Tuesday, September 11, 2012

West Dallas neighborhood divided: La Bajada wrestles with protecting itself - Dallas Morning News

As the shouting intensified, pastor Nick Casillas threatened to clear the room, telling the crowd: “We’re here to bring a community together, to try to find common interests and solutions.”

But when the clash of words and personalities gave way to calm Saturday inside the House of Prayer, unity in La Bajada remained a lofty goal.

For more than a year, residents have worked to protect the West Dallas neighborhood from development. And with an investment group raising concerns and calling for changes, La Bajada is now working against itself, divided over a basic question: where to draw a line.

The City Council is scheduled to consider that question Wednesday.

After years of neglect, the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of mostly humble, single-family homes is now prime property near the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and the Trinity River.

Hoping to preserve the area’s character and keep apartments at bay, La Bajada property owners have petitioned the city to limit the height of residential buildings there to 27 feet, two stories.

The City Plan Commission supported the request in July. But a move to amend the proposal is now in play â€" with those for and against it taking their own hard line.

West Dallas Investments owns more than 60 acres beyond La Bajada, including land along Singleton Boulevard, where it plans to create a food, shopping and entertainment “destination” called Trinity Groves.

The group’s principals â€" Stuart Fitts, Larry “Butch” McGregor and restaurateur Phil Romano â€" also own residential property in La Bajada, some of which they want excluded from the height restrictions.

More specifically, they want a boundary of the proposed restriction zone moved one block north, from Toronto Street to Pueblo Street. And they want the excluded property, now mostly vacant lots and a few occupied homes, rezoned for retail shops, a three-story apartment building and a four-level parking garage.

But leaders of the petition drive â€" Eva Elvove, Frank DeLeon and Felix Losada â€" oppose the boundary change, at least for now.

“We don’t have any concrete plans. They don’t even have the zoning,” Elvove said at the church on Saturday. “They can come back in two or three years.”

Though the area amounts to a small portion of the group’s holdings, outside investors are ready to develop the property now with projects that would be crucial to Trinity Groves and West Dallas Investments’ overall strategy, Romano said.

“It’s in the middle of our deal,” he said. “It’s important to us.”

And the group is threatening to end its play in West Dallas if it doesn’t get its way. That’s what representatives of Allyn Media have been telling council members. “They’re not wrong,” Romano said. “We’re done.”

Earlier this month, West Dallas Investments hosted a community meeting at Trinity Groves to talk about its vision. And before the gathering Saturday, they set up a tent across the street from the church and provided box lunches from Romano’s Eatzi’s market.

A public relations aide for the group passed out a copy of 67 signatures that she said were from La Bajada residents supporting the boundary change. She provided a list of “ideas” for how West Dallas Investments would help La Bajada, provided its “conditions are met.” The possibilities include the donation of four lots to a “qualifying nonprofit;” jobs, internships and scholarships for residents; and help with funding and organizing community programs.

Also circulated was a letter â€" signed by Fitts, McGregor and Romano â€" stating that “in exchange for our lots being removed from the boundaries” of the restricted area, neither they nor any of their companies would buy or develop La Bajada property “north of Pueblo.”

The letter also reminded: “Please note that there may be other parties out there that have been, or will try, to acquire residential lots, but they are in no way affiliated with West Dallas Investments or Trinity Groves.”

Such motives, uncertainty and a question of trust continue to drive petition organizers, who collected signatures from 60 percent of La Bajada’s 331 residential property owners, to bring the height restrictions to a council vote.

Petition leaders presided over the Saturday meeting that brought little praise to the House of Prayer. Elvove and Lozada called for leaving the boundaries as proposed. And not long after a group supporting the change entered the room, a barrage of challenges, accusations and interruptions kicked in.

Fitts and Romano took in the cross-fire from a side wall, and in time Romano took a microphone.

“We want to protect this neighborhood. We’re not trying to disturb it,” he said. “We want to be your friends.”

Romano’s words drew skepticism. How would he guarantee such promises? How will La Bajada escape the fate of, say, Little Mexico, cleared away by development in what is now Uptown?

“We’ve heard this before,” said a challenger.

“You haven’t heard it from me,” replied Romano.

Petition supporters talked of “retaining the character of our neighborhood,” of about “how we need to keep our goals” and the future.

“How much are they going to take from us?” asked Helen Flores Foley. “No matter how much they dangle in front of you, protect what you have.”

Others said they welcomed a boundary change. “Why wouldn’t you want it moved?” wondered Vera Aguero. “This extension will only beautify and bring value to our neighborhood.”

Sylvia Lagos, a past vocal supporter of the petition effort, says she now favors West Dallas Investments’ request because her father and other La Bajada property owners would benefit.

“You don’t have to be this way forever. Change is inevitable,” Lagos told the crowd, adding “we can all work together.” But while leading the opposition, she shouted challenges at Elvove and stormed from the room, returning to announce: “Forty-five people are telling me, ‘Move the line.’”

Elvove put her position to a vote Saturday, drawing 36 raised hands of support.

The City Council can approve or reject the height restriction. It could draw the boundary as proposed or with a smaller footprint.

It could also delay a vote and first rezone the target property to give skeptical La Bajada residents some sense of security.

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