While the big white bridge across the Trinity River promises an economic boost for West Dallas, it's been a test of the will of La Bajada. The neighborhood, mostly composed of Latino families, has quietly existed for decades without much bother until now.
After being ignored for so many years, La Bajada residents find themselves sitting atop land perfectly positioned for new construction. Local developers have been eying the area around the old cottage-style homes for its potential, while most residents are defending their neighborhood against major change, as explored in an Observer story last year.
All of this is why neighborhood leaders started a petition drive last year, gathering enough signatures to pursue a a zoning measure called a neighborhood stabilization overlay that would limit the height of structures to 27 feet to maintain the area as a patch of single-family homes.
While it would stave off major redevelopment that could potentially raise property values, residents say La Bajada doesn't come with a price tag. It's a place where extended families take over entire blocks, with parents down the street from children and aunts and uncles around the corner.
Yesterday, after a hefty dose of comment from residents and developers and much back-and-forth among commissioners, the City Plan Commission voted in favor of the overlay, protecting the area for single-family homes while making the land less favorable to developers. Now the measure will head to City Council for a vote.
Eva Elvove, a leader in the push for the overlay, expressed relief over the commission's approval after a "touch and go" meeting in which La Bajada residents supported the plan and Larry "Butch" McGregor of West Dallas Investments spoke in favor of changing the overlay's boundaries to exclude certain properties along the perimeter.
McGregor told Unfair Park that he wanted seven Toronto Street properties that are owned by West Dallas Investments and a handful of others nearby excluded from the overlay. He repeated that he does not care whether or not there is an overlay, he only cares whether this particular selection of properties is included. As it stands now, they are included in the area with restricted zoning, but that could change when the council votes.
In June, Stuart Fitts, McGregor's business partner, told the Morning News he thought the overlay was bad for residents because it would limit the value of their property. "We feel bad for the neighborhood because they're getting duped," Fitts said.
The City Plan Commission was supposed to vote on the proposal last month, but it was postponed at the request of neighborhood resident Ed Nuncio, who asked for more time at the behest of West Dallas Investments, according to the Morning News. Nuncio's property falls between two lots owned by the development company.
"These homes are homes of the working class," Elvove says. "This is what they could afford, and we're happy here. In this economy, tell me, where are these people gonna go? ... How do you put a dollar value on that? You don't."
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Elvove says while property values may not skyrocket as they would if a neighborhood of single-family homes turned into apartment high-rises, she expects they will rise more gradually as West Dallas improves.
This area was the first major project of the CityDesign Studio housed in City Hall and established to create guidelines for urban planning that take varying interests into consideration. The CityDesign Studio worked with West Dallas residents and investors to create a plan, Urban Structure and Guidelines, as they call it, which calls for a gradual increase in the height of buildings from La Bajada to Singleton Boulevard so there's not a wall of skyscrapers next to tiny homes.
The primary tenet of the plan is to "protect and enhance" La Bajada. Yesterday's commission decision was a major marker of the importance of the CityDesign Studio's work in West Dallas. It showed that the guidelines, while intended to be adaptable, are being taken seriously by both the community and the city bureaucracy. This is not another plan put on a shelf and forgotten, and in Dallas, that's huge.
Brent Brown, director of the CityDesign Studio, called La Bajada's push for the overlay "a wonderful expression of neighborhood acting out what they want and making it happen. "It's a very important signal that the neighborhood plans to be there," he said.