowed). These projects will hit city hall under a cloud of suspicion that the OLC has not properly vetted the projects – especially when the OLC representative is a non-resident developer himself (fox in the henhouse scenario).
Just like what happened with Lincoln Katy Trail, city hall will negate OLC support and renegotiate or toss the project themselves. Eventually the OLC loses relevance and with it the power to control the fate of the neighborhood.
Think I’m overselling the hysteria? I spoke with a city council member and plan commissioner today and laid out what’s happening. Their opinion has been captured above.
Why is this happening?
The Oak Lawn Committee has operated as a neighborhood forum based on good faith since 1983. Anyone who lives, owns or operates a business in the area and attends three meetings can pay their money and have an equal voice at the table – regardless of being an idiot or a genius. While it’s hoped they read the Oak Lawn Plan, there’s no test, no boot camp or mentoring program to instill knowledge. It’s a failing.
Also, like many aging organizations whose members are retiring or dying, they’ve not done a good job shepherding a new generation to take their place. It’s not unusual to hear more experienced members say it took them years to ask their first developer question, so overwhelmed were they by the process. That caution isn’t shared by many newer members.
Former president Brenda Marks takes this turn very personally. Admitting she didn’t do her due diligence before nominating Leland Burk for vice-president last year, Marks has spent a year trying to limit what she sees as damage.
While I’ve witnessed Burk’s pettiness in some OLC cases, the bulk of his actions seem to circle back to his unnatural support for Lincoln Katy Trail. While the case was still seeking OLC approval Burk attended and showed personal support for the project at a February Lincoln meeting featuring Angela Hunt. In March, Burk sent a five-page screed to OLC members detailing what he saw were failings of the OLC to warmly embrace the then “supported” Lincoln Katy Trail project (a project that passed by one vote). That letter was signed by ten OLC members including Paul Ellenbogen, “Boots’ Reeder and Judith Lifson.
In ensuing months, if an envelope was opened for Lincoln Katy Trail, Burk seemed there. Even at City Plan Commission, Burk was called upon to speak by Angela Hunt in lieu of the OLC’s city hall liaison.
It seems Lincoln Property will bookend the creation and wreckage of the Oak Lawn Committee 35 years apart.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) 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. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.