For what it’s worth, those responsible for the disastrous town hall meeting at the Jewish Community Center in November say they’re sorry. They know that many of the 400 people who attended were angry because they didn’t get to talk about “McMansions.”

 

 

That’s slang, of course, for the big new houses sprouting up — some say overrunning — neighborhoods throughout Preston Hollow. The homes are hard to miss, not so much for their architectural style as for their incongruity with older homes that typically have large setbacks from the street.

 

 

But it wasn’t just concerns about architectural integrity that brought 400 people to that ill-fated meeting. The litany of issues ranged from complaints about construction crews making an early-morning racket to the property tax impact of suddenly living in a neighborhood of lavish new homes.

 

 

All that pent-up frustration, much of it from homeowners who had tried unsuccessfully to enlist the city to do something about their problems, exploded when city officials insisted on sticking to the scripted agenda instead of letting homeowners vent about teardowns, as many anticipated.

 

 

          “I think we made a whole lot more people angry than satisfied,” says Dallas City Council member Lois Finkelman, whose district includes Preston Hollow.

 

 

          Theresa O’Donnell, director of the city’s Development Services Department, says: “If we had that to do over, we would, and we would do it very differently.”

 

 

          And so they did. In January, the city hosted a follow-up meeting, devoted exclusively to the teardown issue. This is what they heard:

 

 

          Homes are being torn down when they are still in decent shape. Construction crews clamber through residential neighborhoods before dawn, waking everyone and leaving scads of trash and debris. Developers don’t respond to complaints, and the city’s code enforcement teams are spread too thin to enforce existing ordinances. Even operators at the city’s 311 hotline don’t seem to know where to route the calls.

 

 

          Homeowners also complained that the problems persist long after the new houses are complete. Some say the replacement homes are built on such tall foundations that runoff routinely floods neighboring lawns. They also complain that the new two- and three-story homes tower over older ones, eliminating their privacy and, in some cases, literally blocking their sunlight.

 

 

          Beyond that, longtime residents who have built up substantial equity say lofty sales prices for new homes have inflated appraisals on their own property.

 

 

          In short, they complain that Preston Hollow is losing the stability that once made it so attractive. Developed in the 1950s, many of the area’s homes were built on lots of an acre or more, surrounded by mature trees and connected by quiet streets that looked like country lanes.

 

 

          Terry O’Connor and his wife moved into their home on Ricks Circle 25 years ago, in large part because it backed onto an idyllic pond where ducks and other wildlife provided a pastoral setting in the heart of North Dallas .

 

 

          A few years ago, O’Connor and other neighbors spent around $50,000 to dredge the pond to an 8-foot depth. But debris and runoff from new construction has filled it with slime.

 

 

          “All that mud in the street sooner or later ends up in the storm sewers and sooner or later ends up in the pond here behind us,” O’Connor says. “Now there are areas that aren’t even six inches deep. That’s our property value, and it’s going right down the tubes.”

 

 

          Repeated complaints to City Hall have produced token efforts to deal with the problem, he says.

 

 

          “The city will give you lip service … and then two days later, it’s business as usual."

 

 

          Ironically, the frustration with City Hall comes just after the city commissioned its first comprehensive plan to guide development decisions. Last year, the city agreed to spend $350,000 on the plan and City Council members authorized $1 million to hire an expert who conducted similar studies for Chicago and Denver .

 

 

          The comprehensive plan is broad in scope, focusing on such things as how to avoid an eroding tax base. But longtime homeowners in Preston Hollow and Lakewood/East Dallas, where new development is also an issue, say they need relief right now.

 

 

          “People are worked up about this issue,” says Michael Jung, a former Plan Commission member and expert on land use issues. “There are parts of Preston Hollow where it’s really almost too late.”

 

 

          Today, the area bordered roughly by Preston, Hillcrest, Forest and Walnut Hill has been particularly hard it. Many quiet residential areas are now a checkerboard of ranch style homes leapfrogged by huge, new mansions.

