The Future of Preston Center Is in Michael Morris' Hands Now

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On Thursday evening in a spacious meeting hall at University Park United Methodist Church, neighborhood leaders and local bureaucrats, led by City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, began the process of puzzling over how to solve Preston Road and Northwest Highway. The intersection, choked with traffic and curiously dumpy given the immense wealth that surrounds it, was recently the site of two knock-down zoning fights that revealed a yawning gap between what the market wants for those corners (apartments and office space) and what neighbors are willing to accept (the status quo).

The process will take at least a year and a half and will produce a master plan for the area that will guide development in the area for the foreseeable future. Should apartments go in Preston Center? Should Mark Cuban be allowed to build an office complex behind Ebby Halliday's little white house? Should the condos behind the pink wall go higher than three stories? All of that, plus possible traffic remedies, will be dealt with.

See also: The Battle for Preston Hollow's Soul

It's still very early in the process. Stakeholders have been divided into seven geographic zones (Zone 1 is Preston Center; 4 is the condos behind the pink wall; the rest of the zones are individual single-family neighborhoods), each of which will elect a pair of representatives to form a task force. The task force will then guide a transportation/land-use planning firm, selected through competitive bids, through the process of drafting the master plan. Etc, etc.

In the absence of any real decisions being made, here are a few observations from last night's meeting:

Michael Morris is steering this ship: Gates did most of the talking at the meeting, but it's Michael Morris, the mild-mannered transportation planner from the North Central Texas Council of Governments/urbanist bogeyman, who's in control of the purse strings. He's pledged $200,000 to $300,000 for the master plan, roughly half the cost. The rest Gates is pretty sure she can cobble together from the neighborhood's well-resourced neighborhood groups.

We were, we admit, slightly disappointed from an entertainment/journalistic job security perspective, to learn that Morris did not plan to turn Northwest Highway into a massive, neighborhood-gobbling toll road. He doesn't even want to charge people money for using existing lanes. Instead, he talked in a soothingly technocratic way about making Northwest Highway "more neighborhoodish, more destinationish" by discouraging drivers from using the road as a cut-through between Interstate 35 and Central Expressway using yet-to-be-settled-upon feats of traffic engineering. Right now, there are "way too many through trips going way, way too fast."

Morris used Garland Road as an example of what he envisions. Back in the day, 70 to 90 percent of the cars using it were passing through to Garland. With the construction of LBJ Freeway, among other projects, the situation flipped, with 70 to 90 percent of trips being local.

He also talked about strengthening pedestrian connections between Preston Center and the neighborhoods immediately north of Northwest Highway so that non-suicidal residents might venture to a store or restaurant on foot. Maybe a "grade-separated pedestrian structure" or some new traffic signal technology that will ensure human beings can traverse Northwest Highway without fear of bodily injury.

The Preston/Northwest Highway traffic light is going to suck forever: The lights at Preston and Northwest Highway is objectively terrible, partly because, like the rest of Dallas' stoplights, it is way too old (the technical term is "functionally obsolete") and partly because one side of the intersection is controlled by University Park, the other by the city of Dallas. Because the lights operate on different systems, they get out of whack over time, which is partially why eastbound traffic often backs up to Inwood.

Seems simple to fix, right? Wrong. When I spoke with Gates a couple of months ago for my Preston Center feature, she seemed optimistic that, thanks to newly opened line of communication between the two cities, the traffic light situation was being effectively managed. She struck a different tune last night, admitting that, as everyone in the room had deduced, it was still a mess. The only sure-fire remedy is to upgrade the signals, which will be a challenge as Dallas has a long list of dire infrastructure needs that trump a single set of stoplights in Preston Hollow and is unlikely to cough up any cash before the next bond program.

Which leaves Michael Morris. He hinted that maybe someday he can dig in his voluminous couch cushions to upgrade the signal, perhaps with a system that can accommodate seven or eight different signal patterns rather than the two or three the current system can handle, so there's hope, but he didn't pull out his checkbook.

"We're going to figure that out," Gates said to a smattering of applause. "By the time I leave office, we're going to figure that out."

Neighbors are still pretty suspicious: Only one member of the audience truly grilled Gates on development in and around Preston Center, trying unsuccessfully to goad her into either pledging to defend the status quo or, conversely, to lure her into admitting she was gung ho for more development. Gates didn't take the bait, saying diplomatically that it was up to the stakeholders to decide what should be built (or not built) where. "I'm not seeking anything," she told the guy. "I personally do not have an agenda."

See also: Mark Cuban Wants to Turn Several Preston Hollow Estates into Office Buildings

Neighbors are particularly wary of Mark Cuban's plans for the northwest corner. "What is the process Mr. Cuban has to go through to zone his property commercial?" one woman asked. "And how do we stop him?" Gates told the crowd she can't stop Cuban from filing a zoning case but said she considers that corner's single-family zoning "sacred ground." She got more applause for that line, though the murmur of disapproval that greeted a reference to the Shelton as an apartment (rather than condo) tower suggested she lost some points on that one.

Laura Miller's stenography is impressive: Former Mayor Laura Miller listened attentively from the audience during the meeting, never taking the microphone but scribbling furiously into a reporter's notebook.

A note about reporter's notebooks. They're narrow, the perfect size to slip into a back pocket. Taking notes involves furiously scribbling words, about five per sheet, with the precision of a dyslexic kindergartener scrawling the alphabet on unlined paper. The words are generally legible so long as you decode them immediately without a night's sleep to cloud the memory.

Miller's script was tight and precise, and her hand moved with lightening quickness. Politics and demeanor aside, her note-taking is impressive.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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