By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Friends--a grassroots group of cemetery neighbors, relatives of the interred, and historic preservationists--are now targeting a September 10 City Council meeting. The council then is expected to consider the issue of rezoning the 2.7 acres of former cemetery land now owned by Columbus Realty Trust. On May 22, the Friends packed a meeting of the Dallas Plan Commission sporting "Save our cemetery" buttons, but the commission voted 13-2 to approve Columbus' request to rezone the undeveloped tract for multi-use housing.
As is the case with most zoning issues approved by the council-appointed Plan Commission, the City Council is likely to rubber-stamp the change, thus clearing the way after a year of controversy for Columbus to begin building the apartments. The planned four-story complex will abut a section of graves placed in Greenwood in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the International Order of the Kings' Daughters, a women's service organization of the Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches. Behind the Columbus tract, 3.3 acres containing more than 1,000 unmarked paupers' graves will remain undeveloped.
Columbus, which bought the entire six-acre section last October from the Greenwood Cemetery Association, agreed early this year to give back the additional 3.3 acres to the cemetery when an archaeologist hired by the company discovered the remains of one of the city's earliest potters fields. When preservationists, led by scrappy 74-year-old amateur cemetery historian Frances James, learned of the excavation, they rallied to fight any development of the site. In the last few months, driven largely by what they believe was an illegal order by 44th State District Judge Candace Tyson to decertify the cemetery land for development, the Friends have become a nonprofit organization and hired Dallas zoning lawyer Michael Young to represent their interests.
It's been an educational few months for the activists, most of whom had been rather apolitical till now. "Most of us are learning how these things work as we go along," James says. "We had expected to be reasonably allowed to state our case last May before the Plan Commission. We got only 15 minutes and no rebuttal time. We were told by [Commission Chairman] Hector Garcia that those were the rules. But it doesn't seem to be a very democratic way to run things."
But the Friends consider their work at the Plan Commission level to be a hard lesson learned. Taking a page from the more seasoned players who go before the council, the group is trying to line up support before the actual vote. Before the September 10 City Council meeting, they hope to lobby every council member on their cause. They have prepared a fat, glossy booklet to help make their case--featuring a time line of the 120-year-old cemetery, maps, a traffic circulation study, and concerns about storm drainage. The packet also features long lists of those known to be buried in the Kings' Daughters section.
Councilwoman Veletta Lill, whose district includes the cemetery and much of the surrounding neighborhood, was first on the Friends' lobbying list. Though elected just last May, several months into the Greenwood controversy, Lill says she is very familiar with the issues and "would like to bring both parties, the Friends of Greenwood and Columbus, together to see if we can all talk this out."
Lill says she hopes for some kind of compromise between the two parties, though she isn't yet certain what that is.
"This is a really extremely complicated case, but it's my habit to try to bring people to the table to work out their differences," she says.
Initial opposition to Columbus was largely based on the discovery of the paupers' graves. But in recent months, the Friends have focused on other issues to give their cause weight. They oppose what they believe will be a "traffic nightmare" in the area, says attorney Young, because the nearest intersection to the development is a confluence of six streets, most of them already heavily used.
And several residents of the La Tour Condominiums, across the street from the cemetery, have cited fears of storm drainage problems with more development. "The May 1995 rainstorm that caused so much damage flooded two-and-a-half floors of the La Tour Condominiums. It caused $1.7 million in damage and destroyed nearly everything stored in the building's garage," Young says. The Columbus tract now forms a natural drainage area for rainwater to soak into, but "my clients are naturally concerned that the new apartments will essentially create a four-story dam. They are afraid that building will cause the water to back up and come their way."
Meanwhile, Columbus officials are moving ahead with their plans, all but certain that the City Council will give them the go-ahead. A recent merger between Columbus and Post Properties, an Atlanta-based development firm, should have no effect on the proposal for Greenwood, says Columbus spokesman Kyle Crews. Stockholder approval of the merger is anticipated for November, Crews says.
"We have not changed our plans at all," says Columbus vice president John Allums, who has been the company's point man on the cemetery development and has met several times with area residents. "We've taken this plan through all the necessary city departments and satisfied the staff. There's no reason for the council not to approve us."
Allums, noticeably frustrated by the opposition's continuing complaints, says he has not been contacted by Lill or any other council member about a compromise with the Friends. "We're always willing and ready to talk to these people. We feel like we're trying everything."
Crews puts a finer point on it.
"It's a free country, and it's their right to fight against something they oppose. But the fact is, this land is private property. Columbus got it. It's going to be developed by someone, sometime. And Columbus has a track record of doing good work in the neighborhood."
Friends' attorney Young, however, says his clients don't see it quite that way. If the City Council votes in support of Columbus, the group has yet another option to explore.
"We'll proceed in due course with a court petition to reverse Judge Tyson's order to decertify [the cemetery land]. It isn't over.