Why Plan?

How many people in those beautiful houses on deep lots along Forest Hills Boulevard near White Rock Lake want to see a Blockbuster Video store on their street? Who knows, maybe a tanning salon. Or a couple nice big apartment blocks.

Because it could happen. Believe it. There's a political freight train running through City Hall right now called the "comprehensive plan" for Dallas. We're one of the few large cities in America that doesn't have one.

But who wants this one? One of the things it calls for is retail and apartment re-development of a swath a quarter-mile deep along Garland Road where it runs by the spillway. That would take in Forest Hills Boulevard.

Hey, how about some gas stations and dry cleaners scattered every quarter-mile through residential areas like Preston Hollow or Greenway Parks? Because the plan would open the door to that as well.

And how do you feel about just bending over backward to load the city up with more and more apartments? That's the major thrust of the so-called comprehensive plan.

This plan is all concept, like lecture notes from Planning 101. It looks like something you could plop down on Seattle. In fact, I just came back from a wedding there: It looks sort of like Seattle. But it does not look like anything that grew organically out of what is on the ground now in Dallas, Texas. It's more like a textbook overlay imposed on a map of the city.

But stop me. Let me tell you what they are going to tell you about me. I have been going to the hearings, and I know how this goes. The people pushing this plan will say about me:

"That guy at the Dallas Observer is a total nutcase! The comprehensive plan doesn't call for any of that stuff he says it calls for! It's all about preserving stable neighborhoods and fostering healthy change where change is good. That man needs to get his medications back in balance."

OK, true: It does not call for a Blockbuster Video store on Forest Hills Boulevard or dry cleaners every quarter-mile through Preston Hollow. We're not talking about anyone deliberately setting about to wreak havoc. We are talking about people facilitating havoc by opening the door to a host of unintended consequences.

Michael Jung is a zoning attorney who, along with former city council member Larry Duncan, was a lead warrior 20 years ago in the whole creation of a neighborhood movement in Dallas and in the massive rezoning of the city to defend stable neighborhoods. He's got the scars.

First, Jung and others like him think people who already live and own property in a neighborhood should get first dibs on what happens there. In other words, people far away from them--bureaucrats, planners, land speculators, necromancers--should not be able to wave their Harry Potter wands at a single-family residential neighborhood and say, "Poof! I dub thee apartments and retail!"

Second, Jung knows how hard you have to work to find out what the businesses and homeowners in an area want. "Take Lakewood Shopping Center," he said. "A long time ago, 15-plus years ago, they did a land use plan for Lakewood Shopping Center.

"It took probably six months. They invited people from all the nearby neighborhoods, and they invited the businesses. We all sat around at tables and worked out what our shared vision of Lakewood Shopping Center was going to be and eventually came to a reasonable degree of compromise. And a planned development district was put in place that today governs Lakewood Shopping Center."

Jung says the comprehensive plan about to come to the city council is not based on this same kind of arduous consensus-building. But it includes a map of major changes for neighborhoods and areas all over the city, apparently reflecting the wishes of city staff and the city's consultant, Fregonese Calthorpe Associates of Portland, Oregon.

"The way the Lakewood Shopping Center-type places got whatever designation they got on that map was that somebody at City Hall or in Portland, Oregon, I don't know which, just slapped it on there."

At the hearings I have attended and in the documents I have read, city staff and the consultant insist that there is no map. They say the thing Jung calls a map is only a "vision illustration," and they insist it is not a binding zoning document.

But Jung has been around the block a few times and knows how this stuff plays out in the real world. He gives the example again of Lakewood Shopping Center: Imagine there was no planned development district in place, and 15 years from now everybody who's at City Hall now is dead, retired or in Washington working for President Miller. So imagine people in the Lakewood area decide they want a plan.

Jung says no matter what anybody calls the map now--vision illustration, ink blot, bubblegum joke--developers will use it as a statement of city policy in the future.

"So we convene one of these six-month processes," Jung says. "Whoever it is that likes what the guy from Portland, Oregon, painted onto Lakewood Shopping Center 15 years ago will hold that up and say, 'Game, set and match. The official policy of the city of Dallas is that I should get what I want for Lakewood Shopping Center.'"

Experience has taught Jung that all the best intentions and promises in the world will be meaningless sooner than anybody thinks, and at that point what will count will be the document. Only.

City council member Angela Hunt represents District 14 in East Dallas and Oak Lawn rimming the Park Cities. She thinks the overall thrust of the comprehensive plan will be pressure for massive redevelopment.

"As we increase densities in the city and have more concrete in Uptown and State-Thomas, for example, it's essential that we require developers to set aside concentrated green space," Hunt said last week. She says this plan doesn't do that, and city staff and the consultant have told her they don't want to do that.

"The response I get is, 'As a general policy matter, we want to encourage green space, but we don't want to over-regulate with this plan.'"

The problem with that, she says, is that staff and the consultant have been happy to regulate in the other direction. For example, the plan goes into exhaustive detail on parking regulations in order to allow developers to provide fewer off-street parking spots.

"The drafters had no problem making this a regulatory plan when it benefits developers," she said.

Virginia McAlester is a nationally recognized author and expert on urban residential architecture and for years has been one of the most influential voices for neighborhood preservation in Dallas. Like Jung and Hunt, McAlester also has been through bruising battles over zoning. She thinks the comprehensive plan is a great idea in theory, but she says the city will pay in blood if the plan gets rushed through the approval process before the kinks are out.

"A comprehensive plan for Dallas that directs where new growth should go and that does it in exciting mixed-use walking neighborhoods, like the Uptown/State-Thomas area, will bring our city a host of economic and cultural benefits and will give people choice in where they live and how they live," McAlester told me.

"But we don't want our great enthusiasm for this higher density and new urbanism in the right place to rush us into a plan that might have some unintended consequences and could damage some of what's good about the city.

"The plan as a whole has a chance to do something wonderful for our city. We simply have to make sure that the details of the plan as written match the wonderful visions that it puts in our minds, and that's not there yet."

I also spoke last week to former council member Veletta Lill, who represented District 14 before Angela Hunt. Lill, a strong supporter of the plan, was too polite to call me a nutcase--we were at a small table at the Lakewood Starbucks--and she said, "I'm hesitant to use the word paranoid."

But I get the impression she thinks I'm a paranoid nutcase. So what? So does my wife.

The plan is just a plan, she said several times. "This is not zoning." She said the map really isn't a map. "It's blobs of color on a page." She said a process is already in place, once this initial stage of the plan has been adopted, to do focused mini-plans for specific neighborhoods providing the level of detail and reassurance that McAlester, Hunt and Jung look for.

Lill is a smart person; she was a great representative for District 14; her credentials as a defender of neighborhoods are above smirch. But Mike Jung is real smart too, and so is McAlester, and so is Hunt.

Right now the plan is supposed to get its final full briefing before the city council next week. At the plan commission hearing on it I attended at the end of last week, city staff hadn't even finished a final draft!

They're not even done writing it! The rough draft is hundreds of pages. And they want the council to start deliberating on it next week? That's crazy.

At the conclusion of last week's plan commission hearing, Neil Emmons, commission member for city council District 14, said: "I believe this comprehensive plan represents the constitution that will undergird all future zoning petitions. There is nothing more important in my opinion that we will ever consider."

He's right. Somebody needs to to stop this train and let it cool its wheels a little. Let people look at it and talk about it. Or, failing that, jump it off the track and watch it smoke.

We can survive with no plan. But a sloppy one could kill us.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze