The Battle for Preston Hollow's Soul

Luke Crosland has been trying -- and failing -- to redevelop Preston Center for years.
Luke Crosland has been trying -- and failing -- to redevelop Preston Center for years.
Mark Graham

Luke Crosland stands at the window of his seventh-floor office and looks out across Preston Center. In the foreground, a tangle of luxury SUVs battle for access to a shabby, two-story parking garage that seems to deteriorate before his eyes. The garage is ringed by a jumble of aging retail strips that wouldn't be out of place in a working-class neighborhood in Garland. Further back, past the Marshalls, a clump of mid-rise office towers stand as a testament to a 1980s office boom.

Crosland is a pugnacious commercial real estate developer best known for the iLume apartments on Cedar Springs Road. He's been gazing down on this scene since he bought into Preston Center 27 years ago. There are trendy new restaurants like John Tesar's Spoon and Hopdoddy Burger Bar, and a few office buildings have gone up here and there, but the difference between now and then is cosmetic. The retail buildings are still outdated. The infrastructure is still crumbling. Three decades of decay have only made the situation worse.

It's a disgrace, Crosland mutters with a mournful shake of the head. Here, Preston Hollow and the Park Cities converge with two of Dallas' busiest streets and the bustling Dallas North Tollway to form an unimaginably rich vein of real estate wealth. There should be an appropriately upscale mix of shops, offices and apartments. Instead, he says, there's a strip center better suited to Des Moines.

Actually, no, that's not fair. A U.S. capital, even Iowa's, is too generous a comparison. Peoria, he decides. Preston Center is like something from Peoria.

It's not just Preston Center. The entire Preston Road/Northwest Highway intersection is curiously underwhelming given the vast sea of money it floats upon, as if real estate icon Ebby Halliday had pressed a pause button when she moved her headquarters here in the mid-1960s. To the northeast, formerly grand condominiums built in the '50s and '60s decay behind the once-celebrated "pink wall," which a half century of sun and car crashes has left a scarred and splotchy beige. The northwest corner is Ebby's. The little white house that houses her real estate office is a jarring throwback to the 1920s, when developer Ira Deloache built it for his headquarters. She lives in an estate next door. The shopping center on the southeast corner is markedly fancier but still feels cut from an earlier era.

Developers have been lusting after these corners for decades, but their advances have been held at bay by various factors -- zoning restrictions, the splintered ownership of Preston Center and the area behind the pink wall, probable opposition from neighbors. Recently, though, it's been thrust into the middle of a battle for Dallas' soul.

Dallas is, at heart, less an urban area than a conglomeration of sprawling, suburban-style neighborhoods. Most of the city was developed after World War II, when a highway-building craze and the ubiquity of the car fueled speculators to gobble up cheap tracts of land on the increasingly distant fringe and plant subdivisions. North Dallas in particular became a sea of sturdy brick homes distinguished more by the names their developers bestowed -- Midway Hollow, Sparkman Club Estates, The Meadows -- than by any variation in their ranch-style architecture.

Embracing this pattern of development has left the city in a bind. The speculators moved on to Richardson, then Plano, then Frisco and beyond. Dallas, meanwhile, is stuck with the bill for maintaining the sprawling infrastructure necessary to support a city that treats four bedrooms and a professionally manicured backyard as a birthright. The costs could be met if Dallas' population and tax base grow fast enough, but they haven't. Over the last decade, while the rest of North Texas has boomed, Dallas has stagnated. Its population has barely budged and it's hemorrhaged tens of thousands of jobs as employers have followed their workers out of Dallas.

The solution is to make Dallas more dense. Build places where people don't have to get in their cars and cross six lanes of traffic to buy a gallon of milk or waste an hour commuting to work. The suburbs will always be cheaper and newer, but a large, dense population center offers a vibrancy and connectivity the suburbs can't, attributes many people, especially young people, will trade for a white picket fence. Uptown is proof. For Dallas, the question is how to balance that density with the interests of the single-family neighborhoods that blanket the vast majority of the city's developable land. Should apartments and condo towers be relegated as they currently are to areas that are already dense (downtown), depopulated industrial areas (the Design District and the Cedars) or politically disenfranchised minority neighborhoods (Trinity Groves)? Or should the city encourage density -- well planned and intelligently done -- even when nearby homeowners might object?

