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Oak Cliff Residents Say Potential Zoning Changes Threaten 180 Homes

Residents want a hearing that will change zoning in an area of Oak Cliff to be postponed until they can safely meet in person. They say technological and language barriers have kept the city from getting enough community comments about the hearing.
Residents want a hearing that will change zoning in an area of Oak Cliff to be postponed until they can safely meet in person. They say technological and language barriers have kept the city from getting enough community comments about the hearing.
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Oak Cliff residents are sounding the alarm on a hearing they say will open 180 working-class family homes above the Tyler/Vernon DART station to potential rezoning and undesired development.

The Dallas Plan Commission intends to hold the hearing to determine appropriate zoning for a 74.6-acre chunk of Oak Cliff. The hearing will look into the potential creation of a transit-oriented development surrounding the Tyler/Vernon DART station, similar to Mockingbird Station, in downtown Plano and Southside on Lamar.

The hearing was not requested by the residents or the surrounding neighborhood associations, said Christine Hopkins, former president of Elmwood Neighborhood Association. The 180 homes do not belong to a neighborhood association.

Other associations trying to advocate for this neighborhood are worried that there hasn’t been enough community involvement to move forward, which could bring undesired changes in the current zoning such as more density and taller buildings.

Chad West, the district's City Council member, sees it differently. He and others know developers are already grabbing property in the area and concocting plans to build on it. West worries that if the city doesn’t move forward with the hearing and decide appropriate zoning for the area, the neighborhood will be subject to undesired development.

Before West was on City Council, he was on the city plan commission representing District 1 under then-council member Scott Griggs. Around the time West was appointed to the city plan commission by Griggs, the property for a popular Hispanic restaurant in the area was bought by CVS. The restaurant was closed and now a pharmacy stands in its place.

Griggs got hundreds of complaints from people in the community about the replacement of the restaurant. West said this happened because there wasn’t planning. “There was no vision for that little corner,” he said. He described the zoning in this area as “the opposite of good urban planning.”

“We can’t let that happen again to other parts of the district,” he thought at the time.

After West was elected to City Council, he heard a developer had bought property north of the Tyler station where they wanted to build townhomes. To do that they may need to rezone the area. Other developers were also buying and consolidating property.

One of the developers in the area is Frank Liu of Houston. In the early 2000s, Liu scored a good deal on 109 acres of land in a working-class section of Spring Branch, according to The Houston Chronicle. The first homes he built on the land sold for around $200,000. About 190 homes stand on the site now, selling for as much as $600,000. Over the last couple of decades, Liu's company, InTown Homes, has built thousands of three- and four-story homes and townhomes throughout Houston, pushing the envelope on what people there were generally willing to pay, according to the Chronicle. A representative for Liu said they won't know what they want to do with their Oak Cliff property until they get more input from surrounding property owners.

West said the area is at risk of being controlled by a small group of people because of the sales.

He thought it was time to put together an organized plan for the area before developers had their way with it. “The bottom line is that if we don’t make a plan, someone else is going to do it for us, and they’ve already started,” West said.

West said the narrative has been created that this is a developer play, but he says creating a zoning plan can be a tool to combat developer plays.

The first step to creating a plan is having an authorized hearing for the area. Once the hearing is opened up in the city plan commission, it goes into the queue system, which will sit with city staff for up to two years before it’s finally heard. The city plan commission will decide whether or not to move forward with the Oak Cliff hearing on April 22.

At that point, residents and representatives of the area will start having public hearings about what zoning changes they would like to see. Through this, they could upzone or downzone the area. Additionally, they could protect the 180 homes residents are worried about.

“An authorized hearing absolutely allows for the protection of homes,” West said. “So, if that’s something that’s decided down the road, this is the avenue to get there.”

West said they’ve had more meetings about this hearing than for others in the past because he wants to make sure he has enough community comment.

“We’ve tried to make sure folks feel that everybody’s been able to have a voice,” West said.

Hopkins and others told the plan commission on March 4 that community outreach for the hearing was constrained by language and technological barriers, as well as restrictions caused by the coronavirus. The worry is that if there isn’t enough transparent outreach, what’s deemed to be appropriate zoning through the authorized hearing may not reflect what a majority of the community wants.

Yolanda Alameda is a representative of the Polk-Vernon neighborhood association. She said the proposed map for the hearing includes residential properties in the Polk-Vernon neighborhood association and that a majority of homeowners and residents in that area do not want to be included in the proposed map.

“I’m not anti-development, but I don’t want to see a process that further marginalizes and drives out humble homeowners that contribute to our tax base even more now as our property taxes continue to rise due to the speculation of development,” Alameda said.

The Polk-Vernon, Elmwood and Wynnewood North neighborhood associations are advocating for the inclusion of the community and to ensure the process is transparent and values the will of the majority. “I am concerned that this process has been undertaken with little thought for people that live in the area,” she said.

Pat Ford, who lives south of the area said he’s most concerned about the increased density and gentrification driving people out of the neighborhood.

Hopkins said meetings that have taken place regarding the authorized hearing haven’t been well attended and there wasn’t real-time translation for Spanish-speaking residents.

During the March 4 commission meeting, Enrique MacGregor, West’s commissioner, was quick to point out that he is fluent in Spanish. There weren’t translators at the meetings, which wasn’t ideal, MacGregor admitted. But, he said he was available to answer questions in Spanish and he was communicating with some of the Spanish-speaking residents.

Hopkins said that wasn’t good enough. She’d rather there be an active translator during the meetings so Spanish-speaking residents could follow along. Hopkins and Alameda said consideration of an authorized hearing should be postponed until residents in the area can meet in person to discuss it, safe from the coronavirus.

But West doesn’t think waiting is a good idea. If they wait too long, developers could find a way to do what they want with the property they’ve grabbed up in Oak Cliff. West hopes passing his West Oak Cliff Area Plan will make the authorized hearing a higher priority and move it up the queue. West is aiming for the area plan to be passed in September.

In an email to West, representatives of the Elmwood Neighborhood Association said they were worried the plan would eliminate the requirement for forming steering committees to oversee zoning cases in the area, including the Tyler/Vernon DART station zoning hearing. West said there would still be steering committees under the area plan.

They said in the email, “The outcome of the Tyler DART station zoning hearing could have a drastic impact on Elmwood and our surrounding neighbors – from determining whether our neighbors can continue to afford to live in their homes, or are instead displaced, to whether the quaint character and diversity of our neighborhood survive or give way to incompatible zoning.”

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