It’s people’s health and life expectancy versus Pecan trees down in Oak Cliff. This is a real head scratcher for me, given the fact that staying fit is the undisputed key to staying healthy and reducing health care costs in this country. Southern Dallas is already a wellness desert; the area has the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension in the city. Methodist Dallas Medical Center wants to expand a small campus fitness facility to a full-fledged wellness center to benefit everyone living south of I -30.
It’s even January, the month where everyone makes resolutions to get into better shape. And the latest mortality report from the Centers for Disease Control shows that Americans are dying sooner. In fact, for the third consecutive year, U.S. life expectancy fell. Our nation now ranks 29th globally in age-adjusted mortality despite all we spend on healthcare. Look at the 10 leading causes of death; at least half could be dramatically reduced with knowledge and technology we have right now if only U.S. citizens took better care of themselves. The author, Dr. Robert Pearl, says that “if more Americans kept their New Year’s resolutions to improve their diet and exercise, we could greatly reduce the incidence of diabetes, our nation’s No. 7 cause of death.”
But in East Kessler Park, some folks who live in the neighborhood surrounding the Folsom Fitness Center on West Greenbriar Lane are more interested in saving trees, than people.
The Folsom Fitness Center at Methodist Dallas Medical Center wants to expand its current fitness facility, constructed in 1984 and only 5100 square feet, to a 35,000 square foot state-of-the-art center just northeast of the current location. They envision something similar to Baylor’s Tom Landry Fitness Center in Old East Dallas, which has aquatics, kettle bells, pilates, triathlon training, sports-performance programs, and so on. Or the 52,000 square foot Cooper Fitness Center in North Dallas, which has all of the above plus running trails on about 30 acres.
Full disclosure: I am a member at the Cooper Fitness Center , a clean eater, and somewhat of a health nut. I get why this center is needed. I mean, look:
The current Folsom fitness center at Methodist is little more than a corporate gym with treadmills and mats. There is no pool. Methodist Medical Center is the flagship hospital in the fast-growing Oak Cliff area. It is also the largest employer in southern Dallas. So to keep up with the population, promote wellness and offer locals the most advanced fitness possible, Methodist asked for a zoning change to permit one Personal Service Use within 200 feet of Greenbriar in their green space. In exchange, Methodist agreed to reduce their development rights along Greenbriar between Beckley and Stemmons by 429,000 square feet, creating what is known as a residential proximity slope — a decrease in height along the street — to buffer the neighborhood from a future nine-story building.
With that zoning change, they want to build a 35,000 square foot, 2-story building loaded with state-of-the-art fitness equipment, a lap/exercise pool,the whirlpool, group exercise rooms, cycling studio, indoor walking track, a participation kitchen where healthy cooking classes will take place, and a 2100 square foot community room.
“Methodist is under pressure to help the community stay healthy,” said hospital officials at a full-house neighborhood meeting October 10. “Outpatient clinic visits in this community are on the rise.”
The center would be open to the public for ages 16 and over. Membership pricing has not yet been set, but likely to be somewhere around $50 a month — way less than what we are paying at Cooper. The center also plans a Spiritual wellness program to take health education on the road, into the community, utilizing retired doctors, nurses or anyone who can leverage relationships with church congregations and ministries.
But from the very beginning, a few immediate neighbors have fought the new center over trees. Those who live on Greenbriar were particularly upset to be losing their tree views from across the street. Shortly after the first presentation in September, a woman named Katherine Homan spread fake news on social media, claiming that Methodist was clear cutting all the trees. And as happens in most neighborhoods where change is clearly worse than the Communist party, the uproar on NextDoor exploded.
“The hospital is giving up a significant amount of square footage to appease the neighbors,” says Linda Young, Former President of the East Kessler Park Neighborhood Association. “They are taking down 11 trees and trying to make it 9. They have moved the building from the original site to save more trees. They have gone way overboard because of a few bullies in the neighborhood. Trust me, no one is more concerned than I am over the beauty of Oak Cliff, but I am also concerned about the well-being of its inhabitants!”
At the October 10 community meeting that I attended, accurate information was provided, and most neighbors said they were not against the center’s expansion. A vociferous few focused on not touching the trees, concern that any construction would damage tree roots, and maintaining their pretty forest-like views.
