Combat zoning

It was clearly Nicole Lott's first time at Dallas City Hall.
This was obvious from the look in her eyes--that unmistakable deer-in-the-headlights look--that I detected when I walked up to her, reporter notebook flipped to an empty page, pen at the ready.

"Excuse me, but could I get your name?" I asked her.
"What?" she said, clearly surprised. "Me?"
Yes, you--the statuesque one with the pretty beige pants and the matching sleeveless vest with the shiny silver buckles down the front. Yes, you--the one with the big blonde hair and the sleek high heels and one of the most painstaking makeup jobs I've seen off a magazine cover.

Lott didn't like this intrusion--perfectly understandable seeing as how she was standing in a fifth-floor ladies' room in a line filled with other giggly ingenues, all of whom were badly in need of a toilet after four long hours sitting in the city council chambers.

But there was no way around this. After all, Lott's coach--not a pumpkin with four white horses, but a Lincoln Property Company charter bus--was parked downstairs in back of the building, snorting soot and ready to rumble northward. If I didn't chat with Lott now, I'd never chat with her at all.

With great hesitation, Lott gave me her name. She also told me that she worked as an apartment manager at The Village--that well-known magnet for college and post-college living, located on many acres of land just east of the Greenville Avenue restaurant and bar scene.

"And where do you live?" I asked.
"Where do I live?" she responded, startled anew. "Why do you want to know that?"

For a tall girl, Lott had an awfully short memory.
An hour earlier, a member of the City Plan Commission, Betty Wadkins, had asked if there were any Lincoln Property employees sitting in the packed council chambers. Practically everybody in the room had stood in response to the question, prompting Wadkins to ask another question. Did any of those Lincoln employees own homes in the area around Northwest Highway and Central Expressway--where Lincoln Property wanted a controversial zoning change that area residents strongly opposed? And if they did, would they please remain standing?

Most of the Lincoln employees sat down immediately. But a handful--including Nicole Lott--remained standing awhile longer.

How interesting, I told Lott as we stood together listening to toilets flush, that Lott just happened to work for Lincoln and own a home in the area where Lincoln wanted to transform 39 acres of empty pasture into office towers, an apartment complex, a retirement home, a hotel, and a big strip shopping center. Where exactly did Lott live?

"Did you really stand up?" one of Lott's bathroom friends whispered furtively to her as we all stood there, waiting for Lott to answer while admiring her silver buckles.

Lott bent over to do something to her shoe, and when she resurfaced, she replied coolly: "I live at 158 Easton," she responded.

Which, as it turns out, is nowhere close to Central Expressway and Northwest Highway. In fact, Easton is located on the other side of White Rock Lake, quite a few miles south and east of the traffic and noise and chaos of Ray Nasher's NorthPark land. Lott and her husband also were renters--not homeowners--I soon learned. None of which was what Betty Wadkins had in mind when she asked her question. (By the way, Lott isn't registered to vote, either; I checked.)

As Lott and I finished chatting, I turned to her friend--another loyal Lincoln employee. "And where do you live?" I asked.

But the friend had seen the punch line to the conversation--and she wasn't playing. "I'm just trying to go to the bathroom," she said, mopping her hands with a paper towel, her eyes searching for the nearest exit. "I just think--what's the point?" she said.

With that, the two women scurried out the bathroom door--then high-tailed it down a back stairway rather than risk having to field more questions standing in front of the congested City Hall elevators. Watching them go, I thought about what Lott's friend had said. The point, I wanted to tell them, is that you shouldn't play games when you come down to City Hall, especially when your boss has both hands extended, expecting favors from the taxpayers. And if you do play them, then you better be prepared for the consequences.

Which is, unfortunately, not how it's working out for Lincoln Property and Ray Nasher so far on this zoning case.

There was no way in the world that a taxpaying, home-owning citizen of Dallas could have attended last Thursday's City Plan Commission hearing at Dallas City Hall and not become utterly disillusioned with the people who have the power to make vital land decisions in this city.

For several thousand North Dallas homeowners, last Thursday was D-Day.
It was their day to state their case to the City Plan Commission--a 15-member panel of regular ol' citizens appointed by the Dallas City Council to make vital decisions, often involving millions of dollars, about who gets to build what, where.