The debate came into particularly sharp focus earlier this year when Crosland and commercial real estate developer Transwestern separately rolled out plans to plant large apartment projects at Preston and Northwest Highway. Crosland, gazing down from this seventh-floor perch, saw his project as a catalyst. He imagined a future version of Preston Center, presided over by his apartment tower, pulsing with the vibrancy of Uptown. First, though, he would have to convince Dallas to allow an apartment high-rise in Preston Center. And he would have to do so over the objections of wealthy and powerful Preston Hollow homeowners -- including former Mayor Laura Miller -- who would fight, sometimes fairly and sometimes not-so, to preserve the ugly status quo on the other side of Crosland's glass.

*****
Ashley Parks helped slay a residential project behind Northwest Highway's "pink wall."
Ashley Parks helped slay a residential project behind Northwest Highway's "pink wall."
Mark Graham

Preston Hollow East, bounded generally by Northwest Highway, Preston Road, Walnut Hill Lane and Hillcrest Road, is the quintessential North Dallas neighborhood: a neat grid of quiet, tree-lined streets and spacious lots populated by successful doctors and lawyers and bankers. It lacks something of the grandeur of the lush millionaires' estates of Old Preston Hollow that ramble to the west of Preston Road, and it's missing the prestige of the University Park addresses south of Northwest Highway, but it straddles the line where upper-middle-class blurs into unapologetic wealth.

Ashley Parks is a child of the neighborhood. She grew up on Deloache Avenue, so named for the man who developed Preston Hollow, and was charmed by how peaceful and tight-knit it seemed. Circumstances forced her to spend a dozen years in exile: Her family moved to a new neighborhood two miles to the north in 1989, when Parks was in the eighth grade, and she spent four years at Texas A&M University and a few more living Uptown while she established her financial planning career and settled into adult life. But she always planned to return as soon as possible.

Her opportunity came in 2002, a year after she married an SMU-trained corporate lawyer named James Parks III. Home prices still hadn't recovered from the dot-com bubble's burst, and the couple found a deal on an aging but sturdy three-bedroom brick home on Del Norte, with a swimming pool in back and two magnolia trees shading the front. It was far from perfect -- a row of gargantuan shrubs is all that separates it from bustling Preston Road -- but it possessed the same idyllic charm Parks remembers from her youth.

Parks was a freshman at A&M when her future neighbors felled their first developer. In the spring of 1995, plans were unveiled to raze 144 apartments at the corner of Northwest Highway and Turtle Creek Boulevard to make way for a Tom Thumb-anchored strip center. Homeowners rebelled. Several hundred of them packed Preston Hollow Elementary one February evening to denounce the plan. A week later, it was dead.

The fight unified neighbors and reinvigorated the long-dormant Preston Hollow East Homeowners Association, which has remained an active organization even though the development fights have been few and far between. By the time Parks assumed the presidency in 2011, its energies had long been focused on more mundane tasks -- crime watch patrols, neighborhood get-togethers, West Nile-prevention tips. But the outrage that fueled the 1995 fight never really went away. More like it settled into a state of hibernation, ready to be awakened the next time a developer dared to give it a nudge.

The nudge came late last December, when Parks learned from people living behind the pink wall that Transwestern, a Houston-based behemoth of commercial real estate, had been pitching condo owners on a plan to build an eight-story luxury apartment complex on the corner of Preston and Northwest Highway. Parks called Sarah Dodd, a TV reporter-turned-PR consultant representing Transwestern, and demanded an explanation. "We met at the Corner Bakery, and she's like 'Look! Look at these amazing plans!'" Parks recalls. "And she showed them to me and I was like, 'My pool! My backyard is in your plans!' -- Literally, my whole pool was there."