“We moved here because of the green space,” said one homeowner.”Why isn’t Dallas valuing its green spaces?”
The current fitness facility is tucked into a cliff below the main hospital, to the north of it. The 62 tree pecan grove creates a canopy of green just outside the current fitness center that has defined the area for the last 35 years. Neighbors across the street have benefitted from the view so much I wonder if the Dallas County Appraisal District has considered charging them for a premium view. The trees are mature and beautiful, though some die from natural attrition. Methodist says it will keep and protect as many trees as possible. Originally, the plan called for cutting down 27 trees totaling 717 caliper inches. But after neighbors complained and social media roared, the hospital came up with a new plan that would remove only 11 — one hackberry and 10 pecan trees, possibly only 8 — totaling 295 caliper inches. To mitigate the loss, they will plant 53 new trees totaling 380 caliper inches.
Neighbors also complain the center will create traffic and parking woes, though a traffic study commissioned by the hospital reported no additional traffic on Haines and Greenbriar. Traffic engineers say heaviest traffic will be on Beckley, period.
Joe Ocon, who lives right across the street from the current fitness center on Greenbriar, says he has no problem with the expansion. An architect by trade, he currently views the pecan grove from his front window across the street and enjoys the green space. I asked if his views will change dramatically.
“I don’t think so,” he told me. “I will see a presence there. Methodist keeps the landscaping in good shape, and they are quick to pick up any trash that falls off garbage trucks.”
Like during the holidays when the city garbage trucks dropped medical waste on Greenbriar — Joe called Methodist and the trash was picked up within the hour. Methodist is a pretty good neighbor, says Joe; the gates to the pecan grove property are always left open so neighbors can walk their dogs on the hospital campus.
“It may help appease some of the neighbors if they push the setting back a bit for more green space,” says Joe. “I’m for the project, I don’t care where it goes. It’s perfect for the community. I hope this larger size will bring the attendance and it will be nice to have a fitness center right across the street — no more excuses for not exercising!”
Bobby Abtahi, president of the Dallas Park Board and former Vice Chairman of the City Plan Commission, is also eager to see and use the new facility. Both of his children were born at Methodist and he lives in the area.
“This is exactly what we need south of the Trinity,” he told me. “The whole grow south initiative is about getting people to move south, but unless you give them things to do with their families, it’s not going to work. I have to pack my kiddos up and drive them up to the Tom Landry Center at Baylor to swim.”
Bottom line, he says: we need to have great amenities south of the Trinity to attract and retain young families.
Some neighbors think the fitness center should be moved to a parking lot at the corner of Beckley and Greenbriar, which Methodist owns and where they can build a nine story tower 15 feet from the curb without seeking any zoning changes.
But to put the fitness center on the corner would cost the hospital an additional $4.7 million dollars in construction costs to completely re-design the current plans and transition to heavy grade steel construction, dig out a basement for parking, etc. Methodist makes $1.7 billion a year in revenue. But that’s not to say money grows on trees, especially in healthcare. The location they have selected is fairly flat, requires little grading, and construction there would not negatively impact other hospital services.
“Methodist understands tree preservation and will fully maintain its beautiful green spaces,” says Dan Blizzard, VP Strategic Priorities, Methodist Health System. “But the concept for this center is not a multi-story corner 24-Hour Fitness model. We are envisioning something very similar to the Cooper Center, set among trees and utilizing the green space.”
To trade for the zoning changes, Methodist has agreed to downzone the surface parking lot and limit building along Greenbriar somewhat: no more than two stories fronting it. But beyond the 125-foot required setback from the residential street, they can still build up to nine stories along Beckley. The City Plan Commission approved the zoning change last year. But Plan Commissioner Chad West is now running for City Council to replace the current city councilman for the district, Scott Griggs. And Scott Griggs is running for mayor!
Could the health and fitness of an entire community, a community who needs it most, be in political hands? City Council is expected to vote on the zoning changes February 13.
“I understand native and heritage trees, and I have them on my property,” says Joe Ocon. “Some of them fall with storms or disease.”
It would be a shame to rob Oak Cliff of a major health asset simply because of trees that may not live forever. As Dr. Charles Tandy said at the end of the October 10 meeting, it’s great to love and respect nature, but people come first.