Saturday, September 25, 2021

Student Housing Nears the End Game

We've been following the long and winding road that one property owner has been walking in his attempt to get City of Richardson approval to build student housing just north of UT-Dallas. It's also just north of the soon-to-be-built DART Silver Line station. If there's any no-brainer zoning case I've seen in Richardson, it would be this one. I've heard the City brag about its commitment to DART and transit-oriented development, and its support of UT-Dallas. You'd think this project to provide private student housing near both DART and UT-Dallas would be a no-brainer for the City Plan Commission and the City Council as well. But so far, it's been less a no-brainer and more like no-way. Now, the quest is reaching its end game. The City Council will consider the request again September 27. 2021.

Let's review how we got here. In late 2020, the City Plan Commission gave unanimous support for a recommendation to approve this project. Then the City Council, as is its prerogative, voted unanimously to ignore the CPC's recommendation. It rejected the project. So the property owner went back to the drawing board and brought a slightly different project before the CPC again. This time the short-handed CPC deadlocked 3-3 on the project. Three weeks later, this time with a full seven votes on hand, the CPC voted 6-1 against the project. What changed? Nothing about the case, everything about who was there to vote. Two yes votes didn't participate in the second meeting, and three commissioners who were absent at the first meeting were present for the second. Those three voted no. So the 3-3 vote switched to 6-1 against, without any commissioner changing his or her own vote. Such are the vagaries of local politics.

Even though rejected by the CPC, the property owner is taking the proposal back to the City Council, which itself will have three new members who didn't participate in last year's vote against this project. If the project is voted down again, I don't see how it can proceed unless and until the outdated 2009 Comprehensive Plan is updated, at which time, I hope the project will be seen to be the no-brainer that it has been all along.

The 6-1 vote against this project seemed to be led by Vice Chairman Bryan Marsh. He spoke the longest against it. Two of the other five no votes offered no explanation at all for their own no votes. One said nothing at all during the entire hearing except a single word, "Second", when the chair asked for a second to Marsh's motion to reject the application. Three others offered short explanations. One said voting to allow a "building that really doesn't exist in Richardson" is "kind of just above our pay grade." One said "Vice Chairman Marsh's comments are really to the point." Another said he couldn't support "something that is dramatically different" from the future land use the Vice Chairman had mentioned.

Because the commissioners voting no seemed to be taking their talking points from Marsh, let's take a closer look at exactly what he said in explanation of his own no vote.

BM: I think this, from our standpoint, this is a zoning case and this is whether this is appropriate land use for this site, and as many of you know at the last meeting, that I raised objection and voted against it, because I did not think it was. I really haven't heard anything that's changed since then.

He then immediately admits something has changed. UT-Dallas, which came out opposed to the project last time, this time took a neutral stance, a huge change in the politics of the case. Marsh breezed right past that and cited something else that's changed that's more to his liking.

BM: But another thing that has changed since the last meeting is that the joint property owner [Eminent Medical Center] which adjoins this property has come out as opposed to it, and to me that's a significant factor.

So, UT-Dallas's position is no longer significant, but this other property owner's position is. Marsh didn't bother to tell us what the opposition consists of, so let's examine it ourselves to see whether it is, as Marsh claims, a "significant factor."

Eric Courtney, of Eminent Medical Center, wrote a one sentence letter of opposition: "The current driveway between the proposed site and our hospital is not capable to handle construction equipment, pass through traffic and having the street clear 24/7 for ambulance coverage."

The drive he refers to is jointly owned. It directly connects Waterview Parkway and George Bush Tollway. There's an easement that gives property owners on either side access to their properties. The student housing cannot impede Eminent Medical Center's "pass through traffic" and "ambulance traffic" even if they were inclined to, which they are not. If Eminent Medical Center's objection is a legitimate worry about temporary construction traffic, I am confident that satisfactory arrangements can be worked out to ensure the medical center's operations continue uninterrupted during construction. Denial of the student housing project because of this last minute questionable objection is hard to justify. Yet, Marsh accepts it without question.

