Bridge to Somewhere

The white paint on Felix Losada's home in West Dallas is wearing away. His brittle wooden porch swing seems ready to snap at any moment. Old but neatly maintained, the house fades into a swath of similar homes, worn and seemingly attached to the ground by winding roots rather than foundations. Residents of La Bajada, a mostly Hispanic neighborhood, are firmly settled here. That much is clear, even on a brief drive through the neighborhood.

Losada, whose parents were born in Mexico, will be 90 next year. His five children grew up in his home on Bataan Street. His father died in one bedroom, his first wife in another, and his second wife has lived with him since 1999. He wants to spend the rest of his life peacefully in the same space where he's lived out his most significant memories, but he's worried. In the past several years, investors have realized that land in his neighborhood is cheap, close to downtown, and perhaps most important, at the foot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, the sleek white arched pathway that will provide a new link to West Dallas when it's completed. Men with money and an eye to the future have been knocking on doors offering to buy properties, and he fears rapid development could boost property values, leaving him unable to pay his property taxes from his modest fixed income.

Losada doesn't care much about bridges, and he hasn't been downtown in years. He cares even less about his property value unless its increase would mean moving. This is why for the past year and a half he has attended every planning meeting about the fate of his neighborhood and has become one of La Bajada's most outspoken advocates for a zoning restriction that would preserve the area for single-family homes. "If they come here, the value of the land is going to skyrocket," he says, "they" being developers with plans for high-rise apartments. "I've seen too many changes, too much water going under the bridge." So this time, he's doing his best to shore up his property against the threat of a rapid tax increase, which could reshape his flood-prone neighborhood even more than the many deluges it's seen throughout the years.

What Losada and many of his neighbors want is called a neighborhood stabilization overlay (NSO), a system of zoning restrictions established by the city in 2005 to maintain the character of residential neighborhoods. Twelve Dallas neighborhoods have adopted overlay ordinances, and La Bajada is poised to be the next.

The small neighborhood just across the Trinity River from downtown has been Losada's home since long before most of the other small cottage-style houses were built. He recalls shooting rabbits and squirrels with a rifle in the 1930s, and even before that with a slingshot. He was a small child when his family moved from a farm south of Dallas and settled in the neighborhood in the mid-1920s. His mother raised chickens, and his father was a sharecropper until a hail storm drove him out of business and into La Bajada, where he secured a job fixing trolley rails.

Neatly dressed, robust and wearing gold wire-rimmed glasses, Losada appears more properly suited for a beach-side retirement condo than the modest home he bought for $4,250 in 1961. His living room is as neat as he is, with photos of family and friends gracing every shelf, table and wall. Portraits of his five grown children sit alongside a snapshot of the neighborhood baseball team he coached when his children were young. "That's the sentimental value that money can't replace," he says. "I've had letters asking me if I wanted to sell my home, but I'm not interested." He threw the letters in the trash without even noting who sent them. He wouldn't sell for a million dollars.

The zoning restrictions Losada supports would restrict the heights of new buildings in his neighborhood. Currently, the city is determining what the limits should be, then residents will sign a petition, the city will verify signatures, and after the planning commission holds a public hearing, the city council will vote on the NSO. The neighborhood, dotted with signs reading, "Not 4 Sale, Support NSO," buzzes with rumors of property sales, comings and goings of developers and with cautiously optimistic chatter about the future of West Dallas.

In a city where development and gentrification have often arrived on bulldozers scraping away older, working-class neighborhoods, Losada and his neighbors have reason to worry. On the far side of a signature bridge that is the symbol of Dallas' costly program to reinvigorate the Trinity River corridor, La Bajada sits squarely in the path of city planners and real estate investors' plans for progress.

City Manager Mary Suhm sees the Trinity riverfront area becoming the city's "front door instead of the alley." Hope for the neighborhood's future comes from a new approach to development led by community-minded urban planners whose goal is to meld neighborhood preservation and development. They're busy sketching a future in which people like Losada aren't priced out of their homes but are instead part of a livable, walkable neighborhood that stitches people of all incomes into a community. Of course, how that all works out will depend partly on how developers implement the West Dallas plan.

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Leslie Minora