On this particular day, the commission was supposed to vote on a zoning request involving one of the most lucrative parcels of undeveloped land in the city--39 acres at the southwest corner of Central Expressway and Northwest Highway. The land had long been zoned single-family residential. But Ray Nasher, who owned the land, and Lincoln Property, which wanted to develop it, wanted the zoning designation changed to commercial. If they succeeded, Lincoln had agreed to buy the land from Nasher and start building.

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.

It is no exaggeration to say that I have never seen so many freshly scrubbed, Farrah Fawcett look-alikes in one room at one time in my life--a casting call for Baywatch could not have brought out more babes.

And while I actually did track down one Lincoln employee who lived within two miles of NorthPark--and who dutifully remained standing for both Betty Wadkins questions--everybody else I talked to lived far away. Mesquite. Las Colinas. Lakewood. Arlington.

"I didn't think I could be shocked any worse than when I was seeing Lincoln employees stacking the chambers that day," says the homeowners' zoning lawyer, Michael Jung. "But the underwhelming reaction the plan commission had to it was an even greater shock. I thought packing the employees in would backfire on Lincoln. It didn't."

Nor did it backfire when Lincoln made a shameless, last-minute attempt to counter the opposition by hand-delivering a brand-new development proposal to commission members the night before the hearing--a proposal that Lincoln was describing as a concession to the homeowners. Never mind that the homeowners never were given a copy. Never mind that the media never were given a copy--in fact, I had to beg to get one page of it the following day after the plan commission meeting ended. Never mind that nobody at City Hall had a chance to study it and make sense of it. Never mind that it was nothing more than an obvious ploy from the same development boys who fought another neighborhood 10 years ago and convinced a previous plan commission and city council to change the zoning at the corner of Forest Lane and Inwood Road so they could build another big office and retail complex.

Lincoln never built that project--in fact, the mess of a zoning ordinance that Lincoln successfully rammed through City Hall in connection with it eventually gave us the Tinseltown multiplex and a lawsuit that cost the taxpayers $5 million last year.

Last week, with the Dallas City Council chambers literally choking with stink from the deceit and underhandedness that continue to be displayed by the Nasher-Lincoln partnership, it was hard to imagine that anyone on the City Plan Commission would go along with what amounts to a cynical charade.

But when Mitchell Rasansky, the plan commission member whose district the project is in, moved to reject Lincoln's proposal, it was clear that he did not have the votes. It was clear that there was probably a slim majority on the commission that, incredibly enough, stood willing and ready to give Lincoln and Nasher their zoning change. Instead, the commission voted to postpone a decision until October 24 in hope that the two sides can work out a compromise.

Lincoln's biggest cheerleader on the commission was 44-year-old Ed Oakley, a social liberal with a decidedly pro-business perspective. Oakley lives in Oak Cliff but spends most of his time in Oak Lawn, where he works as a construction and maintenance contractor for a development company that owns four gay bars. He announced at last week's meeting that the first time he ever stepped into City Hall in 1991, he watched the same North Dallas homeowners successfully fight Ray Nasher on the development of that property.

And it's clear that Oakley has no intention of seeing that again. In a two-hour conversation he and I had several nights after the vote, he made it clear that his opposition--and that of some of his fellow commissioners--was in large part due to impatience. He was just sick and tired of all these North Dallas homeowners coming down and whining about a piece of land that's destined to be developed.

"If they fight a war," Oakley said, referring to the next six weeks, "I think the votes are there on the plan commission to pass some reasonable plan--no matter if they pack that room again. I think the will is there."

Oakley repeated several times that there is nothing he has seen or heard so far from the homeowners to convince him that an enormous new development that would generate an estimated 21,000 additional car trips a day would be bad for the neighborhood.

OK. But what if the 200-plus homeowners who packed the council chambers last week--or tried to--were all from Oak Lawn? Where many of Oakley's friends and business associates live? Where Oakley has made his living for the past 15 years? Where three years ago he ran for the Dallas City Council and lost?

Oakley had to think about that for awhile. "I haven't been put in a position with people where I had to go to work with them the next day, or go to church with them, or sit next to them in a restaurant," Oakley said. "I haven't had that."

Well, maybe it's time you did.


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