BM: The future land use plan talks about regional employment. This is a technical office land zoning that is currently in place. And you do have the hospital as well as the offices [on Waterview]. I realize not all of them are occupied and maybe a little office space right now. Hopefully that will change in the future.

Marsh admits that the current zoning (technical office) is a saturated market, at least in that area. He's not willing to consider another use (student housing) that has an immediate market and is projected to have market demand for as far as UT-Dallas's current projections allow us to look. He doesn't even consider that a nearby DART station will add to the attractiveness of student housing here. Marsh ties Richardson's future development to "hope" for a change in market demand for office space.

BM: It is a condition by changing this zoning to allow for this use, it is potentially imposing future hardships on the adjoining properties and that they're not conforming, as far as their setbacks, and also potential screening requirements.

This is one valid concern Marsh raises. He should hammer this one home. If current zoning imposes new requirements on properties adjoining a residential property, then that needs to be reviewed. But perhaps Marsh knows this isn't the killer issue he implies it is. In the prior hearing, City staff suggested ways that this could be handled, but Marsh showed no interest then, or now. Marsh didn't see it as an issue to be worked, just as a reason to vote no.

BM: There's an awful lot of talk about trying to solve the student housing issues, but there's no guarantee of this. Obviously it's geared towards student housing. This could just as well be, you know, non student apartments. And I sometimes question how the community would react if that's what was being proposed as just an apartment complex rather than a student housing site.

The property owner never tried to claim otherwise. He's legally prevented from discriminating against tenants based on enrollment status at UT-Dallas. All he ever claimed was that the design of the apartments, and proposed method of leasing not by suite but by bedroom, makes it ideally suited to student housing. Not even Marsh suggested any evidence that this is going to appeal to another market segment. This is me talking now, not the property owner, but if we do discover down the road that dormitory life does appeal to a broader demographic, it would indicate to me that the City of Richardson needs to reconsider its zoning restrictions everywhere to meet this previously unknown demand.

BM: I maintain the same concerns I had before about the disconnected pedestrian access.

This is one objection I never understood. City staff has said at every hearing that if pedestrian or vehicle traffic increased to the point of justifying a controlled crosswalk at the intersection where the student housing driveway crosses Waterview Parkway to the DART station, then the City would address it. And yet because today that crosswalk is uncontrolled, Marsh decides to oppose the project.

I remember years ago, The Dallas Morning News's Rodger Jones regularly excoriated the City of Richardson for not laying out sidewalks from Renner Rd to the newly constructed DART station at the Bush Tollway. Note that this was before CityLine was built. I had to regularly remind Jones that the sidewalks would come with development, not before. And they did. Now Marsh seems to have the same backward thinking. By his logic, CityLine would have been rejected because of the lack of sidewalks there before it was built.

BM: We don't know what's going to happen to the area north of the DART station that is zoned for transit, as a transit oriented district. I still believe this project is better suited on the south side of Waterview.

Perhaps Marsh is right that another location is also a good place for student housing. But so what? That's irrelevant to the question of what are appropriate uses for the property in question. There are certainly "better suited" locations for another drive-through restaurant than in Richardson Restaurant Park, but that didn't stop Marsh and the CPC from recommending approval for Dave's Hot Chicken there anyway.

And "We don't know the future" is an egregiously bad reason to reject a project. Besides, I'm fairly confident that we do know the future of the transit-oriented district north of the DART station. It will be developed in a transit-oriented manner. And I'm confident that transit-oriented development will also eventually come to the property in question here as well, just as soon as the City admits the obvious and reviews the outdated "future" land use plan from 2009. The CPC is not obligated to wait. It approves major modifications to zoning all the time.

BM: If it were to happen, I still have concerns about the overall scale at 16 stories.

