From boondocks to boomtown

At first glance, getting a handle on the proposed Emerald Isle development on White Rock Lake seems easy enough. Don’t build it, and that’s that.

But the truth, sadly, is much more complicated.

This is not to say that putting a 25-story condominium building near the Arboretum is a good idea. If you’re the person building it and will profit from it, it’s certainly a good idea. But for the rest of us, even for those who support it (and there are quite a few), the question is not whether it’s a good idea or not. The question is whether we understand what this development — even just the idea of it — means to our neighborhoods.

For almost 25 years, we’ve been pretty much left alone. The City didn’t want to have anything to do with us, save to reconfigure our streets to make it easier for people from North Dallas and the suburbs to drive Downtown. And developers didn’t want to have anything to do with us because they were terrified of our racial mix (“My god, black and brown people live there!”), they were convinced that we didn’t have money to spend, and they were unwilling to develop property that wasn’t in a cornfield.

But that all has changed, and Emerald Isle is not the only example. There’s a four-acre, 140-unit block going up on Lowest Greenville, complete with 15,000 square feet of retail space. Farther up Greenville, near the M Streets, the strip that includes John’s Café and Cox’s Lock & Key (which have been there longer than many of the people in the neighborhood) is going to be torn down for a bank.

All of which means it’s not business as usual here anymore. For whatever reason, we’re hot. We’re the next big thing — the next Uptown, the next West Village , the next Mockingbird Station. In fact, when developers push their projects, they even say that, as if we would actually want to be those places.

And that’s the question to ask about Emerald Isle. If we let it in — and know that it is our decision to make, not the city’s and not some developer’s — are we prepared for what might come next?

There’s no guarantee any of this will happen, and real estate trends are notoriously short-lived. Anyone who remembers the four towers that 7-Eleven was going to build on either side of Central Expressway in the 1980s knows how quickly they can come and go.

But Emerald Isle could pave the way for development on an unprecedented scale — not just up and down
Garland Road, but along Greenville Avenue or at Skillman and Live Oak or even at Mockingbird and Abrams.

Because, you can take everything the Emerald Isle developer is saying about his site along the lake, substitute those areas, and the argument is more or less the same.

This is not a blanket indictment of development or growth. Change is inevitable and is neither good nor bad. What matters is how communities manage change, and that’s the question everyone is overlooking here. Emerald Isle, by itself, would be a blot on the landscape, but wouldn’t change much else. The change would come later, if one high-rise means five more, and by then it might be too late to save what we have.

Emerald Isle-style growth in residential neighborhoods like ours would change the character of where we live, turn it into something it has never been, and into something that many of us probably don’t want. East Dallas and Lakewood are a pleasant, tree-lined collection of single-family neighborhoods where we know who lives next door. Redeveloping the Mockingbird-Abrams corner, which needs it, probably wouldn’t change any of that. On the other hand, putting a Mockingbird Station on each corner — which is certainly feasible and might look nifty on a drawing board — would change everything about the neighborhood.

So when the various City boards and committees consider Emerald Isle, that must be their main consideration. Do we want to take a chance we’re going to do something that might change the kind of neighborhood we have into the kind of neighborhood someone says we should have?

The answer is no.


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