In a stunning reversal of fortune for everybody, the Dallas City Council stiff-armed a previous denial by the City Plan Commission and granted approval to Mill Creek Residential’s The Trailhead, a proposed mixed-use project at the Gaston/Garland/Grand (3G) intersection.

Mill Creek looked dead-in-the-water after the Plan Commission voted 9-4 April 22 to deny the developer’s request to build a seven-story project with multi-family and commercial uses combined.

Any decision to overturn a Plan Commission denial must receive 75% of the Council’s 15 votes, an intentionally high bar for a Council override. Although there was no roll call vote and no discussion among Council members about the project once the public hearing portion ended Wednesday, it appears the decision was unanimous. Confirmation (or not) of the unanimous vote will be made once the official meeting minutes are published.

During the run-up to Wednesday’s Council vote, thousands of neighbors took the opportunity to see, hear and comment on the project through virtual meeting technology, Mill Creek’s bet on more community engagement rather than less, and the social media campaign of the neighborhood opposition.

Some issues dividing the parties were typical of rezoning battles — change, density, height, traffic — but others were specific to Dallas, and East Dallas in particular. Connectivity and activation of the Santa Fe Trail, proximity to the treasured White Rock Lake, the Garland Road Vision Plan and pending TXDOT improvements to the 3G intersection all were in the mix.

For every rezone case, the staff of the City’s Sustainable Development Department makes a recommendation to the Plan Commission. In the case of The Trailhead, City staff recommended approval conditioned on a reduction in height to accommodate a maximum six-story building (Mill Creek had asked for seven) and a change in the affordability component.

The Plan Commission discussion and denial seemed to disregard the staff recommendation. The City Council motion to approve, made by District 2 Council Member Adam Medrano, resurrected those concepts as the motion included him reading aloud the height limitation of 75 feet (six stories) and an increase in the affordable-unit component from 5% of total units (about 15 units, depending on the final number of units built) to 9% (about 27 units) with a traunching of how rents would be calculated against resident income.

Mill Creek went from life-support to winning a marathon in two hours.

The City Council approval drew the box that Mill Creek can operate in. The developer can build no more than 305 units up to six stories in height, with a maximum of 20,000 square feet of commercial space.

“We are still processing things, but we are certainly grateful to Mayor Johnson and the City Council for moving The Trailhead closer to reality by approving the rezoning — albeit with some conditions we have to work through,” said Michael Blackwell, managing director of Mill Creek.

“We also thank those who have provided input and voiced their support during the process — our team of neighbors, the Friends of Santa Fe Trail, authors of Garland Road Vision, numerous current and former community leaders, and many others whose outreach, earnest feedback and encouragement was essential to getting us to this point.”

At the other end of the field, the neighborhood opposition to The Trailhead seemed to have a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter and wound up losing on a Staubach-to-Pearson Hail Mary.

Opposition high-fives after the Plan Commission denial turned into a “what just happened” look after the home football team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Leslie Hearn, a resident of the Highland on the Creek across White Rock Creek from the proposed project, led the creation of Save the White Rock Skyline (SWRS), the neighborhood group formed to actively oppose the project. SWRS had a web site, a Facebook page, an email campaign, an online petition and distributed yard signs hollering “Say No to the Rezone”.

“As we understand it at this time, the decision of the City Council to allow the rezoning request at the Garland/Gaston/Grand intersection is extremely disappointing to those involved with Save the White Rock Lake Skyline,” Hearn says.

“The concerns of density, height, ingress/egress and impact-to-view that led the Planning Commission to deny the request, 9-4, still exist. Over 2,100 people signed a petition against the rezoning request, with 88% of those electronic signatures in the five zip codes that will be most impacted by the development: 75218, 75214, 75228, 75223 and 75206.

“The lack of discussion by the Council at yesterday’s meeting, coupled with the very quick move to vote, is troubling as well. Seems other forces may have been in play as the Council was making its decision, as it was not the voices of the voters in the East Dallas.”

Hearn is right in one respect. After two hours of 70 citizens making their case in favor or opposition, it was a very unusual and rapid succession of events that led to the approval.

The last citizen in line spoke, and Mayor Eric Johnson closed the public hearing and called for a motion. Adam Medrano made the motion to approve with the noted conditions, and Council Member Paula Blackmon seconded.

Typically there would then be a discussion among Council members about the merits of the motion, including questions for both the applicant and the opposition. For controversial items, especially an item where 12 votes are needed for approval, a roll-call vote is commonly held, and each Council Member announces her/his vote when queried by the City Secretary.

