On May 17, 2022, The City of Richardson's City Plan Commission (CPC) recommended approval of an application for development of a 5-story apartment building with up to 171 units to accommodate 529 beds on the north side of UT-Dallas at Richardson. It's been a long, hard road to get (back) to this point. The application now moves to City Council, where it has to be considered an underdog for getting approval there, too.
In March, 2022, UT-Dallas at Richardson announced that construction of the Crow Museum of Asian Art, a $56.8 million dollar project, would begin in about a month. Millions are being laid out to house a suit of armor for a Japanese samurai, but students mostly have to fend for themselves to find shelter in an overcrowded and increasingly expensive housing market. On-campus and campus-adjacent units are currently at or very near full occupancy. Students have to live somewhere, so they spill over into single family homes in Richardson's Canyon Creek and Greenwood Hills neighborhoods, into crime-prone apartments west of Coit Rd in Dallas, into apartments north of the Bush Tollway in Plano and farther afield in all directions.
UT-Dallas at Richardson will, at some unspecified time, add housing on campus, but never more than enough for about 25% of students, in line with national averages for large universities. The excess demand has to be met by the private market. That excess demand is what Richardson's own Dr. Mehrdad Mazaheri, an ophthalmology specialist with a medical office adjacent to UT-Dallas at Richardson on Campbell Rd. has attempted to provide with three different versions of student-centered housing on a 13-acre tract of land he owns north of UT-Dallas at Richardson.
In 2018, development plans by the previous property owner were approved for two hotels that were never developed. In November, 2020, the CPC recommended approval of a request by Dr. Mazaheri, the current owner, for a 5-story apartment building. That request was unanimously rejected by the City Council. In September, 2021, a request for a 12-story apartment tower was rejected by the CPC and by the City Council. I thought then that the hope of providing student housing near campus was doomed. That brings us to this week, when Dr. Mazaheri brought yet another iteration of a request for student-centered housing to this property.
Concerns raised during earlier hearings included the 2009 Comprehensive Plan, parking ratios, lack of proximity to the campus, traffic and safety of students walking to and from campus, apartment leasing restrictions (students vs. public), security, etc. It was my subjective opinion that this project was questioned in more detail about more matters unrelated to land use in a zoning case than any other project in memory. Still, that's the way the process works. You need to win their individual votes, so you need to answer their individual questions, no matter how much the questioning might sound like fishing for reasons to vote no. And up to now, no was the final answer.
What changed this week, when the CPC voted to recommend approval of the latest application? It didn't hurt that no one spoke against the request. Not the neighboring offices' owners. Not UT-Dallas at Richardson. Not the neighboring HOAs. Not even individual homeowners.
It also didn't hurt that this week's CPC was made up of only five commissioners. When the previous application was rejected, the vote was 6-1 against. The CPC is made up of nine commissioners but only five were present, a different mix of commissioners than before. You'd think that city approval processes would be more predictable than the luck of the draw as to which commissioners might be present or absent on any given night, but that's the process we have. Still, getting even three of the five commissioners present to vote yes would require one of the three commissioners present earlier who voted no to change their vote to yes.
And that's exactly what happened thanks to an excellent presentation in support of the development by Barry Hand of the Gensler design firm hired by Dr. Mazaheri to design this project. He told a story, not just about this one 3.9 acre tract, but about the whole 13 acre property, with a second phase of development to round it out with multi-family residential, ground floor retail, an office on the Bush Tollway and a hotel on Waterview Parkway. His story was compelling about how this design meets the requirements of the time and this property's unique characteristics.
There was some concern that only one 3.9 acre component of the whole 13 acre tract was in the current request for approval. That is due to last year's rejection, forcing a 12 month delay before returning to the CPC for that part of the property. Carrying costs and rising interest rates make it imperative to get at least this component of the project underway as soon as possible. And that leads us to the second big advantage Barry Hand brought to bear. Hand lives in Richardson. He's a former HOA president. He is not only familiar with the commissioners on the CPC, he is a former chair of the CPC himself. In other words, the CPC commissioners know him and trust him. When he says the property owner has every intent and interest in completing the whole project, not just this 3.9 acre part of it, according to the plan presented here, the commissioners believe him and trust him.
So now it's on the City Council for final approval. The vote to reject the previous proposed project was narrow, 4-3. That means someone is going to have to change their mind if the outcome is going to change. Go back and read my take on council members' arguments then ("The Voelker Doctrine"). I can imagine any or all of them changing their no votes to yes. I can also imagine them using the same old arguments to vote no again. But even the no votes on the CPC each admitted that the new proposal is better than the previous proposals. If some of the no votes on the City Council agree, it might be enough to swing a no vote or two, enough to win overall approval. Barry Hand is going to have his work cut out for him. If anyone can make this City Council trust the wisdom of this project, in this location, at this time, it's him.