By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When Kat Truitt walks to the neighborhood Central Market at Lovers Lane and Greenville Avenue, she passes the Signature Pointe Apartments, which face her condominium complex on Milton Street. These apartments once housed Hurricane Katrina evacuees who brought significant crime into the neighborhood, Truitt says. Signature Pointe is now vacant, boarded up and fenced off.
The owner of these apartments, Fairfield Residential, purchased the 12.85 acres in 2006 for $22.5 million. The developer shut down the complex in November 2007 after helping find new housing for the residents. Instead of updating and repairing apartments built in the 1970s, Fairfield asked the city to change the zoning so it could tear down Signature Pointe and build a mixed-use development with new apartments, condos and retail.
This is known as up-zoning, the process of changing the zoning in an area to allow greater density or commercial use. This is a polarizing issue because some people feel this is an infringement on neighborhoods, while others see it as progress.
Truitt is excited about the retail that will come along with the zoning change and says she's helped gather support from 45 of the 62 condominium owners in her complex, Birchbrook 2.
"You can hop on the DART from here and walk over to Central Market or Tom Thumb, and the retail that [Fairfield] is proposing is not conflicting," she says. "It will just be complementary."
Norma Minnis of the Lovers Amesbury Neighborhood Coalition, a group formed to oppose the zoning, disagrees. She says the $130 million project is too high and dense. Minnis also opposes any retail.
"When you have retail encroaching into a residential neighborhood, it changes everything," Minnis says. "You are damned if the retail is a success because it will want to expand, and you're damned if it's a failure because then you're left with a mess on your hands."
Truitt says she is frustrated with city council member Angela Hunt for not meeting with her and other proponents of the zoning even though she has met with Minnis and other opponents. Truitt also says the members of the neighborhood coalition, including Minnis, don't live adjacent to the site, and many live in Sheffie Kadane's district.
"I don't feel the love and don't feel the respect I deserve as one of her constituents," Truitt says.
Steve Stamos, development manager for Fairfield, says dealing with Hunt has been a difficult process because she has been meeting with members of the coalition but not with supporters.
Hunt counters she hadn't been asked to meet with supporters of the zoning, though Truitt provided the Dallas Observer with an e-mail she sent January 29 to Hunt asking her to attend a February 2 community meeting. Hunt responded in less than an hour, saying she had a conflict, but she'd ask her assistant to work with Truitt to find a meeting date.
Hunt was also reminded of a February 12 meeting, which she says she had to cancel because her father has been battling health problems. Although she hasn't met with the group favoring the zoning change, she says they have been properly represented.
"The developer is well-represented by PR people who can contact folks in the media, can frame this a certain way, and can get photos and stories in D magazine," Hunt says. "Neighbors with concerns about it aren't represented by anybody."
Truitt says Hunt is being "bamboozled and hoodwinked" by the neighborhood coalition and City Plan Commissioner Neil Emmons.
When the zoning case was heard October 11 by the Plan Commission, Emmons made a motion to deny the developer's request with prejudice. This meant it would have taken 12 of the 15 council members to approve the zoning when it was heard by the city council February 27, and if denied, the site would have to keep its current zoning for two years.
The developer has changed its zoning request since then, scaling back the retail and reducing the height of the building from 72 feet to 47 feet, among other changes. It hasn't been enough to change the mind of Minnis, who owns three condos in the area. She says this would set a dangerous precedent, leading to future up-zoning in the neighborhood.
Emmons met with Minnis and representatives of the Lovers Amesbury Neighborhood Coalition on February 20, along with the developer and its representatives. In his summary of the meeting e-mailed to Hunt, Emmons said it was important to meet with those who objected to the zoning because the proponents "had reached consensus" and "have been ably represented" by consultants for Fairfield. Emmons left little hope that an agreement could be reached between both sides.
"This case has been the subject of hundreds of hours of study for a year. I do not believe that additional time will yield an increased level of consensus," Emmons wrote. "This case will be precedent setting, and, in fact, the next case has already been filed seeking increased allowable density by the same applicant."
Fairfield was hoping the zoning case would be sent back to the Plan Commission, but Stamos says the meeting with Emmons changed his mind, and now Fairfield preferred to let the city council make the decision. Stamos also criticizes Emmons for not letting him know there were any problems with the zoning before the Plan Commission meeting.
"If you're trying to find a middle ground, and the person who's leading a meeting acts in that way, it doesn't lead to common ground or a compromise. It's ugly," Stamos says.
Hunt says Fairfield hasn't made enough changes to its original zoning, and she made a motion in the council meeting to delay the case for 30 days, which passed unanimously. Approximately 70 proponents showed up at the council meeting, while only a handful of opponents were there. Leslie Davenport, the only one to speak in favor of the Plan Commission's recommendation, says hundreds of those in opposition were told not to attend because Hunt was delaying the vote.
Stamos says this project follows the ForwardDallas! plan, which encourages private investment and urban design standards. The plan, approved by the city council in June 2006, also promotes the creation of jobs and making Dallas a walkable city.
City staff with the Department of Development Services also cited the ForwardDallas! plan when recommending approval of the original zoning change. Staff wrote that the new zoning would provide a higher density to support the DART station located within a quarter-mile of the property and ensure a sustainable and efficient long-range housing supply.
About 200 emergency calls went to Signature Pointe in 2007, according to Stamos. He says an FBI anti-terrorism team visited the complex shortly before it was shut down, and after hiring 24-hour security for the property, "crime is a different story." Stamos says the price of the new apartments would be in the $1,500-per-month range, which will attract higher-income singles as opposed to the low-income families, Hurricane Katrina evacuees, sex offenders and parolees who occupied the apartments when Fairfield purchased the property.
One of the issues that concerns the neighborhood coalition and other opponents is that the new complex will be four stories instead of three, which is currently permitted on the property. Another is the increased traffic. Stamos says a study concluded that any new traffic wouldn't significantly harm the area. "It's just been a difficult process because we felt that all along, we were doing what the city wanted us to do," Stamos says.
At the council meeting, North Dallas council member Ron Natinsky said Fairfield hadn't asked for "one cent" from the city, the development goes along with ForwardDallas!, and this case would set a good precedent for future development. "What we have here is the free market stepping up and doing what we want to happen in this city," he said.
Hunt says she's concerned about up-zoning in general and fears the new retail is too close to single-family housing. Fairfield and its supporters are hoping Hunt changes her mind before the March 26 council meeting where a decision will be made.
"Let's just get on board, jump on, and get in this century," Truitt says. "We're waiting for the trucks to pull up and start demolition."