In Dallas, the only time a neighborhood has real power to influence nearby redevelopment is when a developer is asking the city for some special dispensation, such as for a zoning change, an economic development grant or city bond funding. In these circumstances, a developer must go through a public process in order to get their zoning change or public funding.
That’s when a neighborhood has leverage.
Using that leverage means getting organized and involved as early as possible in the public process. If the developer wants a zoning change, for example, a neighborhood should demand to see their proposed rezoning ordinance. Don’t be fooled by pretty watercolor pictures — those marketing materials may or may not represent what actually gets built; the language of ordinance is all that matters.
Your next stop will be your city plan commissioner — a citizen volunteer appointed by your councilmember to represent your council district on the city plan commission. The plan commission evaluates all zoning cases before they go to the city council, and they hold public hearings at which residents can express their opinion about a proposed redevelopment. Meet with your city plan commissioner and get their help in understanding the difference between what is allowed under the current zoning standards and what the developer wants to build.
Once you’re armed with information, that’s when the negotiating begins. Some projects are simply bad ideas altogether. In those cases, the neighborhood should oppose the project outright and ask the councilmember to do the same.
If, on the other hand, you and your neighbors think the proposal has some merit, but the new project’s height is too great, or the sidewalks are too small, or there isn’t enough green space, that’s when you can use your leverage to negotiate. Play hardball. If the developer wants an extra two stories in height, require them to hide their parking internally or underground. If they want increased density, make them match the architecture of the neighborhood.
All of this assumes that you’ve got a neighborhood-oriented councilmember who will listen to you, and who has the fortitude to either deny the developer’s request outright or extract concessions based on neighborhood concerns. Unfortunately, some councilmembers are either too fearful to say no, are too indebted to developers to say no, or are convinced we’ve got to build something — anything! — to create economic development and build the tax base (helpful tip to those councilmembers: it’s the neighborhoods that build our tax base).
Luckily, in East Dallas, we’ve got strong neighborhood allies on the Dallas City Council. District 14 Councilmember Philip Kingston has proved himself to be a stalwart neighborhood advocate, and by all indications, new councilmembers Mark Clayton in District 9 and Adam McGough in District 10 will similarly put neighborhood interests first.
Unfortunately, unless you can count on a pro-neighborhood councilmember to protect your community’s interests, a neighborhood’s leverage is quite limited.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. As I was lamenting to a developer friend of mine how little power neighborhoods have over redevelopment, he pointed out that while that may be true in Dallas, other cities have created robust processes to evaluate new development.
In Portland and Seattle, for example, there is no zoning by right; all new development projects must be evaluated by special committees of architects and design professionals, with input from the public. The process, according to my friend, is challenging, time-consuming and costly, but results in new development projects that are well-designed, fit with the surrounding area, respond to community concerns, and add to the overall design of a neighborhood.
Until we have a Portland-style zoning process, however, our neighborhoods will have to stay vigilant and engaged. And when we’ve got leverage, we’ve got to use it.
Because I flirt dangerously with Advocate deadlines, I made a math error in last month’s article about the council election that I caught only after the magazine had gone to print. Voter turnout in the District 10 runoff increased by 4 percent, not by a third (damn you, Excel!). My apologies to you, dear reader, and especially to Mr. Shannon, my 10th grade math teacher.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.