The bumpy road didn’t get any smoother on Tuesday night for the Preston Road and Northwest Highway Area Plan Task Force.
The group tried to lay the groundwork for its efforts to reshape development around Preston Center by meeting for the first time in more than three months. Yet following almost two hours of back-and-forth, the abundance of basic procedural squabbles among task-force volunteers, public officials, and hired consultants brought one question to the forefront.
Who’s in charge here?
Is it Dallas City Council member Jennifer Gates, who spearheaded formation of the task force in response to concerns from area residents and business owners, and whose role at the past two meetings has largely been that of a referee?
Is it Michael Morris, the transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, whose group has supplied $250,000, or almost 90 percent of the funding for the task force so far? Morris kept reiterating that fact at Tuesday meeting, at one point saying, “I’m really second-guessing it now,” in frustration.
Is it Mark Bowers, the consultant from Irving-based Kimley-Horn and Associates who was introduced to the task force after being hired to oversee data collection and help come up with solutions to parking and traffic issues around the aging mixed-use development?
Or is it the 13 task-force volunteers themselves, who clearly desire more autonomy in developing their vision that would allow them to meet more frequently without Gates and Morris having to coordinate schedules?
At any rate, the task force is aiming for next May to finalize its vision for future development within more than 1,600 acres surrounding Preston Center. The group will make recommendations to the city with regard to land use, urban design, mobility and transportation.
But things have been slow to get started, in part because of limited finances to hire a consultant. Besides the $250,000 from NCTCOG, the fundraising effort has netted just $35,000 so far.
“We’ve been asking for more meetings for a while,” said Laura Miller, the outspoken former Dallas mayor who sits on the task force. “We have a lot of ideas because we own buildings there and we live there. I think there are a lot of shared interests between the business owners and residential folks.”
Margot Murphy, Gates’ appointee to the Dallas Plan Commission, suggested there wasn’t much to discuss until Kimley-Horn begins collecting data on traffic, pedestrian, and parking patterns. And the majority of that won’t happen until after school starts to account for seasonal changes.
The task force doesn’t have another meeting scheduled, although it plans to hold some kind of wider community meeting in October, when Bowers will report back with some statistics.
“We don’t need to wait on data collection to talk amongst ourselves,” said task-force member Leland Burk, who owns commercial property in Preston Center.
There are a couple of variables that could factor into the process, including the addition of left-turn lanes by TxDOT at Preston Road and Northwest Highway sometime this fall that might impact traffic. No main lanes will be affected.
“We have way too many regional travelers driving through what could be considered a traditional neighborhood,” Morris said. “There are a lot of challenges.”
Then there’s the ongoing saga of a pedestrian skybridge proposed by Crow Holdings that would connect the top level of the Preston Center parking garage to a retail building on the west side. That application for a special-use permit was tabled by the council to a meeting in November, which would still be well before the task force finishes its work.
However, Gates said the timing of the contentious skybridge case shouldn’t impact the progress of the task force, which is focused on a bigger picture that could facilitate development in an area that hasn’t seen much of it in the last three decades because of bureaucratic bickering.
“The stakeholders want this study to be done as quickly as possible so we can move forward,” Gates said. “This task force is about creating a vision. Let’s prove that we can actually work together instead of being divisive.”