Not included in the plans, though Parks needed no help envisioning them, were a gaggle of divorced dads (among Transwestern's target demographics) leering down from their eighth-floor balconies as she and her 7-year-old daughter went for a swim. After the meeting, Parks sent an email blast to Preston Hollow East HOA members describing her meeting with Dodd. Her neighbors didn't need the prospect of being ogled by middle-aged men to be against the project. "Once everybody heard about this, they were like, 'What do we do? How do we stop this?'" Parks says.

Parks and about 100 of her neighbors filed into the Black-Eyed Pea in Preston Center on the morning of January 25 for a meeting with Transwestern and City Council member Lee Kleinman. Jennifer Staubach Gates, the council member who represents the neighborhood, had appointed Kleinman after recusing herself because her father, Cowboys legend Roger Staubach, and her husband, John Gates, both work for Jones Lang Lasalle, a real estate firm involved in the Transwestern deal.

Transwestern had met with dozens of condo owners, but this was the first face-to-face get-together with the single-family homeowners to the north. Mark Culwell, a senior vice president at Transwestern, opened the meeting with a quick overview of the project: 296 high-end, two- and three-bedroom units, each renting for $2,000 to $5,000 per month to a target market of empty nesters with six-figure incomes. The development would replace the dozen townhomes of Townhouse Row and the small, corrugated-metal-draped apartment complex next door. It would consist of two buildings, vaguely Mediterranean in style, one on either side of Averill Way, stair-stepping from four stories on the north, next to Parks' house, to eight stories along Northwest Highway.

Neighbors were civil but skeptical. They worried that packing 500-plus people onto three acres at the edge of their neighborhood would spoil Preston Hollow East's close-knit feel. The traffic generated by those new residents, plus their visitors, housekeepers and moving vans, would further clog the intersection of Preston and Northwest Highway, they said. Some might careen dangerously down the neighborhood's quiet streets. One homeowner asked if the apartments would welcome low-income residents through HUD vouchers. The answer was no, but Culwell's repeated assurance that Transwestern was catering to rich people did nothing to quell concerns that the development would quickly spiral downward, inviting crime and blight to Preston Hollow's doorstep.   Steve Collins, a real estate agent from the neighborhood who led the fight against the Tom Thumb 19 years ago, sums up his concerns by conjuring an image of children being mowed down by speeding apartment residents. Renters, he says, "might come down the street a little bit faster [than homeowners] when our kids are out playing. They don't have the same stake in the neighborhood. That's just a fact of life."

In the following days, Parks, the keeper of the neighborhood email database and the homeowner with the most to lose, channeled her neighbors' simmering outrage into a coordinated opposition campaign. She circulated an online survey that revealed overwhelming opposition to any development higher than the three stories allowed by the zoning rules and followed up with an anti-Transwestern petition that quickly surpassed 1,000 signatures. "No 8-Story High Rise" signs were next, hundreds of them quickly printed and planted in front yards. The neighborhood hired Michael Jung, a former member of the City Plan Commission and one of the most influential neighborhood preservation lawyers in the city.

On February 19, three days before neighbors were scheduled to rally against the development in Preston Hollow Park, Transwestern announced that it would scale back plans from eight stories to six and knock the number of units down from 296 to 220. They would also set aside land for a right-turn lane from Northwest Highway onto Preston Road, widen sidewalks and put a small, publicly accessible park between Parks' house and the apartments.

Parks and her neighbors were unmoved. Hundreds of homeowners showed up for the rally, still angry that Transwestern wanted to build apartments next door. Kleinman came armed with his labradoodle, Buddy. "No one's going to throw anything at me with my dog here," he joked as he took the microphone. He explained, as he had at the meeting in January, that he would not be opposing Transwestern. He never explicitly endorsed the plan either, but he has distanced himself from the neighborhood's fears. Dallas needs to become denser to grow its tax base, he says, and there's no reason an eight-story apartment complex and a suburban-style subdivision can't coexist side-by-side. He also thinks there are "some misconceptions about what happens in those apartments."

