After over a year of meeting with neighbors, stakeholders, and City of Dallas staff, the WindMass Capital development team has thrown in the towel just before this Wednesday’s City Council meeting where they would have been on the agenda to move forward on a very complicated deal.
WindMass owns the Founders Square Apartments. Over the decades the building became surrounded on three sides by Oak Cliff‘s Founders Park. Long story short, they hoped to swap their 1.37 acres for the adjacent 1.37 acres on the corner of Colorado Blvd. and Marsalis Ave., build a new mixed-use apartment building with retail on the ground floor, then demolish their old building, give it to the city all cleaned up like park land should be, and give a half million dollars to the city for additional park improvements. Sounds pretty crazy amazing, doesn’t it?
As Willis Winters, Director of the Park Department, said at the last Park Board meeting, the city has tried to purchase this property for years to make Founders Park more contiguous, but hasn’t been able to afford it. This project would essentially accomplish that goal for the Parks Department.
Even neighbors and stakeholders were in support, a rare feat in itself!
A lot of the specific details of the project would still have needed to be sorted out in the negotiation process with City Hall (how much of how-affordable housing would be required, exactly how the swap would occur, what the half million dollars would fund at Founders Park, and more.)
But first, the newly complicated part.
City Attorneys Decide on The Process
When WindMass began conversation with Winters and Oak Cliff District 1’s Parks Board representative Barbara Barbee last spring, they understood that the process might be simple. After all, there’s not a sale involved, it’s an apples-for-apples trade.
However, last month, the city attorneys decided — per Section 253.001 of the Texas Local Government Code — that the swap should require a public vote. The vote would need to happen this May. Council approval to put the vote on the ballot would need to occur after Park Board authorization, which put it on the Jan. 10 agenda. Without much notice, they were off to the races.
The WindMass developers agreed to pay the $200 to put it on the ballot and to fund any information campaigns to educate voters. They had already spent over $100,000 on the project between a traffic study, designs, plans, renderings, and attorney fees.
An Information Campaign
The vote would simply allow city staff to discuss a potential deal with the developers. All details of the negotiation would then have to be agreed upon by city staff and developers, approved by Park Board, and finally approved by the Dallas City Council.
It would be a long process (not to mention the additional process if they decided to apply for TIF incentive funding …) but it was a grand vision that the neighborhood supported and that could truly enhance the park and add value to the neighborhood.
But what happens when the largest news source in town publishes a sensational article sowing mistrust and with neither fact-checking with the developers nor the council representative — nor even the neighborhood in support — just five days before the council vote? That makes it really hard to trust that an already uphill information campaign to educate citizens for a vote would be anything less than a major challenge.
Paused For Reconsideration
So for now, WindMass is pumping the brakes. There’s no immediate plan for the Founders Square Apartments. Maybe it’s better that this project isn’t on our May ballot anyhow — it’d be a shame to see something like this end up replacing the Trinity Tollroad as our divisive litmus test issue for candidates.
If we’re lucky, the city attorneys or the developer will find a way forward. Maybe time is all we need. Time to rotate through some new staff. Time to get used to being a city that passes creative policies and seeing how well they fare. Allowing Accessory Dwelling Units, an updated Article X tree code, developing a Neighborhood Forest Overlay, Incentive Zoning, and a new Affordable Housing program — it’s been a big year for creative Dallas policy.
Since the project could perhaps resurface in the future, here’s the rundown of details:
- The current Founders Square Apartments property is two stories tall, built in 1963, with 65 units and 92 residents
- WindMass purchased the property in January 2017, renovated the complex and hired new property management firm
- Zoning on the Founders Square parcel allows up to six stories and 94 feet in building height and up to 250 units by right, with no requirement for parking to be underground.
- The corner park parcel is zoned to allow five stories and 80 feet of height, mixed use with retail on the ground floor, and required underground parking.
- The proposed project would request zoning increase to allow seven stories and 88 feet of height, with 223 units.
- The majority of this corner parcel is actually listed as Oak Cliff Portal Park PH1, which totals 1.258 acres and was privately owned up until the Dallas Park Department purchased from Adolph J. Weinberger Estate on Jan. 20, 1982, and incorporated into the overall park
- WindMass developers agree that including 10 percent (22 units) of affordable housing is possible. TIF funding would require 20 percent (45 units) affordable
- Current rents are comparable to 80 percent AMFI rates, though (according to the developers) many residents make over $50,000/yr and therefore wouldn’t even qualify for the “affordable” units
Affordable Housing Side Note
We need to have a citywide conversation on what we mean when we talk about Affordable Housing. The term is being thrown around by Dallas City Council members and board representatives like a get out of jail free card, and no one’s clear on what we’re actually talking about.
Affordable Housing is it’s own can of worms. But I’ll just note here — because it’s relevant and it came up at the Park Board meeting discussing this project — that 80 percent AMFI is when a single individual makes under $43,250 they qualify for rent at $1,081 per month. It’s not cheap and is basically workforce housing. This is what the TIFs require. Current rents at Founders Square are $900 per month for a one-bedroom unit, and $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom. That’s market rate, no subsidy.
If we’re wanting more available public housing and Section 8-qualifying properties (where a family of four making under $23,150 qualifies for rent of a two-bedroom at $580/mo) that’s a very different animal, managed by the Dallas Housing Authority, a completely separate entity from the City of Dallas.
Neighborhood Support — Indicator of Good Development
Not all neighborhood stakeholders are NIMBYs. When we actually see neighborhood support, especially in an area experiencing a lot of development changes, you better believe it’s due to not only a good project but a developer respectfully listening to concerns and responding with additional details and making adjustments.
That’s what is clear from WindMass’ community engagement. As nearby resident Michael Mendoza states:
“The idea of changing the configuration of Founder’s Park offers opportunities to improve the park and to influence a better development for the Lake Cliff neighborhood. Developing the corner of Marsalis and Colorado, rather than land currently occupied by an apartment building wedged into the middle of the park, meets with the neighborhood’s land use objectives. Objectives were outlined during the 10-plush year public hearing that resulted in the Lake Cliff Gateway Form Based Code and land use plan developed to accommodate the existing mix of uses by improving transitions to existing neighborhoods.
The recently added parking lot, which was added without public input, is mostly used as overflow parking for an under parked daycare center and nearby multifamily units.”
Only a nearby, longtime resident would have those types of insights on the importance of finding a way to achieve such an ambitious project.
Yes, there are still details to nail down. There would have been plenty of time to continue refining the agreement. And even if citizens had voted this May to allow a negotiation, both the city and the developer would have been able to walk away at any time until an agreement had achieved approval by Dallas City Council.
Soapbox on The Future of Dallas Development
We have so few projects that actually enhance our public green spaces and provide neighborhood services retail at an appropriate place near single-family neighborhoods. This may have been one of the best examples I’ve seen of real estate development in Dallas actually adding real quality of life value to a neighborhood.
If we’re going to push our city in new directions and aspire to world-class designations, we will continue to encounter shades of gray in our policies where there’s never been a precedent set. Building a great city requires creativity. We are going to need city attorneys who are allies in the creative process to work with city council and the community to get things done when the community desires them.
Rather than identifying all the ways things could go bad and fear-mongering others into complacency, we need to define our terms (like affordable housing), set our goals, watch our metrics (with neighborhood plans), and find creative ways to implement the details that make great neighborhoods.
Amanda Popken is a community strategist and economic development specialist focused on incremental urbanism: promoting, inspiring, teaching, and engaging communities to grow their own social capital. She can be found at amandapopken.com.