Dallas Needs Zoning Rewrite To Send Warning Of Today’s Reality

Recategorizing zoning to reflect reality.

[Editor’s note: Jon Anderson is a columnist for CandysDirt.com. His opinions are his own.]

The actions and words of many city plan commissioners and city council members should be a warning to all who live in multi-family areas – discrete zoning designations don’t matter. Personal investments made in part because of existing zoning don’t matter. You as residents don’t matter.

When the Lincoln Katy Trail project was at CPC, chairwoman Gloria Tarpley said in response to huge neighborhood opposition to changing the MF-2 designation to MF-3, “we do this all the time.”  For those uninitiated in city zoning, among other things, the change would increase buildable height from 36 feet to 90 feet. It’s also real estate alchemy, administratively making land a lot more valuable for the sellers.

When the Lincoln project hit city council in January, Mayor Rawlings swept away neighborhood opposition to concentrate on snagging less-affordable housing that currently exists (and calling it a “win” for affordable housing in north Dallas).

This is just one example of a city unconcerned with residents in multi-family areas. For some reason, city leaders think that any change is OK, and that residents should just buck-up. Somehow, they feel that constant worrying about huge increases in density is part of what living in a multi-family are means – in contrast to near bullet-proof zoning in single-family neighborhoods.

In a Faustian deal, multi-family areas are the carpet Dallas can sweep its increasing population under as a way to preserve single-family homes, which are rarely converted to multi-family. The exception (of course) is a sliding scale of resident income. The poorer the well-located area, the more likely single-family will be swept away in gentrification.  Middle-class and up?  You’re pretty golden.

Mark Cuban’s 10 acres on Northwest Highway across from Preston Center are an ideal example. Zoned for single-family, the neighborhood’s wealthy residents (though less wealthy than Cuban) surrounding his holdings have been adamant in keeping the single-family designation. But these lots, in addition to being across from commercially-zoned Preston Center, are the only single-family lots on Northwest Highway along the 4.4 miles between the Tollway and Merriman Park.

The intersection with Preston Road sees two corners with major shopping and commercial developments and one with newly built mid-rise apartments. Further proving my point, those apartments were themselves densified from low- to mid-density multi-family.

Why are Mark Cuban’s Northwest Highway lots different from the carpet of townhomes today replacing single-family homes in Belmont Park and Old East Dallas? The size of the opposition’s checkbooks equates to political power. The same can be said of the earlier townhouse-ing of a then more-downtrodden Oak Lawn.

Note: Cuban has made no announcements concerning his plans for those lots, but it’s a pretty good guess he’s not planning to replace single-family mansions with different mansions (or he’d have done it already).

Rolling in Affordable Housing

When affordable housing is part of the equation, again, it’s multi-family living that takes the hit for Dallas’ growing un-affordability issue in a way single-family areas don’t. As affordability concerns grow, the pressure on the city is increasing – and particularly how to spread the solution northward. This is, by the way, the right thinking.

For multi-family areas, “fixing” means more upzoning from low- to mid-rises. Note: we’re not seeing a lot of mid- to high-rise conversions because high-rise costs per square foot are greater than an eight-story hybrid concrete and wood structure. New high-rises are the preserve of the wealthy. It’s been 20 years since the last “middle class” high-rise was built in Dallas.

Rarity in single-family neighborhoods, but common in multi-family (beautiful building though)

Unfair Distribution

These factors, along with Dallas City Hall’s willingness to supersize multi-family to save single-family, explain why Dallas continues to grub-up any low-density, low-rise apartment or condo building in a decent location. Being jaded, I think it’s appropriate to wonder whether this unequal burden being placed on multi-family areas can in part be traced to plan commissioners and council members who overwhelmingly live in single-family homes themselves. For most of them, urban neighborhoods are the stuff of New York City theater weekends rather than day-to-day living.

Combine that with the locations of Dallas’ existing zoning and it’s easy to see that some areas of the city have been magnets for ever-larger multi-family. Oak Lawn, Uptown, Knox, West Village, Bishop Arts, Trinity Groves, Deep Ellum, etc. — basically any area with a scintilla of interest or backstory is seized upon.

Part of what Oak Lawn’s District 14 Council Member Philip Kingston was railing about during the January council meeting discussing Lincoln Katy Trail, is that perhaps Oak Lawn is unevenly expected to take up the slack from largely single-family districts with regards to density and affordable housing.

Personally, I’d go so far as to say that when the city upzones a block in a multi-family area, the city similarly upzones a block of single-family randomly throughout the city. While I agree with density, I also know that eventually the scope of allowed multi-family needs to grow too.

Because in fairness what should also be shared with single-family homeowners is the fear and uncertainty that the character of their neighborhoods could also vanish with a city council vote.

Remaking Residential Zoning Classifications

With that in mind, I’ve created a simplified residential zoning code for current and future condo, townhouse and apartment dwellers that reflects today’s reality.

  • The “AYW” categories are essentially carte blanche to build whatever you want in these locations. It can be as tall and as dense as physically possible.  Within CA designations (Central Area), there’s 100 percent lot coverage, any legal height limit, zero setbacks, and “all but the heaviest industrial uses” are allowed. Essentially, this is the zoning equivalent of rubbing a bottle and a genie came out.
  • MU/MC designations (Mixed Use) are similar to CA so long as there’s at least one residential unit and one retail/restaurant unit. Like CA, MU allows for 100 percent lot coverage with no maximum total square footage for a building. Overall building height is “district dependent”. As I said, “Anything You Want” – the biggest difference is whether a parcel is downtown or not.
  • Because single-family areas are hard to convert to anything else unless they’re poorer, the city should collapse all the various single-family zoning buckets into one. As long as it’s meant for one family, and is unconnected to another residential unit, on a single lot, and three-stories or less, it’s good. If the single-family area isn’t well-maintained with at least middle-class people living there, there’s a heightened risk of it being converted to AMF zoning.
  • AMF collapses all the silly multi-family categories because they give a false sense of security that a neighborhood will largely remain stable. Each of the old categories was more stair steps where one lower density property could petition for a zoning change to the next highest category (and so on).

The city treats multi-family neighborhoods as “less than” housing that’s OK to be constantly in flux, becoming larger and denser with every passing day. My new designations are at least honest representations of the reality of city zoning. It communicates loud and clear the truth of the situation. In being honest from the get-go, buyers and renters will know the score before the moving-in van has to battle a cement mixer for parking – all the while single-family neighborhoods remain separate from the city’s density and affordable housing problems, like so many summertime fireflies in a jar.

NOTE: I’m already hearing this column being used to support development opposition in Preston Hollow’s PD-15. It’s shouldn’t be. Dating back at least as far as 1945, PD-15 was always supposed to be high-density. This is reflected in the area’s underlying MF-3 high-rise zoning. The original owner of the area foresaw double the density that exists today with super-sized buildings. If anything, I’m saying Mark Cuban should be encouraged to build multi-family or multi-use north of Preston Center on what is currently zoned for single-family.


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 sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

4 Comment

  • Spit in Mr. Anderson! With all the corruption in City Hall, what’s the zoning for “the highest bidder?”

  • Spot on Mr. Anderson! With all the corruption in City Hall, what’s the zoning for “the highest bidder?”

    • mm

      Thanks. But I think “highest bidder” is generally what the sellers demand (as would we all) that forces developers into asking for zoning changes at City Hall. From there, “let the lobbying begin” is certainly true.

  • Love your new designations. How about another one to add to the list? NNDBTPW. No New Development Behind the Pink Wall. That seems to be what some people are hoping for, but I think SOME change is good… and overdue.