By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Robert Gessel and his family made some carefully calculated choices in buying a home in east Plano in 1991. They wanted a neighborhood with hills and trees. They wanted minimal noise and traffic. And they wanted as much green space as possible, which they found in Bob Woodruff Park, a 321-acre oasis of oaks--some more than 200 years old--winding bike paths, and more species of birds and other wildlife than they could count.
Best of all, it wasn't west Plano, Gessel says, referring to the decades-old rivalry between the two sections of the sprawling suburb northeast of Dallas. Split geographically and symbolically by Central Expressway, Plano has seen explosive growth over the past two decades. But those living on the east side of town have always cherished their simpler life. For the most part, the homes are older and smaller, and there are far fewer shopping centers, restaurants, and other businesses.
Now, Gessel fears that his simpler life may be grinding to a halt. On August 7, a Dallas developer filed a plan with the city to build on a 12.5-acre tract on the northwest corner of Park Boulevard and Shiloh Road. The land, which contains a stand of shade trees and had lain fallow for years, abuts the western border of Woodruff Park. The tract--long zoned for retail use--will be developed into a strip shopping center with a 62,000-square foot Albertson's supermarket as its anchor tenant. Joining the grocery store in the aptly named Shiloh Crossing Shopping Center will be two restaurants, a retail store, and a combination convenience store-gas station, says Joe Lancaster of Arcus Realty Corp., the project's developer.
The plan also includes the expansion of Shiloh Road, north from Park Boulevard to Parker Road. Pro-development forces have been waiting for the chance to extend the road for at least 26 years, when a 1971 plan for Plano's street development named Shiloh as a major connector route between Spring Creek Parkway to the north and Highway 190 (George Bush Freeway) to the south. The proposal would turn Shiloh into a six-lane commuter route, which its supporters say would ease traffic congestion.
"Maybe the city doesn't understand the east Plano mind-set," says Gessel, who works as an engineer in Richardson. "We don't mind driving three extra miles to get to a restaurant or a mall. That's why we live here."
In spite of substantial opposition--more than 2,400 names (as of yet the signatures are unverified) have shown up on a petition against the proposal--the city of Plano appears poised to approve the developer's plans.
"The truth is, the property is zoned for retail development, and the city has anticipated extending Shiloh Road for decades," says city planner Scott Norris, who is supervising the project. On October 6, the Plano Planning and Zoning Commission returned the plan to Lancaster and ordered him to address issues of flood and noise control, lighting, landscaping, and other routine zoning questions. If the developer answers the questions satisfactorily, Norris anticipates that his staff will recommend approval of the plan on October 20.
Opponents say the city is thwarting a resolution adopted by the Plano City Council in 1990 calling for a delay in Shiloh Road expansion until certain "traffic trigger points" are met. City studies of the area show that traffic has actually decreased in some of the neighborhoods around the park. But city leaders have said they are bound by a 1971 thoroughfare plan that calls for the road expansion.
The whole scenario sends shudders through its opponents, who envision a future of endless traffic, noise, and disruption to Woodruff Park's ecosystem.
"I don't think there's any question that the noise and tree-removal during the construction will have an impact on the wildlife in the park," says Cathy Scheel, a 20-year resident of the neighborhood who regularly walks in the park.
But Lancaster vows that no trees will be cut down during construction. A TU Electric power line easement from years earlier has already cut a rough extension of Shiloh Road through the trees next to the park, he says.
Meanwhile, Norris says his office has referred several opponents to Lancaster's office, and is encouraging the two sides to try to work out their differences. Lancaster has met with three homeowners associations in the area. "Some are willing to be reasonable and logical about this. And then some are not," Lancaster says.
But he is abundantly clear about one thing: His project will go through regardless of the neighborhood's feelings.
"This is not a perfect world we live in," he says. "I wish that it were...The land is zoned for retail, and I have the right to develop the right of way on Shiloh Road under the plan. This is going to happen."
Some opponents, still jarred by how quickly the plan has moved through city channels, admit they don't know what they will do next.
"In my eyes, we are just not being listened to," Scheel says. "There's an arrogance at the city that is very troubling."
The issue has even stirred up activism among grade-schoolers at Dooley Elementary, which is located on Woodruff Park's east boundary. Dooley students often visit the park's Outdoor Learning Center, a project supported by the city of Plano and the Plano Independent School District.
Inside the Shiloh Crossing file at the city's planning and zoning office is a letter by four Dooley fourth-graders. The letter was initiated by Ana Gessel, Robert Gessel's 9-year-old daughter. He insists she came up with the idea on her own. "She heard my wife and me talking, but bless her little environmentalist heart, she took this on with her friends," Gessel says.
The letter reads:
Dear Mayor Longstreet and City Council Members:
Our school wants to save the forest next to George Bush Freeway and U.S. 75. We need trees to help us live and to have animal habitats. Animals are very important. They are like part of our life.
If you let them build the Albertson [sic] there, you will probably have to tear it down sooner or later. If you build this Albertson we will not shop there at all.
It will take around 100 years to regrow the forest. Every car takes ten trees to take the pollution out of the air. This concludes our letter about saving the trees.