Combat zoning

Lincoln Property and Ray Nasher play it down and dirty with homeowners

This was an old, familiar fight.
Nasher had tried many times to develop this property--back as far as 1970, when Nasher, who was only leasing the property at the time, asked the city for permission to build multifamily housing and a shopping center. That year, the city staff mailed out 107 notices to area homeowners about the proposed change, and got back 63 responses--three people were in favor; 63 were not. The plan commission turned Nasher down.

It has been that way ever since--with Nasher coming up with various scenarios for enormous development; the homeowners fighting those proposals tooth and nail; and the City Plan Commission responding to the overwhelming opposition by turning Nasher down.

Well, this time it looks like the party may be over--for the homeowners.
At the age of 74, Nasher is clearly tired of the waiting game, and this time he's got a formidable ally in Lincoln Property, the Dallas-based developer that is one of the biggest apartment and office builders in the nation.

To say that Nasher and Lincoln are fighting down and dirty is an understatement. But that, of course, is understandable--after all, there are hundreds of millions of dollars within their grasp if they can simply get eight votes from eight comparatively unsophisticated schmoes on the plan commission (then eight more on the city council, which must subsequently vote on this).

But beating back 3,000 angry--and in this neighborhood wealthy and politically influential--homeowners is never an easy task.

So Nasher and Lincoln hired the best zoning lawyers in the city--Susan Mead and Kirk Williams--and then they got creative.

For his part, Nasher decided to stay far away from his NorthPark neighbors, who had no use for him, and the press, which asks too many reasonable questions. Instead, he zeroed in on the new political regime down at Dallas City Hall, a regime hungry for a notable accomplishment. During the past nine months Nasher has been holding little tea parties for Mayor Ron Kirk and City Manager John Ware. One day he's hauling out the zoning plans he needs them to approve. The next day he's giving them a walking tour of his $200 million modern sculpture collection and musing out loud about the possibility of donating the world-class collection to the city--on their watch.

While Nasher played his game, Lincoln and its zoning attorneys played theirs.

They started one day last January in their first meeting with the homeowners. The Lincoln team whipped out a blank piece of paper, and--declaring that the company "wanted to do this thing right"--solicited development suggestions from the homeowners. What the homeowners didn't realize at the time, of course, was that Lincoln's architect, Larry Good, already had spent Christmas week furiously executing the company's detailed plans for the site.

"Sometime later, I noticed that their plans were dated back in December," says Dallas lawyer Ronald Mankoff, chairman of the NorthPark Area Coalition of Homeowners Associations, which represents 17 homeowner associations, two churches, and one school. "They were never seriously interested in working with us."

After a series of such meetings, it became clear to Lincoln that the homeowners did not like the development plan--and it became clear to the homeowners that Lincoln liked its development plan a whole lot. So Lincoln officials, who were getting pretty prickly in meetings--at least the two I saw--hauled off and filed their formal application to the city to get their plan approved. That's when the countdown began to the inevitable plan commission vote. That's when the war started.

Last Thursday, it was obvious who was winning the war.
An hour before the plan commission meeting started, the majority of the seats in the 250-seat city council chambers were filled...with Lincoln employees. According to a number of employees I talked to that afternoon, they had been informed earlier in the week--some just the day before--that their company needed their help persuading the City Plan Commission to approve the company's development plans for the NorthPark tract.

Any employees interested in being part of a show of support at City Hall were invited to leave work to board one of three Grayline buses that would be departing for City Hall from two separate Lincoln office locations--one downtown and another at The Village apartments. The buses had been chartered for this purpose by the company, and a box lunch would be provided for those motoring from The Village.

"It was a Jason's Deli box lunch," a young assistant manager from The Village told me. "You could have either a ham or a roast beef sandwich on whole wheat, plus chips, a pickle, and a cookie. And they had soft drinks in a cooler."

Lincoln's brass knew that the homeowners were chartering their own buses--four of them, all of which were scheduled to depart two North Dallas churches at 12:15 p.m. Lincoln knew this because the homeowners had held a rally two nights before the plan commission hearing, and Lincoln had dispatched a spy to sit in and hear their plans. "All we want is an even playing field," zoning attorney Kirk Williams shrugged when I asked him about it.

Lincoln officials scheduled their North Dallas buses to leave before the homeowners' buses--allowing the twentysomething Lincoln employees, some with their cans of soft drinks still in hand from lunch, to have taken up most of the council chambers seats when the fiftysomething and sixtysomething homeowners arrived.

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