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City Council to contentious zoning request for East Dallas school

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By ROY APPLETON





The Dallas school district wants the City Council to rezone 6 acres Wednesday for a new O.M. Roberts Elementary.

The council will hear supporters of the request praise the East Dallas school. Opponents will say they also back the school — to an extent.

For others, the zoning case raises broader questions about community planning and development oversight.

“Who is responsible for the overall character of our neighborhoods?” said Dallas architect Peter Brown after reviewing a city report on the district’s request. “Who is responsible for the quality and care of our urban fabric?”

The district intends to build a school for 850 students on East Grand Avenue, where a smaller, aging O.M. Roberts was razed last summer after 111 years of service. Across a side street, on lots scattered among seven occupied houses, the district also plans to build a parking lot and a system of underground geothermal pipes to heat and cool the school.

For months, some neighbors have criticized the location of the parking lot and geothermal fields as an unnecessary, unsettling intrusion into a longtime residential area.

“We’re not against the school,” said Norma Hernandez, whose parents and sister live near the parking lot site. “All we’re asking is they continue to be a good neighbor and stay within their site.”

Dallas ISD spokesman Jon Dahlander declined to talk about the Roberts rezoning. “As this is going before the City Council …, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time,” he wrote in an email.

Looking to rebuild the school away from Grand Avenue traffic, district officials originally talked with Jubilee Park leaders about land elsewhere in the neighborhood. When nothing developed, the district targeted a plant greenhouse business along Grand and homes nearby on Philip and Gurley avenues. It began flexing its eminent domain muscle and purchased lots from some homeowners, but backed off as public opposition grew.

Finally, school officials returned to the original Roberts site and had an architect draw plans for a $22.4 million school they hope to open in 2013. But the district has paid more than $1 million for 13 homes and a vacant lot in the Philip-Gurley block that it wants to use.

“It’s ridiculous, like they’re trying to justify using the land they’ve got,” said Pat Berry, who declined to sell his Vickery Wholesale Greenhouse.

The City Plan Commission voted last month to recommend the rezoning. The city planning staff also supports the change.

“The proposed school should not adversely impact the surrounding area,” concludes the city staff’s background report to the council. And its 112 off-street parking slots, including 94 in the neighborhood lot, “will meet the necessary parking requirements,” the report says. City code requires 59 off-street parking spaces at Roberts.

David Cossum, the city’s assistant director of planning, said the district’s proposed blending of parking lot and geothermal fields with residences makes for a “convoluted site.” The district “could do a much better job of working with the community,” he said. But “it’s also a public good to have a school supporting a neighborhood,” Cossum said.

Hernandez, Shawn Busari and other rezoning opponents have support beyond their neighborhood.

A 2004 master plan for Jubilee Park by Boston-based Antonio Di Mambro and Associates proposed upgrading and expanding the school on the block where it stood. So did a conceptual plan two years ago by the Building Community Workshop, a local nonprofit that has designed housing in the area.

Architect Brent Brown, founder of the workshop and director of the Dallas CityDesign Studio, said school officials are taking a myopic, suburban-style, land-aplenty approach to Roberts.

“They are not looking at the [school] building as part of an urban fabric. They are not being a catalyst for development,” he said. “You can’t take residential neighborhoods and build schools. You eliminate your clients,” adding “this problem isn’t going away for the DISD.”

Peter Brown has participated in the design of dozens of schools from Chicago to China, Anchorage to Dallas, including work as principal architect of the DISD’s Garcia Middle School.

He said the O.M. Roberts plan could be revised to contain the project to the Grand Avenue site including the geothermal system and required parking.

“Like with every other urban school in the country, you park on the street. You might have to walk half a block,” he said. “They are saying we value cars for PTA night and soccer games and teacher appreciation day more than residences, more than having people in the neighborhood.”

Bury the geothermal pipes beneath school playgrounds, buildings or parking lots, he said. But a district consultant told the plan commission that leaving vacant land over the pipes would ease maintenance.

Yet Steve Houser, a certified arborist, said placing the geothermal fields in the neighborhood block would threaten many of the specimen trees there, while the parking lot would force a clearing of most, if not all, of the 34 trees he inventoried at the site.

The staff’s report to the council notes that the city’s comprehensive plan identifies the O.M. Roberts area as predominantly residential. And areas with single-family or duplex homes “should generally be maintained unless redevelopment is addressed” in a specific plan, the report continues.

The Roberts neighborhood hasn’t undergone such analysis, Cossum said. And considering the city’s guidelines and vision for the area, council approval of the rezoning would be an affront to the comprehensive plan and the planning process, Peter Brown said.

The city and school district have common interests and should work together, he said, “on many fronts: education, community development, workforce development, economic development.

“From a tax base, both are funded from the same source, a citizenry that desires thriving neighborhoods, thriving cities and a dynamic future.”

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