Preston Hollow is accustomed to having its interests protected at City Hall. For more than two decades its representatives on the City Council -- Jerry Bartos, Donna Blumer, Mitchell Rasansky, Ann Margolin -- have been staunch defenders of the status quo. To have Kleinman downplay their concerns was a new feeling. "Our neighborhood felt like now we're your constituents and you're not listening to us," Parks says. "So really, if he wasn't going to vote for us and Jennifer was out, all of a sudden what was going to happen in our backyard? People didn't feel like they had a voice, like they had a vote, and they were really upset about that."

The neighborhood, though, hadn't yet unleashed its secret weapon, a neighbor who, perhaps better than anyone in the city, knew how to make things happen -- and, more important, not happen -- at City Hall.

*****
The now-dead project proposed for Northwest Highway, east of Preston.
The now-dead project proposed for Northwest Highway, east of Preston.

Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller left office in 2007 and made a quick retreat from public life. She took a job with Seattle-based Summit Power, leading the charge to build a "clean coal" power plant in West Texas, and otherwise made good on her pledge to devote herself to raising her three kids. Her youngest, Max, she sent off to Stanford this fall. Aside from wading briefly into the debate over Museum Tower's glare (she's against it) and endorsing the occasional candidate -- former Police Chief David Kunkle over Mike Rawlings for mayor in 2011, developer Leland Burk over Jennifer Gates for City Council District 13 in 2013 -- she's stayed mum on local issues.

Miller lives with her husband, former state Representative Steve Wolens, in a sprawling, $4 million estate on Dentwood Drive in the heart of Old Preston Hollow, complete with three fireplaces and detached servant's quarters. Around February, she began hearing rumblings about an eight-story apartment complex being planned a half mile to the east. The email blasts Parks was sending out filled her in on the details.

Two deeply held beliefs propelled Miller into the Transwestern fight. One is that Dallas needs to protect the suburban character of the neighborhoods stretching from Northwest Highway north to Forest Lane by keeping out dense, multi-family developments. In office, this came across in Miller's tendency to side with neighbors over developers (especially Wal-mart) in zoning spats, as well as the adoption in 2006 of Forward Dallas, a comprehensive zoning plan that championed increased density so long as it steered clear of "stable residential areas." The other deeply held belief: that the traffic at Preston and Northwest Highway sucks.

"Northwest Highway is the street I spend most of my time on," she says. "If I want to get to NorthPark, if I want to get to the Tollway, if I want to go to Central, if I want to go to Preston Center, I take Northwest Highway." The traffic that congeals there at lunch and during morning and evening rush hours is bad enough that, for excursions to NorthPark, she cuts through the streets of Preston Hollow East to to save time and aggravation. One of her mistakes as mayor, she says, was allowing a bank on the southern end of Preston Center to be rezoned for a mid-rise residential building in 2007. That project went belly-up, and a large office building is now going up on the site. "I regret that building," she says. "Back in 2005 whenever it was we did that, I didn't particularly see a traffic problem."

Miller, a former Dallas Observer columnist whose famous shake-it-till-its-neck-snaps tenacity is as likely to be triggered by a traffic gripe as a threat to her deeply held values, set to work. She gathered an intimidating roster of current and former politicians, including state Senator John Carona and County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, and demanded that Kleinman host a public meeting. When Kleinman blew her off, she fired off a letter to Gates demanding his replacement. When that didn't happen, she strode into Transwestern's public meetings to argue the case on its merits. She had the same complaints as the neighbors -- too dense, too much traffic -- but she delivered them with a gravitas unique to former mayors/alt-weekly columnists. No one dared interrupt her when the time limit placed on other speakers expired.

Her involvement transformed the case from an obscure, rich-people zoning fight into a topic of interest citywide and amped up pressure on Transwestern, which in August scaled back plans for a second time, knocking the development from six stories to four and from 220 units to 196. That was the death knell. To get its plans off the ground, the firm had lined up the dozen homeowners on Townhouse Row and the owners of the corner apartment complex and convinced them to sell, offering the townhome owners upward of $1 million each, more than three times their market price. As Transwestern's plans were scaled back, though, so too were its offers on Townhouse Row. When the project reached four stories, the townhome owners pulled. Pamela Smith, who leads the group of townhouse owners, declined to comment beyond saying the homes are still on the market.

