What We Learned About Sylvan Thirty, And Development in Dallas, at Tuesday's Town Hall

We began the broadcast day by discussing Sylvan Thirty's funding; we end it by looking back at last night's town hall meeting concerning its layout and, more broadly, the future of street and development design in Dallas. And based on the build-up, it was shaping up to be a pretty fun-to-watch shouting match. After all, Fort Worth Avenue Development Group president David Lyles and Brent Jackson, Sylvan Thirty's developer, couldn't even agree yesterday about whether or not Jackson had been invited to the thing.

What the evening became, though, was more polite bickering between the two sides, while the occasional baffled neighborhood resident stepped up to the mic to ask questions neither side could really answer.

In the main room at Salon Las Americas, which featured both a crystal chandelier and the most god-awfully uncomfortable chairs you can imagine, Lyles introduced the evening's panelists: Keith Manoy, head of transportation for the city; Jason Claunch, president of Catalyst Commercial Inc; and Brent Brown, head of CityDesign Studio at Dallas City Hall. Lyles said that in an effort to be "non-partisan," FWADG board members and Sylvan Thirty reps had both been "intentionally excluded" from the stage.

Lyles then went through a brief presentation about the history of Special Purpose District 714, stressing the same highlights we've heard before: This neighborhood is supposed to be about broad sidewalks, street trees, parallel parking on the street, off-street parking tucked behind buildings, protecting the downtown views, a nice mixture of business and residential spaces and, of course, front doors that "address" the street.

Then he very non-partisanly added -- just as a matter of reference, you understand -- that Sylvan Thirty "challenges virtually every aspect" of the PD, as well as not corresponding to "fundamental and sound design principles." He specifically mentioned the proposed eight stories involved, the four-foot-wide sidewalks, the lack of street-facing facades and the requested zoning changes that he said would eliminate the limits on the use of stucco and metal materials throughout the PD.

Manoy talked a bit about the Complete Streets principle, and mentioned the improvements the city is trying to make in the area: a $2.3-million plan that's scheduled to begin construction in June 2012. A final design hasn't been reached yet, but there are supposed to be bike lanes, street parking and "enhanced" sidewalks in big portions of Sylvan, Commerce, Fort Worth and Beckley. They're going to need another $5 million from the county for that, though, not all of which will be available until 2014. Currently, he said, "We don't have the money for Fort Worth Avenue," or for Sylvan from Colorado to I-30.

Sitting next to him, Claunch talked a bit about "why developments fail." In his view, he said, Sylvan Thirty entailed "a lot of risk ahead, although I certainly want to applaud the development group" for being forward-thinking, he said. He cautioned that mixed-use developments like Sylvan Thirty are "extremely risky," expensive, hard to complete in the estimated time period and, once completed, hard-pressed to find tenants who can actually pay the rents needed to keep them open.

For his part, Brown wanted to talk about what he termed "the real death of public space in America" and thank FWADG for their concern with making more spaces in the city that had a "public benefit" -- developments with spaces for such things as parks and schools. He talked about the West Dallas Urban Structure and Guidelines and the importance of sticking to it to make "a road map" for a better city.

"In Dallas, from a development standpoint, we're unlearning a way of doing things that we've done for a very long time," he said.

With that, the floor was opened for questions, and David Marquis, who's been consulting for Sylvan Thirty stood up, clearly a little exasperated. "Many of the issues raised tonight we've already dealt with," he said. Though no one has seen the next draft the project, Sylan Thirty reps promised it would be available sometime in the next week or so. He added that the final project would be in line with the spirit of the PD.

"We're working hard with the city to bring in developers south of the river and to West Dallas," he added, "all the way to southeast Oak Cliff." He mentioned Cox Farms specifically (still the only tenant for the project the public knows about), saying, "It'll be the best grocery store ever to come to this part of West Dallas." He added later that it would "end the food desert in the area, bring good quality development and shift the paradigm" of the neighborhood.

The real issue, Marquis said, is that the entire presentation was based on outdated visuals that don't match up with the most current plan. "A simple phone call to Sylvan Thirty, and we could have told you when those documents were ready," he told Lyles. "But we were not consulted, and we were not invited to this meeting."

As for the height of the project, yes, it would be eight stories: three for parking, one for retail and four for residential. But he promised it would be 79 feet at its highest point. "You can still see the skyline of downtown Dallas from Bar Belmont," he promised. "The buildings are not 95 feet," he said. He promised too that the whole project will be "completely green" and LEED certified.

"We're Oak Cliff people," he told the crowd toward the end of the night. "And we're dedicated to Oak Cliff and to West Dallas."

Brown acknowledged Marquis's points but added, "With no disrespect to the applicant, we still haven't seen the final product," which is, apparently, still tied up in the City Attorney's Office. He praised the "open and blunt" conversation he said CityDesign has had with Jackson and other Sylvan Thirty reps.

That wasn't quite enough for Monte Anderson from the Belmont, who, when it was his turn at the mic, wanted to know two things (to which he seemed to already know the answer). Does the current plan, the one from August 19 that everyone has actually seen, meet the PD's sidewalk guidelines? No, said Brown, after some hemming and hawing. Do we know where the front door of Cox Farms is going to be? Well, no, at least not from the Lake Flato renderings projected on the wall next to the panelists.

"Monte," protested Brown. "You're mixing up the zoning map with this image."

"I'm confused," Anderson replied. "Because I'm looking at pictures, and then I'm reading text."

"Let me help," Brown replied. He explained that CityDesign Studio supports projects they think meet the guidelines. "And we've not been helping to expedite this project," he added.

Anderson wanted the same statement from Lyles: "Does the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group support this project?" he asked.

"As it stands right now, no, we wouldn't back this project," Lyles replied. It's not that FWADG is anti-development, Lyles explained. Far from it. "We're very interested in bringing development to our community. We're not trying to prevent it, we're just trying to improve it."

Sprinkled among all this back-and-forth between the two sides, the neighborhood residents in the audience had a few questions throughout the night. They were, by necessity, directed at the panel, but were really aimed at Sylvan Thirty. What about traffic control? Are utilities going to be brought underground? Is Cox Farms going to accept food stamps, to make themselves accessible to residents of Oak Cliff who don't hang out at the Belmont? Who the heck are the other tenants going to be, anyway?

The panelists didn't have a lot of solid answers, and neither did Sylvan Thirty. When Brent Jackson approached the mic at the end of the night, he really just had one thing to tell the audience. "God Bless America," he said. "As corny as it may sound, I really believe that," because, he explained, we're able to have debates like these. He added that his office has an open-door policy. "We will continue to accept and encourage input," he promised. He said Sylvan Thirty would have "a diverse tenant mix" and that "we've got some not everyone's gonna like, but it's a good, healthy balance."

When Lyles asked for specifics, Jackson said he still "wasn't at liberty to disclose" who the new tenants were, although he promised the project would create "500 to 600 new jobs."

Ultimately, Jackson said, "the market's the ultimate decider" of who will fill Sylvan Thirty. "All I ask for," he told the crowd, and the panelists, "is your patience and your understanding."

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