 

 

          Members of the Preston Hollow North Homeowners organization say they’ve been amazed at the rapid transformation.

 

 

          “I live in a new neighborhood without ever having moved,” says longtime Preston Hollow resident Howard Wiener.

 

 

          To be sure, the explosive growth is not limited to that area alone. In Bluffview, some homeowners are upset about one developer’s plans to build 14 new homes they say will be too expensive and large for the neighborhood.

 

 

          City officials have cast the teardown issue as part of a national trend, saying Dallas is not that different from other large cities that are trying to preserve their older housing stock — and their tax base.

 

 

          That’s why the city commissioned the comprehensive plan, which was supposed to be the topic of discussion at that November town hall meeting. But to some homeowners, long-term planning is moot if it prevents planners from dealing with a short-term crisis — which is how many Preston Hollow residents see the teardown trend.

 

 

          O’Connor is one such resident who was at the town hall meeting.

 

 

          “I finally interrupted the guy and said, ‘This is not going to happen in our lifetime. In our lifetime, what we need to do is enforce the laws on the books.”’

 

 

          To city officials, it’s a question of balance.

 

 

          “We want to see redevelopment in the city,” says council member Finkelman. “We also want to see our older neighborhoods preserved in some fashion.”

 

 

          The question, of course, is how. Historically, some neighborhoods have gotten the city to designate them as conservation districts, which helps regulate the pace and type of growth that is permitted.

 

 

          But many local experts say conservation districts aren’t viable as a widespread remedy. For starters, it can take from 18 months to two years to get the paperwork through City Hall. By that time, much of the development that longtime homeowners dislike has already overwhelmed a neighborhood.

 

 

          Second, conservation districts are akin to historic districts, which are designed to preserve the architecture of a particular area. Often, neighborhoods that want to slow new construction do not have a well-defined architectural style.

 

 

          City officials are quick to point out that there are already some laws on the books which, at least theoretically, would help them put the brakes on construction-related problems.

 

 

          “There are penalties. We can cite them, we can fine them, we can red tag them,” says O’Donnell, the city’s development services chief.

 

 

          But many homeowners say they get little relief when they call the city to report problems.

 

 

          “The way things are set up right now, there is just very limited real time code enforcement,” says Jung, the former Plan Commission member. “Unless there is some political pressure to do a specific thing, there is virtually no code enforcement in this city on nights and weekends.”

 

 

          Meanwhile, some developers say they are trying to be responsive to neighborhood concerns. Elizabeth Newman has built dozens of custom homes in the area, primarily in University Park and Lakewood .

 

 

          Newman, who said she works with an arborist to try to minimize the negative environmental impact of new construction on older neighborhoods, says teardowns are moving to new parts of Dallas because homebuyers demand it.

 

 

          “People want new homes,” she says. “They don’t want to drive all the way out to Frisco, Murphy or Flower Mound or have to have that long drive into the city.”

 

 

          City officials say there are no quick, easy answers that will please everyone.

 

 

          “It’s hard to come to grips with for two reasons: One is a planning reason and one is a political reason,” he says. “The planning reason is: It’s hard — not impossible, but hard — to define precisely what it is that is objectionable compared to what is not.”

 

 

          In other words, the city can’t just ban “McMansions.” The city needs to specify what, exactly, makes them objectionable to some residents.

 

 

          As for the political problem, Jung says, “ Texas is still a place where people have strong property rights attitudes, where a man’s house is his castle and I can do whatever I want with my house…. A lot of people act like it’s written in the Constitution or the Bible that you can build just as many feet on your lot as the law allows.”

 

 

          But some frustrated homeowners say it is developers, not residents, who are getting what they want from City Hall.

 

 

          “The city is the only place that has the resources and authority to do something, but they’re not doing anything,” O’Connor says.

 

 

“I guess they just don’t want to irritate the builders and do anything to halt the development that’s going on. Somebody’s decided that this is good for Dallas .”

 

 


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