Thursday, October 20, 2016

Despite Neighbors' Worries, University Park Signs Off on Controversial Plan for Vacant Building

Mayor Olin Lane (right) spoke as he and the University Park City Council considered a proposed plan for what to do with a vacant Chase Bank building on Tuesday at City Hall. They voted to allow developer James Strode to move ahead with plans for a mixed-use development, with some modifications.Ashley Landis/Staff Photographer

UNIVERSITY PARK — City Council members on Tuesday signed off on a controversial plan to redevelop the vacant Chase Bank building, despite many residents' concerns about the valuable property near Snider Plaza.
The plan, deemed the Park Plaza project, calls for the demolition of the building  and the creation of a mixed-use development, featuring office space, retail shops and restaurants, at Hillcrest and Daniel avenues.
A variety of plans for the building, which has been vacant since 2012, have been submitted to the City Council for more than a decade, all of which were struck down in the face of intense opposition from residents.
"It has been a long and arduous walk down this path," Mayor Olin Lane said after Tuesday' 4-1 vote. "We've heard several hours of public testimony. We've had work sessions. Each of the council members have spent several hours of their own time speaking with members of the community."
The lone dissenter, Mayor Pro Tempore Dawn Moore, said she was voting against the proposal only because she wanted more time to speak with stakeholders in the plan.
"In the long run, I think we'll all be pleased with the result," said council member Taylor Armstrong. "I know that a lot of people think this is a zero-sum game and that there will be winners and losers, but I don't agree. I think the city as a whole will be a winner."
But residents say the Park Plaza project violates city zoning code and sets a bad precedent for future project proposals.
"If 20 years from now there's a canyon effect down Hillcrest, this would've been the beginning of it," said Rick Tubb, a University Park lawyer who represented the city in a lawsuit against the previous owner of the propertyabout a plan for an above-ground parking lot.
The approved plan is smaller than previous versions submitted by owner Strode Property Co.
The proposal caps the new development at 119,000 square feet, down from the previously proposed 128,000 square feet. The plan calls for an 86-foot-tall building with six stories, reduced from seven stories and 95 feet.
Tubb said the approved plan  doesn't address residents' primary concern about traffic in the area, which many say is already far too congested. Increased traffic poses a threat to pedestrians and schoolchildren, some residents say.
"This is a residential neighborhood with a small commercial area along Hillcrest Avenue and Snider Plaza," said Peter Moir, a 58-year-old lawyer who has lived in University Park for more than 20 years. "We don't want to be a big commercial area."
A study by Kimley Horn, a third-party traffic consulting firm, says the project would have minimal impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
The analysis expects only one-quarter of the visitors will drive to Park Plaza through the neighborhood streets, and most of those drivers will be residents going to eat at the plaza. The impact of the project would not be an "observable" issue, the analysis says.
Opponents say they aren't against redeveloping the building and have been expecting as much for years. But they want it developed in a way that adheres to city code and matches the aesthetic of Snider Plaza or Southern Methodist University.
The Park Plaza project was approved by the city's Planning and Zoning Commission in July. Even before Tuesday's vote, residents were so upset about the perceived neglect by city officials to public sentiment that they started a petition to amend the University Park charter to allow residents to recall elected officials.
"They seem more concerned about the developer's well-being than community's well-being," Moir said.
The residents' organization, UP Residents for Neighborhood Friendly Development, also started two online petitions against the Park Plaza project that each garnered more than 650 signatures.
Jane Rejebian, a Highland Park resident who owns a building in Snider Plaza, said she's concerned about potential glare that may bounce off the new building and affect her tenants. 
"It's going to be horrendous," she said as she walked out of Tuesday's meeting.
Written by Steve Brown - Dallas Morning News