This single argument should disqualify Marsh all by itself. The project is not 16 stories. It's 12 stories. The first paragraph of the staff report, summarizing the request, states "12-story apartment building (eight (8) stories of apartments atop a 4-story parking garage)". Marsh's mischaracterization of the project is either intentionally prejudicial to the applicant or it's a sign that Marsh himself cannot keep even basic details straight. Either way, it's disqualifying.

And that's that. Nothing Marsh argued stands up. Except his vote and the votes of the five other commissioners that went along with him. Those are now in the books. Unless the City Council rejects the CPC's flawed arguments and its misguided recommendation, this is probably the end of one property owner's quest to build private student housing north of UT-Dallas. All that will be left for us then is to wonder why, because the reasons given by the CPC don't stand up to even cursory examination.


Unknown said...

Marcia Grau here - I would like to ask you to email a copy of your article to every Council person before Monday. It will be helpful for them to have this synopsis fresh in their minds. I am sure you already have these but so you don't have to look their addresses are below. Thanks for the information.

Mark Steger said...

Marcia Grau, thanks for the suggestion. I don't intend to email the Council members, but I can't stop others from doing so. :-)

Louis Burns said...

Another commissioner commented that he was against it because it would bring more traffic to the area. That was right after staff reported that the applicant had a traffic study done that was essentially reporting no significant impact.

That ignores the obvious observation that all those students are already driving to campus from elsewhere. Some of them living and walking across from campus would be less traffic, not more. Our current state is the higher traffic condition.

To be entirely fair, the first project looked like garden-style apartments. The latter one looks like the Drury Plaza Hotel 4 miles away at CityLine - almost the exact same size.

It's funny that they claim it's a problem that this student housing project might be occupied by non-students. Northside (according to a current non-student resident) has zero design accommodations for students. They're not even attempting to be student housing - they're just regular apartments and no one seems to have a problem with that.

But the comment that there's nothing like this in Richardson is completely false. These larger buildings are all over and not even exclusively near TODs.

Mark Steger said...

Louis Burns, thanks for the feedback. Your points are all on the money. I hadn't thought of this until you just said it, but the only way to get rid of student traffic around UTD is to get rid of students attending UTD. Simply forcing students to live farther away from campus won't do it. On the other hand, accommodating students closer to campus, as this project does, *will* reduce traffic of students commuting to campus from farther way.

To everyone, Louis Burns has said much more about this project in both recent CPC public hearings on this project. I urge all to read them in the agenda packets or watch him deliver his remarks in the CPC recorded video.

Louis Burns said...

Yes, it feels like Richardson wants the prestige of a major university but not the students it needs to survive.

The applicant shared this news earlier - the neighborhood groups around UC Berkeley sued and got their enrollment frozen. They weren't building enough housing for their students who were pushing into their neighborhoods like they are here.

Mark Steger said...

I ended my blog post above with a prediction that if (when?) the City Council rejects this student housing project, "All that will be left for us then is to wonder why, because the reasons given by the CPC don't stand up to even cursory examination." I don't want to get ahead of myself here, but one answer to "why" is that the City Council is falling out of love with having a world-class university within its city. You can't have a university without students. This story from UC-Berkeley may be a harbinger of the direction Richardson's City Council is going. The City Council can keep us from moving closer to that end state by approving more nearby private student housing. I'm afraid a "no" vote will signal not just "no" to a housing project, but fundamentally a "no" to a university in Richardson.

Unknown said...

Marcia Grau Here's a precedent that was unanimously approved -
"The Richardson City Council on Monday unanimously approved a request to rezone 13.3 acres next to the university from technical office to a planned development."

It was awhile back but the approved area is noticeably closer to residential areas.
The big difference in the approved one seems to that UTD requested the zoning change.

Mark Steger said...

Marcia Grau, good find. Rezoning from Technical Office to Planned Development is not a killer obstacle after all.