City Council Approves Dallas ISD Zoning Request

It’s a big building designed to do big things, but Dallas ISD’s proposed Career Institute North isn’t exactly being embraced by its neighbors – for exactly that reason.

At its Sept. 9 meeting, the Dallas City Council was set to vote on the rezoning request by the district, and more than 34 people signed up to speak before the vote. And most had a similar message: The building is too big, and not appropriate for the quiet neighborhood that has found itself sandwiched among several large schools — the proposed career institute and the Thomas Jefferson and Walnut Hill pre-K through eighth-grade school to the south, and the expanding Episcopal School of Dallas to the north. 

In fact, when the city sent out its required notification to residents within 500 feet of the site, four were in favor of it, and 62 said they were opposed — enough to trigger the requirement that the application obtain a favorable vote from ¾ of the council.

The district requested a zoning change from residential zoning to a planned development for a school. 

(Read: ‘We Want a School There’)

A traffic plan submitted with the zoning request indicates that the school can have up to two groups of 800 students coming and going each day. That number – plus the much larger footprint for the new building – has neighbors protesting the idea.

“Ninety percent of those who live within 500 feet … are opposed to putting in a Costco-sized building on a too-small lot,” said one neighbor during public comment. “We need the city council’s help to protect our neighborhood.”

Other neighbors said that, unlike the engagement the district sought for the design of the Walnut Hill school, they weren’t consulted at all about the district’s plans for the tornado-ravaged spot at Walnut Hill and Killion Drive.

WRA Architects

“DISD has not engaged with our neighborhood on this project,” said David Rogers, who lives about 200 feet from the site. “We first learned of DISD’s plans to relocate the career institute to our neighborhood on March 9, 2021, during a community meeting.”

The district also had several staffers speak, who explained that only staff would be parking at the site, and that school busses would bring the students to and from their respective high schools at specific times. 

Walnut Hill, they said, was the ideal site over Tom Field because it ensured the district would be complying with state restrictions that meant they needed to keep commute times for students down to 20 minutes.

(Read: Dallas ISD To Seek Zoning Change for Walnut Hill Career Campus)

Students from Hillcrest, W.T. White, Thomas Jefferson, North Dallas, and Emmett J. Conrad high schools attend the school, which will offer a half-day of career instruction, with the core curriculum courses taught at the students’ home high schools.

The North campus will eventually be housed at the Walnut Hill site, but for now is in temporary digs at 13400 Midway Road, in Farmers Branch. It offers training in aviation flight mechatronics, cybersecurity, construction and carpentry, electrical and solar, HVAC/R technology, interior design, and plumbing and pipefitting. By 2022, it will add automotive technology, culinary arts, health science, and welding.

“The DISD plans on saving the portions of the existing school that are salvageable from the tornado and add on a larger addition to repurpose the school into the Walnut Hill Career Institute,” the land use statement provided in the district’s zoning change application said.

After hearing the speakers, council member Gay Donnell Willis moved that the council approve the request — with some changes. The site sits in Donnell Willis’s district.

Among the changes, which Donnell Willis said came from meetings with the neighbors: school-related events must end by 10 p.m.; a sound dampening wall must be installed to reduce noise from the chillers; temporary generator light towers cannot be used unless it’s an emergency; an annual assessment of the trees and landscaping on the property must be prepared by a licensed arborist and submitted to the city arborist, and building-mounted lighting cannot exceed 15 feet in height and cannot project above the roofline of the building and must be shielded; roof-mounted equipment just be screened with a solid screen with a minimum height of the same height as the equipment, or a minimum set back of 30 feet from the edge of the building.

Donnell Willis also said that before any new amendments or applications for a zoning change, the district will notify property owners in the notification area 30 days prior to submitting the application, via the presidents of the Walnut Hill Homeowners Association, Walnut Meadows Homeowners Association, and the Walnut Ridge Homeowners Association, and submit proof they did so with the zoning application.

“I understand that change is hard,” she said. “Nobody imagined that one of our beloved and highly-honored and respected neighborhood elementary schools could almost disappear due to an EF3 tornado on a horrible Sunday night. Walnut Hill Elementary was a symbol of pride and history and neighborhood involvement — and then it just wasn’t.”

But what lead her to move to approve the request, she said, was that the training the institute provides is more than just job training, but also plays into the city’s budget and what it will need moving forward. 

“We know that one way to keep neighborhoods safe tomorrow is to drive education and workforce development so our students stay engaged and on the right pathway,” she said. 

She also acknowledged that there is a drawback.

“The neighbors of this school are being asked to go from a sweet little elementary to a new building that — even though it is preserving the Spanish facade of the old school —  will have a bigger footprint,” she said.

Donnell Willis, who has been on the job for about three months, said she’s had meetings, calls, and emails with neighbors about their concerns, and said she heard them and responded by making sure they were addressed in the zoning change.

“I want to state something for the record — the neighbors have expressed how involved they felt during the charettes for the construction for the TJ and the new K-8, and that process was decidedly different from what has been experienced around this career institute,” she said. “And I think that contributed a lot to what you picked up on today.”

The council ultimately voted in favor — by more than a ¾ majority — to the zoning change.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is done. Neighbors have indicated that, if they can raise the funds in time, they intend to hire an attorney to prepare an injunction. They’re up against the clock, however, as they have 10 days to do so.

“After seven months of working with our district’s City Planning Commissioner and City Council Member to address reasonable concerns of the neighborhood we have exhausted every effort,” a GoFundMe for the legal fees said. “The City Council hearing held on 9/9 has reconfirmed that point.

“This fundraising effort is our last chance to stop DISD and the City of Dallas and require them to follow the city code.”

So far, $15,389 has been raised toward a $50,000 goal.

Walnut Hill by PeopleNewspapersDallas on Scribd

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, former Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. She's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy.

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