Locals seek balance in Oak Cliff boom - They like TIF-fueled growth but want to preserve area's charm

Dallas Morning News, The (TX) - Sunday, July 1, 2007
Author: FRANK TREJO, Staff Writer This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Economic development is exploding from one end of north Oak Cliff to the other these days.

"To steal a phrase from a friend," said Bob Stimson, president of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, "Oak Cliff is on the verge of spontaneous economic combustion."

The Dallas City Council's recent approval of two new tax increment financing districts - one along Fort Worth Avenue and another primarily along West Davis Street - has only fueled that growth. Both new districts already have commitments for projects that would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the tax rolls with retail and upper-end housing units.

Residents generally favor the changes but want to ensure that the new developments don't alter the cozy character of their neighborhood.

One group of residents recently negotiated with developer Richard Seib to prevent an 11-story high-rise from being built on Fort Worth Avenue near Hampton. The building is still going up, but it will be three or four stories.

Donovan Westover, president of the Stevens Park Village Neighborhood Association, said he expects that more neighborhood and civic organizations will take active roles in making sure the flavor of Oak Cliff isn't lost.

"It's a special place, and we don't want to change that," Mr. Westover said.

Developers have discussed plans for a half-dozen projects that could add thousands of housing and retail units to the community over the next few years. Among the plans are the two "catalyst" projects that were crucial in gaining City Council approval of the new Oak Cliff TIF districts.

One is Mr. Seib's La Reunion Town Center, a mixed-use development that will be built on about 30 acres where the sprawling 1940s-era Colorado Place apartment complex now stands.

The other is a primarily residential project on West Davis Street, east of North Hampton. The project is being headed by Alan McDonald of INCAP Fund, whose CityHomes helped transform Oak Lawn and Uptown. INCAP plans to eventually build 1,700 residential units by buying and replacing older, decaying apartment complexes.

Oak Cliff residents like the plans, in part because they would add residential density that probably would attract retailers. Still, they say they will keep a close eye on how the projects unfold.

"We know developers are taking a big chance ... and we want them to succeed," said Barbara Barbee, president of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League . "But we all have to work together in all this."

Mr. Seib, developer of La Reunion Town Center near the Stevens Park Village neighborhood, said he believes the solution to any issue is compromise. That's what happened after he met with community groups concerned about his initial plans for an 11-story building.

And Mr. McDonald said his company's decision to start buying deteriorating apartment complexes was the result of extensive discussions with residents about what they wanted.

"Knowing it's a very stable community with very engaged people, we didn't try to come up with a master plan," Mr. McDonald said. "We're going to each community and asking, 'What do you think? What would you like to see there?'"

Paul Maute, president of the Winnetka Heights Neighborhood Association, said he believes Mr. McDonald's vision is "right on the money."

"They've reached out to us even before going to the city, to gauge our support," Mr. Maute said.

However, some of the developers' plans would require zoning changes to allow the construction of townhomes and condominiums. But Mr. Maute said the idea of a zoning change concerns residents of Winnetka Heights, a designated historic district.

Instead of modifying existing structures, INCAP is considering building new residences, such as "a tall, three-story structure for which there is absolutely no precedent in the neighborhood," Mr. Maute said. "It's going to require a good deal of synthesis on his part."

Mr. Stimson, the Oak Cliff chamber president, lives a few blocks from the Kessler Woods development. He said it's normal to be anxious about change.

"Any time a developer with a vision wants to come in and do something different, they have to go through an education process with people," Mr. Stimson said. "There is a real strong emotional attachment. We live in Oak Cliff because we love it."

One successful developer in Oak Cliff is Matt Holley, who has built more than two dozen homes in Kessler Woods. His contemporary-style homes range from $500,000 to $2 million, and Mr. Holley is planning to soon add about 100 patio homes, townhomes and condos on 9.2 acres he acquired from INCAP.

"I think Oak Cliff has the opportunity to build on all its core strengths that are in this community," Mr. Holley said, adding that as an Oak Cliff resident, he is very sensitive to what happens in neighborhoods. "I would be an activist against any plans to take down homes."

The goal, he said, is to bring in housing and services that don't exist in the area and to keep what people like about Oak Cliff, such as its proximity to downtown Dallas, its wooded terrain and its well-established neighborhoods.

"The two TIFs together will have an unbelievable impact on the community," Mr. Holley said. "They're getting a lot of things to happen quickly."

Scott Griggs, president of the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group, said he is enthusiastic about what the proposed projects could mean to the community.

"It's going to create a much better Oak Cliff, one that is much more stable and still retain much of the character," he said. "It's really about everyone who lives in the neighborhoods taking ownership of their neighborhoods."