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Big Decision: Dallas city council to vote on hugging Walmart or Dallas trees

November 26, 2011


By Rudy Bush: Dallas City Hall reporter

The hope for development of Dallas’ southern side has come into conflict with the reality of what that development might be and how it will affect the underserved area.

Wal-Mart is urging the City Council to move up to Dec. 14 a vote on a new superstore at R.L. Thornton Freeway and Ledbetter Drive. That new urgency comes as city staff and tree and neighborhood advocates express concerns over the company’s plan to pave over a wooded area when there are decrepit and vacant commercial structures that could be repurposed nearby.

Wal-Mart promised in February that it would expand substantially in southern Dallas. Elected leaders, from then-Mayor Tom Leppert to council member Dwaine Caraway, praised the news as a leg up for an underserved part of the city.

Caraway remains the biggest supporter of Wal-Mart’s new store and is frustrated by the questions that have come up about it.

“This is a very challenging area, and the community around it is welcoming this development. They are ecstatic about it,” Caraway said.

Voices of opposition just “discourage development in our area,” he said.

The Wal-Mart represents something rare in his district, new economic growth amid spent and sometimes dangerous shopping centers.

The proposed 186,000-square-foot store, with hundreds of parking places on three sides, will be a place where many Oak Cliff residents can get groceries and other goods that aren’t readily available near their homes, Caraway said.

But some critics at City Hall would rather Wal-Mart rework an existing development than plow up green space.

“When you get into developing an area, you want to place a premium on developing gray-fill vs. green-fill,” said council member Scott Griggs, who has not made a decision on whether to support the Wal-Mart development.

“With gray-fill, typical examples would be shopping malls with a high rate of vacancy. Another would be abandoned big boxes,” Griggs said.

Theresa O’Donnell, director of the city’s development department, also sees drawbacks in Wal-Mart’s plan.

“Our objection was there is a bunch of vacant retail out there, and is there any reason some of that couldn’t be recycled so that all these trees don’t have to come down,” she said.

O’Donnell said she spoke to a consultant for Wal-Mart and never got a conclusive answer as to whether they considered any other properties in the area.

Wal-Mart’s public relations department did not respond to a request for comment.

The company has asked to move the vote on the project to Dec. 14, O’Donnell said. The vote was planned for January, but the company said it could not open its store in 2012 unless the vote happened this year.

City staff will support the development despite outstanding concerns.

Dallas City Hall has tried to build a reputation as a city with a focus on the environment and sustainable development accessible to multiple forms of transportation.

But the push for new development, particularly south of the Trinity River, is a powerful political force that frequently trumps other priorities, including the city’s tree ordinance and the ForwardDallas plan that discourages suburban-style, car-dependent construction.

Steve Houser, former chairman of the city’s Urban Forest Advisory Committee, said the city’s decision to let Wal-Mart use floodplain property behind its planned store as a “tree conservation zone” highlights the toothless nature of Dallas’ tree ordinance.

Wal-Mart will be able to count trees it preserves in the flood plain — where it can’t build, anyway — to mitigate the trees it cuts down for its building and parking lots.

“What’s the point of an ordinance if it is completely ineffective?” Houser wrote in an email. “Providing free tree mitigation credits as incentives for unsustainable developments has a negative effect on our quality of life and environmental health in many ways. These decisions amount to business as usual.”

Caraway lashed out at preservationists and others concerned about the Wal-Mart.

The lot Wal-Mart is seeking to develop is used now for illegal activity, from drugs to parking 18-wheelers, he said.

And he wonders where the voices of opposition were when the Galleria and NorthPark Center were developed.

“It wasn’t the same outcry. But at the outset of the development of the southern sector, you hear so much from the tree lovers,” he said.

But Griggs said the lessons learned from the development of the city’s north side should be applied to the growth of its southern side.

“So often we want to see the type of development that has occurred north of the river occur south of the river. But we also have to be cognizant that we don’t want to see the same mistakes made,” he said.

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