There goes the neighborhood

The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) battle, where residents rise up against something they fear will drive down their property values, has become an art form in the Dallas suburbs.

I like to think of Plano as the NIMBY capital of the world, probably just because I get the Plano section of The Dallas Morning News, which in the past year has reported fights over a senior-citizen center, a day-care center, a water tower, and a cellular-phone antenna that residents didn't want in their neighborhoods.

The argument usually goes like this: "We paid a lot of money for this house, and if we'd known this thing was going to be here we wouldn't have bought it." Never mind that they put their kids in day care, pamper their lawns with city water all summer, order pizzas from the minivan while sitting in traffic, and presumably hope to get old one day. Can't we just put it somewhere else?

But it is in Flower Mound where the NIMBY phenomenon recently reached new heights of absurdity. There, residents have waged what Mayor Larry Lipscomb called a "vicious smear campaign," employing tactics right out of the Republican campaign manual, to defeat a development project that would have likely improved their property values--and their quality of life.

A year ago, I wrote here about a plan for a new kind of suburb on Grapevine Lake, a "village" designed to accommodate both cars and pedestrians, with its own small shops, parks, and a mix of apartments, townhouses, and detached houses. The development, known as the Village of Lakeside, was designed by Miami architect Andres Duany, the leading promoter of what has been called the "New Urbanism"--an attempt to reorder the suburbs to make them more sustainable, economical, and livable.

The owners of the 132-acre site, Dallas' Stewart family, brought Duany in to create Texas' first such "village." Alan Stewart, president of the family's Lakeside Land Company, says that while the site was zoned for commercial development, the family thought the village idea would be a better use of the site, which has a dramatic view of Grapevine Lake from 60-foot bluffs.

It sounds like a good idea--and it's even been done successfully elsewhere in the country.

But when the people living near the site got wind of the plan, they reacted as if Alphonso Jackson were coming to town with more of those public-housing units he's supposed to spread around.

A group calling itself "Concerned Citizens of Flower Mound" came out fighting against the project, which required a series of approvals from the town council. Equating apartments with "crime, violence, gangs, and lowered property value" (good code words for "people who aren't like us"), they passed out fliers, set up a hotline, and packed meetings of the town council and the planning and zoning commission.

What really had the neighbors scared was that the plan would have permitted what the codes call "high-density" residential development. But the Flower Mound code's definition of high density includes any lot size under 10,000 square feet--which would encompass a lot of conventional suburban subdivisions. The only real high density in the project, the apartments and townhouses, would have covered less than 5 percent of the 132-acre site.

Still, opponents bandied around the words "high density" as if they were saying "crack babies," and raised fears that Lakeside would destroy the town's "rural atmosphere."

Last week, their tactics paid off--at least for now. Facing certain rejection by the council, the developers of Lakeside withdrew their request for an amendment to the town's master plan, the first step required in the approval process.

This story is so absurd and so full of ironies that it's hard to know where to begin. But let's start with what the Concerned Citizens may have won. The site is now zoned as "campus commercial/industrial," the highest commercial density permitted in Flower Mound. This means that without any kind of public hearings, a developer could build 30-story office towers on the site. (They could be taller if not for Federal Aviation Administration regulations.) While the Stewart family's repeated reminders of this fact have the air of an empty threat--there can only be so many Las Colinases--even a more realistic commercial development would tax the area's street, water, and sewer systems more than the Lakeside plan. So much for "rural atmosphere."

But the greater irony lies in what the Concerned Citizens thought they were fighting.

The Flower Mound group thought that they--like the Far North Dallas homeowners who opposed public housing in their neighborhood--were repelling an invasion of poor black people.

But if the experience of other "new-urbanism" communities is any judge, Lakeside was more likely to bring Chardonnay and insider trading to Flower Mound than crack and drive-by shootings.

In fact, one of the biggest problems with new urbanism is that while it promotes the idea of mixed incomes and greater social integration, the developments built so far are predictably homogenous--at the upper end of the income scale. In the Florida resort town of Seaside, Duany's first project, a typical lot sold for $15,000 when the development opened for business in 1982. The same lot is now worth about $185,000--about four times the price of a similar lot in a conventional subdivision next door. Seaside, a vacation community, has benefited from massive publicity. But at Duany's project in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Kentlands, Maryland--more comparable to Lakeside--townhouses and the smallest detached houses now start at a hefty $220,000. Apartment rents range from $845 a month for a one-bedroom to $1,415 for a penthouse.

But to the Concerned Citizens, allowing
even a few apartments meant taking the risk that Lakeside "could become a HOUSING PROJECT," to quote from one of their fliers. They argued that if the master plan was amended and Lakeside didn't work out, another developer could take over the site and fill it up with apartments. (In fact, any use of the site would still be subject to town approval.) And they were skeptical about the development's prospects.

"I could see something like this if it was the East Coast, where people live on top of each other and pay astronomical sums for apartments," says opponent Dave Park, who lives in the adjacent Woodland Estates subdivision. "But I don't see why that person paying $2,000 a month for an apartment couldn't have a 3,500-square-foot house instead--plus a lawn boy to take care of the yard.

"If he breaks ground out there, then this first phase doesn't take off, we're hosed. They could build apartments all over that thing. They say they wouldn't let it happen, but you know all the things that could happen."

Alan Stewart says that these kinds of fears could have been alleviated had the city's approval process been structured differently. The Stewarts first had to get approval for a change in the master plan, a change that would have allowed them greater density than they were requesting. The next stage--which likely would have included negotiation and compromise--would have been the approval of the specific plan for Lakeside.

Had they been able to negotiate the actual plan before seeking the master plan amendment, Stewart says, "then the conditions of the plan would have been binding on us and future owners." In other words, if the council and the neighbors could have been assured that Lakeside--and not an apartment ghetto--would rise on the site, then the project's chances would have been better.

But Park says the Concerned Citizens group doesn't want Lakeside at all if it includes "high-density" residential. "We won't accept anything but campus commercial. We want them to conform to the master plan."

Faced with the prospect of lengthy battles even to get a watered-down version of Lakeside approved, Lakeside Land president Stewart says the family is reconsidering. "We are reviewing our options, and immediately, the commercial is our first option. I think a large percentage of people want this to remain a field. But it simply will not remain that way."

Having learned the truth of the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished, the Stewarts may be content to let this piece of Flower Mound be another part of the problem, rather than a piece of the solution.

The most frustrating part of this whole tale is that the people of Flower Mound, in their zeal to repel outsiders and in their panic over their town's rapid growth, have killed a project that could have stood as a model for good, orderly, sustainable suburban growth.

They should have seen Lakeside as an unusually good neighbor, not an enemy. The real enemy is the kind of sprawl that they see all around them, the suburban status quo that causes traffic nightmares, environmental degradation, and the loss of any real sense of place. In other words, the enemy is already in their backyards.

Actually, it is their backyards.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Alden Branch