Raise high the roof

A battle Uptown targets the city for bending its own rules

Claude Albritton, owner of the celebrated McKinney Avenue Contemporary arts and performance space in Uptown, is steamed. Last year, city building inspectors forced him to heed zoning restrictions and scale back his plans to expand the MAC's Kitchen Dog Theater.

Because of the order, Albritton, one of Dallas' top arts patrons, stood to lose about 80 potential seats and the revenue that went with them -- a big blow to a small arts venue's bottom line. But in the end, he complied with the law.

Now, Albritton says the same inspectors are shortchanging him and his Uptown neighbors. He charges they have failed to demonstrate sufficient zeal against a nearby townhouse builder, who he alleges is shredding zoning rules, and he thinks he knows why.

MAC owner Claude Albritton says the city enforces its zoning laws arbitrarily.
Mark Graham
MAC owner Claude Albritton says the city enforces its zoning laws arbitrarily.

"The city is selling out the neighborhood to developers," Albritton says. "You have some people who have to conform to the codes as they are written, and you have some people who do not." The significance of it all, he fears, is that development forces that have stripped the downtown business district of its "human qualities" are seeping north into Uptown.

The dispute centers on a small parcel of land at the corner of Oak Grove and North Hall Street, where local developer Richard Finlay is rapidly building three luxury townhouses he plans to sell for up to $1.5 million each.

Finlay, charge Albritton and other neighbors, is ignoring Oak Lawn district (which includes Uptown) zoning rules that limit building height to no more than 48 feet -- or 55 feet in this case, since the city Board of Adjustment, which grants zoning exemptions, gave Finlay a variance. The code also calls for front yard "setbacks" of at least 10 feet, maximum lot coverage of no more than 80 percent of the property, and minimum landscaping requirements.

But Finlay is building up to the property line. Angry neighbors say the project exceeds lot-coverage limits, leaves little room for landscaping, and violates height rules as well, even beyond the variance he was granted. The building's eventual height, they insist, will be more like 64 feet. "They're trying to put too much building on too little a piece of property," says Edward Bennett, an architect who owns a small office building next door. "The whole thing is a real travesty."

The lack of setbacks is especially worrisome, say neighbors, since the intersection lacks a traffic light and is already a magnet for accidents. "There's gonna be deaths out there, because people come flying down that intersection," says Bennett, who recalled an incident two decades ago in which department-store magnate Stanley Marcus was sideswiped there. His car, Bennett recalls, crashed into the porch of a since torn-down frame house.

Angered by what they charge is a double standard -- and worried the project will blight the neighborhood and hurt property values -- Albritton, Bennett, and nearby homeowner Joel Sanders on October 28 sued the city to enforce its own laws. The lawsuit also names Finlay and project architect Jack C. Irwin (who, interestingly, leases office space from Bennett), demanding they immediately comply with zoning codes.

But city officials aren't up in arms. Citing an obscure loophole, they have given the project their blessing. The loophole: They claim the other zoning restrictions (setback, lot coverage, and landscaping) don't apply if the building's height is measured beginning at the top of its parking garage, which is 9 feet off the ground, rather than the typical "grade level" of cold, hard earth.

Under this rubric, the house that sits on top of the parking garage meets setback and other rules, which is what city officials say counts. While they claim at least two precedents for this method, it appears this type of measurement from the ground is peculiar to Dallas.

The Uniform Building Code, national professional standards that Dallas has adopted and amended, cites no such methods for setting grade level. "I've never heard of that before," says Larry King, manager of building inspection in suburban Mesquite, when apprised of Dallas' unique methods.

Perhaps the developers surmise they possess biblical powers, jokes attorney Karen Gammon, who represents Albritton and his allies. "Moses may have parted the Red Sea, but now Finlay and Irwin attempt to levitate the ground," she wrote in the group's lawsuit. By "raising the ground" in such a manner, she says, any builder can "manipulate [zoning laws] by raising 'ground level' to the heavens."

Despite all this, an official with the city attorney's office, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, says his office stands by the judgments of city building inspectors. The official says the community was given an ample period of time to contest the permits. "If the plaintiffs can get [the court] to revoke the permits," he says, "then what permits in this town are safe?"

Finlay insists his project is "absolutely not" in violation of zoning codes, but declines to elaborate further. So does his lawyer, zoning and land-use attorney Kirk Williams. Irwin, who applied for the original permits last February, argues that the townhouses will enhance, not diminish, neighborhood property values.

He threatened a possible defamation lawsuit if the Dallas Observer went forward with a story. "This has been tried in the courts," he says. "It's a dead issue. It's a non-issue."

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