In this case, there was neither a discussion among Council Members nor a roll-call vote.

There was an ask from the Mayor for “ayes” in support and an announcement that the motion carried. After Medrano finished his conditions for approval, the vote took about 10 seconds. Given the bright lights on this rezone in its seventh month of intense public discussion, it was an odd finish.

Wait: It’s not finished.

According to Nabila Nur of the City’s Sustainable Development, when the Plan Commission approves a project and it moves onto the next City Council agenda, the City Attorney’s office prepares the ordinance that becomes the governing statute of the land site in question. The Council approves the ordinance in the “consent” agenda, and the matter is closed.

But when the Plan Commission denies a project and the developer appeals, as in the case of The Trailhead, the City Attorney does not prepare an ordinance because the threshold of 12 Council votes in favor is so daunting and rarely happens.

So on June 23, the Council will find an ordinance on its consent agenda regarding a 3.86 site at 3G for a project called the Trailhead. A Council consent agenda usually includes scores of items, and the Council typically takes one vote to approve all of the items rather than voting individually on each one.

Here’s another rub — there will be a new Council June 23, including Jesse Moreno representing District 2, where the land is located, and Paul Ridley representing District 14, which abuts the site.

Ridley’s last campaign flyer before the election says “….we don’t have to accept threats to our neighborhoods from undesirable development and unsustainable growth.”

Since Wednesday’s Council vote was unanimous, and the public hearing is now closed, the 12-vote Council rule does not apply to this final step. But what, if anything, will Moreno and Ridley try to do with the project come June 23?

Council Member Blackmon was a key figure in the Council decision. Although the site is located in Medrano’s district, it’s fair to say all eyes were on Blackmon because the site is a White Rock site and she is the White Rock Council member.

She could have taken an easy path, and no doubt will get muy caliente from the Save the White Rock Skyline crowd. Not taking her Plan Commission appointee’s lead, Blackmon says she did her own due diligence once it reached the Council.

“Dallas has invested so much in our trails, and the developer took pains to orient and design the project to activate and improve the Santa Fe Trail,” Blackmon says. “Going from 5% affordability to 9% affordability was a big deal for me. A Woodrow Wilson 10th-grade teacher could live at The Trailhead and bike to work on the Santa Fe Trail.”

Blackmon say she met with TxDOT to get her arms around the 3G traffic and became comfortable with The Trailhead’s traffic impact compared with the traffic previously generated from the land parcel by the Lot and Local Traveler. Blackmon says she also worried about the “by right’ options of the landowner to sell to fast-food restaurants and car washes if The Trailhead wasn’t approved.

“We don’t need any more of these at 3G,” Blackmon says.

As it came around, she essentially lined up with the staff recommendation, including the project’s reduction to six stories.

Blackmon says she met with the developer and told Mill Creek she personally could get to approval with certain changes, but also told Mill Creek it wasn’t her job to “whip” for the 12 votes. She told the developer to go to other City Council members and make a case. They did. As the vote neared, Blackmon says she “could not find a reason to say no.”

What about the quick approval with no Council discussion and no roll call vote?

Blackmon says she was a surprised as anyone. She was ready to go with questions for the developer and opposition, along with her arguments for supporting the project. And then, boom, the project passed by voice vote.

A unanimous Council approval of a project in the face of a Plan Commission denial is very rare. It takes a Council member to completely disagree with their Plan Commission appointee.

In this case, Michael Jung, the District 9 Plan Commissioner appointed by Blackmon, was front and center in the Plan Commission debate and made the motion to deny the project at the April 2 Plan Commission meeting.

What’s more, Jung went into the deep end of the pool in explaining his vote to deny approval, taking the microphone for 14 uninterrupted minutes to deliver a tortuous argument of his reasoning. He carried eight other Plan Commission members with him in the 9-4 vote to derail The Trailhead.

How does Jung feel about the Council vote to override his recommendation?

“The City Council has spoken, and they are the final decision-makers on zoning in the City of Dallas,” Jung says.

For those interested in real estate and politics of a 21st century city, this rezone case has been fascinating. It has further opened up neighborhood debate about relevant issues for future projects such as height, density, traffic, affordability, trails, apartments, scale, tax base, economic development, lifestyles and the perennial struggle of existing neighborhoods grappling with change.

And at this point, we’re still left wondering: Will The Trailhead get built?


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