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Lesse. Do You Want the Katy Trail or an "Attractive Alley"?

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As Schutze pointed out earlier, Trey Garrison posted his thoughts on FrontBurner about a zoning case involving City Plan Commissioner Neil Emmons -- something about him being a Blue Meanie or some such. I’ve been following this issue as well and came up with a different perspective, mostly because I talked to the man himself, Big Bad Neil.

Garrison essentially explains how Emmons denied an awesome residential-hotel mixed-use project, including a St. Regis Hotel, near the Mansion Residences in Uptown, leaving Dallas stuck with a small, crappy boxed development with dumpsters bumping up to the Katy Trail. He provided links to letters of support from nearby buildings, threw in a Bill Cosby reference and wrote there was “more to come.”

Emmons says the reason for his denial was easy, pointing to an adopted land-use policy from 1983 called The Oak Lawn Plan. He says the premise of this compromise between residential and business communities was that everyone would redevelop within the existing, allowable densities. Emmons added that the current zoning in that area is some of the most generous in the city.

“At the end of the day, I just looked at it and thought, you know, we got a plan. It’s served us well,” Emmons tells Unfair Park. “The land is so valuable and so sought-after because we have predictability and you know darn well what your neighbor can and can’t do.”

So what’s the big argument? Well, the developer, Los Angeles-based FOCH Investments/Deveopments, which acquired the property in 2005 from Sofitel, is asking for a building height of 271 feet, while the existing zoning allows for 196 feet. It also wants to increase the allowable square footage from 341,000 to 426,000. The developer argues that its property is surrounded by zoning that would allow for 240 feet, and paints a bleak picture of what will be developed if it is forced to build the hotel under the current zoning. I’ve seen the architectural renderings, and using the requested zoning it’s a beautiful building. Using the current zoning, it’s a butt-ugly, white building with no windows.

Emmons says he doesn’t buy into the argument that the commission's "no" will result in the hideous alternative; he says there's just no way St. Regis will attach its name to an ugly project. FOCH is using a scare tactic -- just like threatening to put dumpsters next to the Katy Trail.

Garrison attacked Emmons for denying this case with prejudice, which means it will take 12 council members instead of eight to overrule him when this hits the council April 23, and the developer would have to wait two years to reapply for a zoning change if the denial is upheld. Theresa O’Donnell, director of the city’s department of development services, says denying cases with prejudice is actually the default way of denying zoning cases. She adds that plan commissioners must give an explanation for denying a case without prejudice.

The Plan Commission and city staff work hard to find a compromise to get a favorable recommendation 99 percent of the time, according to O’Donnell. “Usually," she tells Unfair Park, "we don’t get to the point where the entire thing is so distasteful that you just have to deny it.”

When the item was before the City Plan Commission last week, the only folks to speak in favor of the project were St. Regis representatives, including Los Angeles-based Richard Doherty of FOCH Investments. But several locals spoke against, including Cay Kolb, one of the authors of The Oak Lawn Plan, and Linda Marcus, widow of Stanley Marcus. Lee Cullum also wrote a letter in opposition of the proposed development.

"It will set a precedent by violating The Oak Lawn Plan," says Harriet Rubin, who lives on Turtle Creek Parkway and also spoke against the proposal last week. "We're absolutely not against the development. I want the St. Regis to be there. I just want it to be there within the existing property rights. And we told them that. ... The biggest problem is the Katy Trail will become a long, urban canyon with huge walls on both sides, and everyone will feel closed in. I went to the city archivist and got the Turtle Creek Environmental Corridor Summary written in 1974, and on the last page it says, 'To ignore the need for guidelines in this area is to assure the development of an "attractive alley," a parkway enclosed on two sides by 200 feet high walls with views that lead to nowhere and a static lifeless boulevard that more resembles an open subway tunnel than a parkway.' Just substitute parkway for Katy Trail."

O’Donnell, of course, is a fan of the project, calling it “an excellent design.” City staff liked it too, although it recommended a lower height (240) and square footage (341,000) than the developer is asking for. O’Donnell cited letters of support from the Mansion Residences and the Oak Lawn Committee, and she says of the 18 letters received from nearby residents, nine were in favor of the project and nine were against it. Although she’d prefer to only allow a rise to 240 feet, if it was a sticking point, she said she’d support the developer’s request of 271 feet.

“This is a really quality development. We’d hate to see the alternative of losing the quality on the project just so that they can develop under the existing zoning,” she tells Unfair Park. “I think we’d entertain either application. It’s certainly nice to have something of this high quality near the Katy Trail.”

Emmons says the threat from developers of offering up the ugliest thing possible is usually the No. 1 argument for these kinds of zoning changes. He has little doubt that this project will happen under the current zoning and thinks what winds up being built will be good for the city. Emmons also points out that approximately 900,000 square feet of development available in the two blocks surrounding the proposed development, and it could be 2.4 million under the allowable zoning.

This leads to what I think is his most convincing argument. Over the next 50 to 100 years, many of the properties will be rebuilt to the maximum zoning allowed. And if 271 feet is allowed on this project, then how can the Plan Commission say no to others wanting to build using that standard? This, Emmons says, could turn the Katy Trail into the Katy Canyon. I’m not sure what Garrison has upcoming, as he mentioned at the end of his post, but based on what I know, I don’t think Emmons is the bad guy in this particular case.

Dallas is gonna get its St. Regis one way or the other. Emmons says the developer admitted that the hotel would be built using the current zoning, but wants it bigger to increase its profits. And no one has a problem with a developer trying to make a few extra bucks, but it’s not like having a taller building is gonna do much for Dallas. I’m not even sure why the city needs yet another hotel. Maybe they can call up Mayor Tom and get themselves into the convention center hotel biz. I’m sure he’d let them build the sucker as high as they want. --Sam Merten

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