Jung, the attorney hired by Preston Hollow East, thinks neighbors would have toppled Transwestern even without Miller. Under state law, if at least 20 percent of property owners within 200 feet of a proposed development file a formal protest -- and Jung would have had that many, easy -- a zoning change requires approval from a three-fourths vote of a City Council. Which means that neighbors would have had to peel only four votes away from Transwestern instead of eight. After meeting with several sympathetic council members, he says he had at least that many in his pocket.

Gates' recusal made it a slam dunk. Because each member of the City Council theoretically knows his or her district best, and because each will one day have a pet project they'd like approved, zoning cases are decided according to the wishes of the council member whose district it falls in. With Gates out, this dynamic disappeared. Council members who might have thought twice about voting against Gates would have no trouble bucking Kleinman, Jung says. He was the substitute teacher of lawmakers, easily trampled.

In fact, by the time Jung got around to counting votes, Miller's attention, like that of a cat tired of batting around a dead mouse, had wandered to new prey. "As soon as I started working on Transwestern, Lee Kleinman called me. 'You're still concerned about this little case?'" she remembers him asking. "[What about] the really big case across the street?'" The case across the street, in Preston Center, was Crosland's. Miller decided at a glance that she wanted it dead, too.

*****
Crosland's proposed Highland House, killed dead in part by Laura Miller.
Crosland's proposed Highland House, killed dead in part by Laura Miller.

Crosland has been yearning to build something transformational in Preston Center since he first surveyed it three decades ago. In the early 1990s, he had a vision of replacing the outmoded parking garage with a Niketown, movie theater or high-end stores. In the 2000s, it had evolved into an apartment tower and a Marriott hotel. Then he wanted to build an even taller apartment tower on the spot where Hopdoddy now flips burgers. None of those projects came close to being built. The standalone apartment tower was shot down by Rasansky, and any development that touches the parking garage has to be approved by the 70 or so owners of the surrounding retail buildings, a doubtful prospect given Crosland's contentious relationship with his neighbors.

Crosland "has consistently made the other owners in the center unhappy," says Bill Willingham, a longtime Preston Center property owner. Their long-simmering dispute is rooted partly in a disagreement over the best use of the garage (Crosland-built development or parking lot), partly in Crosland's refusal to cover his share of its upkeep (his current bill is upward of $200,000, though he points out the dues are voluntary and contends he's being overcharged) and partly in the sharp-elbowed way Crosland sometimes does business.

His reputation dates to his early days as a developer. In the 1980s, when he was rezoning property on Maple and Oak Lawn avenues for what would later become the Observer building, he reportedly promised neighbors he wouldn't build a drive-thru bank. Then he built a drive-thru bank. And his disputes, both business and personal, have a tendency to end in protracted legal battles. He and restaurateur Phil Romano traded blows in court a decade ago after the Preston Center lobster joint they partnered on went south. Over the summer, he thrust his ongoing divorce battle into the headlines when he sued his estranged wife's alleged lover, UT Southwestern Medical Center's chief plastic surgeon, Dr. Rod Rohrich. According to Crosland, his wife and Rohrich had conspired to sell a $1.1 million diamond Crosland had bought for his wife so they could finance the publication of Navigate Your Beauty, a cosmetic surgery guidebook they'd collaborated on.   Acrimony aside, Crosland thought he'd come up with a project in Highland House that he could get built. A handsome, 29-story tower, it would contain 260 spacious, $4,000-per-month apartments catering to aging Baby Boomers like himself who, suddenly kid-free, find their 10,000-square-foot nests uncomfortably empty. There would be a dog park, rooftop gardens, a driving range and wine storage. He'd taken pains to head off every conceivable objection. There would be ample parking -- seven floors of it, serviced by a valet -- and an off-street loading dock to keep moving vans from blocking the street. A traffic study commissioned by his firm predicted a net decrease in traffic compared to the three-story medical building Highland House would replace.

