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(Ital) Weep no more for Turtle Creek where new cement now grows;

Don’t plant a tree; it might be just where a turnpike goes. (Ital)

That was a song from the Dallas Press Club’s Gridiron Show years ago, when Turtle Creek was threatened by annihilation, or death by development.  Now the Katy Trail, the second treasure in this lovely, leafy part of Dallas (the creek  itself , of course, is the first)), may be about to come under siege, and some at City Hall seem oblivious to the danger.

I care especially about the Katy, since I live nearby and my neighborhood is fighting an up-zoning case at Routh  and Woodrow, not far from the trail. Part of that area  already is zoned heavy commercial, which seems an anachronism from another age,  when a railroad ran through it, not joggers, strollers, roller-bladers and cyclists, seeking the sun.

But there would be less sun if  Joel Kommer’s apartment project goes through as requested. With 25,000 to 75,000 more square feet than currently allowed (depending on underground parking, once proposed, now apparently out), it could well launch a pattern of development that would shadow the trail and create a canyon where a natural asset is beginning to bloom. This is an instance where the domino theory really does apply, and much could be lost in a city where successful parks are not plentiful.

In the course of all this, I have bumped into what appears to be a new philosophy at City Hall. The old Department of Planning and Development, I learned, was reconfigured in 2002  and given another name: the  Development Services Department.  Headed by Theresa O’Donnell, it was created by the City Council to be, according to the website, “a helpful and enthusiastic partner in the private development process.” A merger of offices that once had been too far- flung for normal people to fathom, the department was formed to be a convenient, unified approach for real estate operators. Certainly there can be no quarrel with that. We all want action in the tax offices of City Hall.  If commercial interests pay more, perhaps the rest of us can pay less.

What concerns me, however, is the fate of neighborhoods, not just my own but all over the city.  We’ve come a long way, it seems, from the glory days when Lori Palmer, council member from Oak Lawn, could make grown men cry (women too) when their projects hit “the process.” Those who got out alive usually understood what she, Jim Schutze –now of the (ital)  Dallas Observer (ital), then of the (ital)Dallas Times Herald (ital),  and their compatriots expected: thoughtful buildings wedded to their sites in a way that did no harm. Did development suffer during this era? No. It flourished, and downtown got some of its most important skyscrapers. It was a crisis in banking, real estate and oil that stymied building, not City Hall.

I’m afraid something important might be lost in the current emphasis on the E-word for zoning at City Hall, “E” meaning easy. There’s no question that Ms. O’Donnell and her people have worked hard on forwardDallas! and the Comprehensive Plan to guide the growth of the city. But some fear that this will turn into a system whereby developers can by-pass the City Plan Commission (which means avoid nettlesome neighbors) and come quickly to terms with the Development Services Department.

Of course, this is in some ways desirable, but not entirely. If all developers brought the same intelligence and sense of responsibility to their plans that we see in the Arts District, at Victory Park, in West Village or on Harry Hines near downtown, there would no need for anything beyond fast approval at City Hall, or what one architect has called a “Developers Escort Service”. But that is not the case. Most projects benefit from the tempering influence of interested neighbors.

Also, the building- permits office, no longer under Development Services, should stop tampering with the definition of “grade,” which customarily means at ground level, not measured from a high dirt berm to help  developers beat the height restrictions on their properties. What’s more, I would love to see the zoning department named yet again, this time the Department of Design and Development. This would stress both the economic and the aesthetic aspects of the enterprise.

As for my neighborhood, Lori Palmer has been engaged to advise us and others along the  Katy Trail, and that’s great news.  Our council member, Angela Hunt, has been extremely helpful. But the City Council cannot leave the Katy Trail to its district representative alone any more than this can be done with the Zoo, the Arboretum or White Rock Lake. It is a broad policy decision, not an isolated zoning case.

I cannot tell the Council how to vote on Routh and Woodrow Streets. It may be that a satisfactory settlement can be reached before the meeting February 27th. If not, I do urge Council  members to consider the area as a whole. Four other developers  are waiting in the environs of Turtle Creek  to see how this will go.  If more lenient zoning is granted in this instance, they justifiably will demand the same. So what I ask of the Council is: think carefully.