For Jubilee Park residents, it was a party atmosphere in the Flag Room outside council chambers Thursday afternoon, when the City Plan Commission denied Dallas Independent School District's application to replat two tracts of land near the site of the former O.M. Roberts Elementary School near Fair Park. But this group of neighborhood activists would celebrate anything that hindered or outright stopped the creation of a one-acre parking lot settling in between their properties.
The application, which was postponed in mid-August due to issues with wording, would have made way for a larger O.M. Roberts Elementary School on the site of the recently demolished building, and allowed for a one-acre parking lot across the street, pending zoning approval. It seems that neighbors' long-simmering anger at the district is carrying through until the very end, when the school is either built or not -- a process that could take years.
Community members who publicly opposed the application complained of traffic and exhaust that would result from the lot standing amidst their homes. These are the latest gripes in the saga that began nearly a year an a half ago, when DISD decided that the century-old school building needed to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch.
The DISD board determined it would be better to expand the campus to make way for more parking for the larger school, but more parking meant the need for more land, and that extra land was inhabited by many people who were ready to defend their homes. DISD threatened to use eminent domain to grab the homes at what district representatives called a reasonable rate but what residents called laughably cheap.
When DISD sent letters threatening eminent domain, tempers flared, and protests took shape. In the midst of the chaos, DISD purchased several lots, though the district maintains it never technically used eminent domain. Those purchased lots, across the street from the school's main campus, are both the subject of the most recent controversy and the reason Jubilee Park residents were celebrating after yesterday's City Plan Commission meeting.
While DISD would like to put a parking lot in that space, neighbors, who have fought the district on point after point, say a parking lot would do no good for the close-knit community. In fact, they say, it would be ugly, noisy, and full of exhaust.
"[DISD] only threatened to do harm to this community for no good reason," said Norma Hernandez who has been among the most outspoken residents. While she stressed that the community is not opposed to the new school, she called the separate parking lot across Philip Avenue a "dangerous hazard to our community."
DISD's representative, Karl Crawley of Masterplan Consulting, preemptively fought off Jubilee Park residents' long-time complaint about DISD's toying with eminent domain to obtain property, reminding commissioners that DISD owned the land in question. At the last plan commission meeting, he'd said that DISD was finished acquiring land in the area unless someone offered to voluntarily sell property.
"It is not for the benefit of DISD; it is not for my personal gain," O.M. Roberts Principal Zulema Ortiz said. "It is for the benefit of the children who attend O.M. Roberts."
But residents refuse to forget feeling strong-armed by DISD for well over a year, and hold on to the same battle cries meeting after meeting. One Jubilee Park neighbor brought up eminent domain once again, and another resident addressed the neighborhood's concern with cutting down trees to clear space for the parking lot, as well as the installation of geothermal fields to heat and cool the school. Geothermal fields were referenced continuously, though committee chair Joe Alcantar requested that speakers stick to issues related to the replat. Land use concerns are scheduled to be addressed at a zoning hearing on October 6.
"It's rare that I make a motion that sticks in my throat," commissioner Bill Peterson said after motioning to approve DISD's application. His vote implied that he felt the request fell in line with replat guidelines. A three-fourths vote was necessary for approval for each of two measures: one to replat the land and another to move the building lines. Both fell short, with a majority of committee members voting to deny the application.
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"It was nerve-wracking, it was just nerve-wracking," Hernandez told Unfair Park after the meeting. "We are very happy with today's decision. We'll just keep moving forward."
Jubilee Park residents gave a collective sigh of relief as they held hands and gathered in a circle of prayer to thank God for protecting their neighborhood.