The Crosland Group filed to rezone the property in the summer of 2013. Crosland and Rick Williamson, the firm's president, spent months meeting with Preston Center property owners and clearing the project with Highland Park Independent School District, into which the apartments would feed, and they say they encountered no significant opposition. They'd even convinced Willingham and a few other neighbors to write letters of support.

Claire Stanard, a condo owner behind the pink wall, arrived at an April meeting at the Preston Center Hilton Hotel as a skeptic. Williamson remembers the date -- April 14 -- because Miller gave him hell for scheduling it on the first day of Passover.

"When it was over, I grilled [traffic planners], I grilled Luke Crosland and Jennifer Gates with probably 30 pointed questions," Stanard recalls. When they were all answered, she was satisfied. Crosland had thought of everything. "What about housekeepers and caretakers? He'd provided basically a whole floor of parking."

The momentum shifted the moment Kleinman told Miller about Highland House. "I went over there the next day to get the case number off the sign so I could call the city," Miller says. City code requires anyone seeking a zoning change to post official red-and-white rezoning signs on their property. Arriving, she found a lone placard lying face down in the dirt beneath a crepe myrtle flanking the front door. Turning it over, she saw that the space reserved for the zoning case number was blank.

Miller was "so deeply offended that there was no sign there" and troubled by what she saw as Crosland's lack of respect for the zoning process that she decided Highland House must be stopped.

Stanard, who has been attending meetings across the street for 30 years, says she had seen the sign posted properly for months. (See correction at the bottom of this story.) But Miller began collecting evidence. She snapped several pictures of the sign lying face down in the ground. She came back the next morning and took several more and repeated the exercise six additional times over the next three weeks.

By the time the Plan Commission took up the Highland House case in May, she had compiled her photographs and observations into a notarized affidavit, which she delivered to commissioners with an argument that, because Crosland hadn't followed the law, the case had to be tabled. The attack was surgical but effective. Highland House was delayed.

Following Miller into the Highland House fight last spring was a coalition of Preston Hollow homeowners, seasoned by the Transwestern campaign, and a bevy of Highland Park moms. They flooded the Plan Commission with overwrought emails, predicting the imminent demise of the Park Cities/Preston Hollow way of life.

"One of the most compelling -- and valuable -- elements in our neighborhood is that one can live within proximity to downtown without seeing tall buildings," one complained. Another described a plan commissioner's description of Preston Hollow as "urban" as "disturbing." Others warned that beloved neighborhood businesses in Preston Center would collapse because of the added traffic -- just too many potential customers passing by.

The Highland Park moms predicted doom for their children's schools. "I think it's a joke to believe that the developers aim to market this to 'empty nesters,'" one wrote. "Anyone with intelligence will know that the primary residents will be those wishing to get their children into HPISD schools without purchasing property or paying taxes to do so."

Williamson, the Crosland Group's president, brushes off those concerns as irrational. "It's my job as a real estate developer to know to whom I'm catering and for what market I'm building," he says. At iLume Park, a new Crosland development on Cedar Springs, "there's a piece of art on the wall of the lobby that's two naked men and a naked woman. It's kind of weird so you have to kind of look at it to figure out what it is, but there's a subtle message that, you know, this probably isn't a great place for kids. There's all kinds of ways to do that. But these people were like 'Oh, how do you know you're not going to get five generations of some Mexican family living there trying to get into Highland Park schools and they've got 32 kids living inside?'"

Miller wasn't so easy to dismiss. She returned to the Plan Commission in June and delivered a blistering attack on Williamson, whom she accused of hiding plans from neighbors and pestered for details on the Crosland Group's deal with the owners of the medical building. Crosland skipped the hearing, choosing to lie low in the wake of an NBC 5 story recapping the messier details of his divorce. The case was delayed and was ultimately withdrawn by Crosland.

Plan Commissioner Bobby Abtahi regrets that Crosland and the neighbors couldn't reach a compromise. He feels the same about Transwestern. "That area is really primed for walkability," he says. "Everyone's talking about live-work-play in urbanism." Preston Center has the latter two. It just needs the "live."

Miller's involvement in the Highland House case influenced the Plan Commission's deliberations, Abtahi says, but no more than any other citizen who knows how to work the system. "I don't think that her position and former position in the city was as important as the fact that she prepared," he says.

