Thursday, December 17, 2020

Parsing the Reasons Why the City Council Said No

The Richardson City Council voted unanimously to reject a plan to build a five story apartment building on the George Bush Tollway just north of the coming Silver Line station by UT-Dallas. You might think if there's anywhere an apartment building just might get approved, it's on a property like that: on a freeway, near public transit and a large (and growing) university, and nowhere near a single family neighborhood. But the City Council said "no." Let's parse the reasons why.

There were a passel of them. City staff helpfully included a slide labeled: "Considerations." Included were six bullet points council members could choose from if they were at a loss to defend a no vote. Different members presumably weighed the considerations differently, but for each of them, the negatives outweighed the positives (which city staff didn't list). Each voted no.

The first consideration pointed out that an apartment building was not consistent with the City's 2009 Comprehensive Plan. "Not consistent" was underlined in case any council member might have not been paying close enough attention. Why? That property is zoned "Regional Employment".

Regional Employment districts are generally located along Richardson’s highways north of Arapaho Road, and at the intersection of Spring Valley Road and Central Expressway. Higher density development is appropriate in these areas, with the primary use being high-rise office. Secondary uses include retail centers and entertainment venues.

Normally, here is where I would pat the council on their backs and congratulate them for living up to a plan. I'm a big backer of mixed-use residential/retail/office developments. But in this case, I think a better approach would be to update that aging Comprehensive Plan. It's from 2009, ancient history. Look at a map today and it's obvious that something compatible with a large and growing university is the best use for that location, not a high-rise office building that might offer no synergy. If the council's no vote means "Come back with a mixed-use plan and we'll support you" then I might believe the no vote was sincere (and I would support it). But I fear the cobwebbed Comprehensive Plan was mainly an excuse to vote no.

According to Community Impact, Council Member Kyle Kepner said, "Waterview is only going to get way busier when the land along the south of you is developed with the Silver Line." I would have thought that the proximity of the Silver Line station would be an argument in favor of a high density residential development. Apparently, college students having to cross the street or the train tracks to get to school is one of those considerations council members thought merited a no vote.

Other arguments suggest to me a more important dynamic at work. The biggest opposition might have come from UT-Dallas itself. Calvin Jamison, UT Dallas' vice president for facilities and economic development, wrote in opposition, "We recommend in the strongest terms that UT Dallas should be able to focus on filling the existing and upcoming housing that has already been planned, approved and supported both by the university as well as its surrounding communities and homeowners associations. As UT Dallas continues to experience unprecedented growth in the next 6-10 years, UT Dallas would be happy to reconsider support for such an entity. However, now, is not the time to proceed with this proposal."

In other words, the new apartments would compete with UT-Dallas's own apartment business. The university is still more of a boon for the City than a threat whose growth might not be able to be contained. So the City of Richardson by no means wants to antagonize UT-Dallas.

And there's another power center at work here, suggested by this Facebook comment: "I have the utmost confidence that Kyle Kepner and Calvin Jamison (who both live in Canyon Creek) know what Is best for our neighborhood. Unlike What happened with the Palisades project - it is refreshing to have a councilman (Kepner) who listens to the people he represents. Well done!"

So, Jamison might be against the apartments not just because of their threat to UT-Dallas's own apartments, but, just maybe, he's also influenced by his homeownership in the Richardson neighborhood just to the east of UT-Dallas. The Palisades reference is to another development on the eastern side of Canyon Creek, which homeowners vociferously opposed seven years ago.

Put all of this together and it's hard for me to draw any other conclusion than this proposal was doomed from the start. It was up against too many power bases: UT-Dallas, Canyon Creek homeowners, and a City Council unwilling to displease those other power bases. City staff read the tea leaves and provided the council with enough "considerations" to make a no vote easy to reach, and so that's what the City Council did.

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