Crosland and Williamson aren't so sure. Asked to rank the many factors that may have led to Highland House's demise -- bad blood with surrounding business owners, Preston Hollow opposition, etc. -- Crosland blinks, as if surprised that the question even has to be asked.

"It was all Laura Miller," Crosland says.

Williamson nods. "One hundred percent."

*****

It's the middle of a weekday in late September, and the door to the Crosland Group's headquarters is locked. Williamson apologizes, explaining casually that the locked doors are a precaution against unwanted visitors -- namely the process servers from Crosland's divorce.

Crosland arrives later, dressed down in athletic gear from a lunchtime workout. "Did Rick show you this?" he asks, striding over to a table containing a scale model of Preston Center, which consists of crudely shaped Styrofoam blocks arranged atop an aerial photograph. There's a gaping square in the center for the parking garage. Crosland covers it with two additional blocks -- the Marriott and apartment complex, plans for which are immortalized in framed renderings on the wall. Despite everything, he's optimistic that he can get that project built given the proper city tax incentives and a guarantee of enough parking for his neighbors. But those plans were indefinitely shelved in favor of Highland House, which Crosland demonstrates by placing a taller Styrofoam tower one block south of the imagined Marriott.

If only it were so easy. Outside the window, things are as they've always been. The office buildings still tower in the distance. The crummy strips of retail continue to moulder. The parking garage is still an infuriating tangle. A couple of weeks later, Williamson will be hit by a car as he walks near it, seemingly as punishment for daring to meddle with it. Ebby's little white house still sits across the street, and a weird metal apartment complex decorated with rusted Lone Star decor holds down the other corner.

The landscape here isn't going to change anytime soon. If Transwestern and Crosland's example wasn't enough to scare other developers off those corners, Councilwoman Gates took Miller's suggestion and put in place a de facto moratorium on major rezoning cases while the city conducts a land-use study. Gates hopes the study will establish a template for development in the area that can strike a balance between neighbors and developers and head off the types of messy zoning fights Preston Hollow has just endured.

"It's complex," she says. "It's probably an easier thing to say no and walk away from it, but I understand by that process you don't get any improvements, you don't get any better connection to the neighborhood."

The moratorium came too late to quell neighbors' anger at Gates for not taking a stronger stand against Transwestern and Crosland from the outset. Political opponents like Miller and Rasansky, both of whom endorsed Leland Burk in last year's election, used the case to raise concerns about Gates' leadership, and rumors are flying at City Hall that Parks is preparing to challenge Gates in May's election. Parks is coy about her political ambitions, but doesn't rule out a campaign.

There's a joker in the deck, and the seeming calm that has settled over Parks' corner of Preston Hollow might not last as long as she and her neighbors had hoped. Entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has spent the past quarter century patiently piecing together the 10 acres of wooded estates lying along Northwest Highway between Ebby Halliday's little white house and Northwest Bible Church. Recent weeks have seen an unprecedented flurry of activity on the property: fences being torn down, trees being felled, reports of a 1930s mansion set to be razed.

Michael Romo, a real estate developer working for Cuban, has approached Gates and a few of the property's immediate neighbors shopping plans for the corner, which include two large office buildings and planting a stoplight at Northwest Highway and Jourdan Way. Andrew Sommerman, a trial lawyer who owns a neighboring estate, left his meeting with Romo both amazed by Cuban's chutzpah and hellbent on stopping him.

"I'm going to fight him in planning and zoning," Sommerman vows. "If I lose there, I'm going to fight him at City Council. If I lose there, I'm going to fight him in court. If I lose there, I'm going to fight him on appeal."

Romo says that won't be necessary. "Simply put, the neighborhood will not engage in discussions, so there's no story." But Cuban bought his first property on the corner in 1988. He's playing a long game, and like Miller, Cuban plays to win.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Claire Stanard as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. She is not, nor has she ever been, a member of that organization, nor has she attended its meetings. The Dallas Observer regrets the error.

Email the author at eric.nicholson@dallasobserver.com


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