The image above is an image from UT Dallas’ Master Plan. The subject parcel of this post is specifically designated “Potential Future Acquisition”.
Yesterday was a City Planning Commission meeting to consider whether a landowner will be able to build off-campus student housing nearby UT Dallas.
Normally it sounds boring and fairly straightforward. Not this time. This application was already approved by the Commission on November 11th, 2020 despite the highly unusual move by a UT Dallas administrator to try and block the process.
The parcel is a half-mile from the university and a quarter mile from the new Silver Line Rail station that DART is currently building. Sounds ideal for high-density student housing with a little mixed-use attached, right?
If you know the Dallas suburbs, you’ll know that most are rabidly against anything that sounds like an apartment building. There were some dirty politics at the City Council meeting that followed on December 14th, 2020. If you’re interested, you can read all the documentation and watch the meeting here:
Agenda Packet https://www.cor.net/home/showpublisheddocument/30143/637433021530470000
Meeting recording https://richardsontx.swagit.com/play/12142020-1008
A neighbor Mark Streger wrote about both meetings here:
The Community Impact newspaper wrote about it too:
After watching the 3 hours meeting, there were some fairly jaw-dropping moments.
- After one resident testified that her neighbor students were leaving trash in her yard regularly for years, a council member chided the audience for disparaging all UTD students saying they were great.
- The same council member stated he wouldn’t want his daughters to have to walk in the cold or rain. I guess he didn’t realize you have to no matter what whether you walk or drive because the parking is so far out.
- The city staff report claimed that student housing next to a rail station and university was an incompatible use.
- The mayor told the applicant that he’d rather see more Class A office space even though that street is already covered with vacant office space that no one wants. He then told the applicant that they knew what they were buying when they bought it.
- Another council member apparently couldn’t understand how reserved parking spaces work and so instead of asking a question, accused the applicant of lying to his face.
- The facilities management administrator came out and opposed the project because UTD wants to acquire the property themselves presumably for the same purpose.
There were more moments than that but that’s just to give you a flavor.
Anyway, yesterday’s meeting was just with the planning commission to settle the technical details of whether it is an acceptable use warranting changing the zoning. I prepared a report for them and emailed it Monday night. Yesterday, I prepared a summary report since we all get 5 minutes to speak. Below, both the summary and the report are reproduced below.
Somehow, the Commission vote split 3-3 both to approve it then again on a second vote to deny it. There was one resident that spoke against it with the typical reasons of traffic and UTD isn’t for it. No one came from UTD to comment.
Only one of the commissioners who voted against it made any comments. One of the other two only asked a single question whether students with a child would be allowed there – which doesn’t have anything to do with land use. That same commissioner was seen dozing off during the presentations.
Because there were no substantive comments from the commission against, the chairman asked whether any modification would change any of the votes. Those against all said no. He then asked if they could make some comments as to why they voted against it so the applicant would have some future guidance.
A staffer interrupted saying their vote was their comment and they aren’t required to comment further. They all declined to do so. It’s hard not to conclude that they had been counseled to vote against it by someone not present in the meeting.
At a deadlock, they agreed to take a recess while a staffer went and consulted the city attorney on what to do next. They ended up voting on a continuance with additional public input. It sounded like they were going to try to have one more commissioner present next time so there would be a tie-breaking vote.
Given that this was unanimously approved last time, it was shocking to see the lack of engagement by the commissioners before they voted against it. It does make one wonder what the city is doing behind the scenes.
Presentation Summary Notes
These notes are to summarize the written report I submitted via email on September 6, 2021. I appreciate that the commission passed this application earlier. I am in favor of approving this application with the conditions stated below.
- My main criticism is the zoning as previously applied for and approved is too restrictive to get the best use of this parcel.
- Secondly, the staff report did not accurately enough convey the substantive points of the prior decision.
- The proposed use is fully consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
- This use is aligned with the narrative and intention of The Comprehensive Plan.
- It is an ideal example of the “live/work/socialize” unit advocated by The Plan.
- It is within ¼ mile of the DART station which is the typical walkshed used in planning and development.
- It is immediately adjacent to the TOD Village designated by The Plan and probably should have been included in that designation.
- The Future Land Use map is only a blueprint, not set in stone. It lacks the precision and nuance casual observers infer and should at best be a guide.
- Student housing is a highly compatible use. Current uses include a large senior living complex, a charter school, two hotels, an emergency room, and a car dealership.
- “Incompatible” in The Plan is illustrated as heavy commercial or heavy industrial paired with residential.
- Prior “Concerns”
- Non students might live there – that is the only legal way to do off-campus student housing. It is a well-established and proven business model.
- Walkability is not an issue being less than ½ mile away from the university and across the street from a DART station. As a student, I walked 1 mile each direction daily as did my residents and my student neighbors.
- Grant a PD based on a mixed-use form-based code:
- No minimum dwelling size
- No max building height
- No max density
- Building setback should be to the sidewalk and amenity zone, no further.
- No minimum parking ratios
- No requirement for shuttle service
- Allow uses for residential, retail, office, SROs, and live-work units. Potentially require some amount of adaptable retail form on the ground floor.
- Limit interior street lane widths to 10 feet to discourage speeding.
- The staff report to the City Council should reflect that this use is encouraged by the Comprehensive Plan. The Future Land Use Map erroneously shows something different and should reflect widely accepted planning practices regarding TODs and walksheds.
- The staff should recommend a form-based code be adopted for all of Waterview adjacent to UTD from Campbell Road up to President George Bush Turnpike. This would position the street to invite adaptive reuse of the numerous vacant office buildings and further support the communities of the university and the city.
Full Report for the Commission
I am a Richardson resident of 9 years and an alumnus of UT Dallas – both for a Masters of Science in Geospatial Information Sciences (GISc) and a PhD in Arts and Technology. I was also all-but-dissertation in GISc. My area of research is urban ecology which encompasses geography, architecture, planning, real estate development, computer science, economics, systems theory, and network science.
I also have a Masters of Science in Real Estate from UT Arlington and have been a former developer and both a residential and commercial real estate agent. For an internship, I worked as a demographic and location analyst for the Richardson Economic Development Partnership. I am also an army medic veteran.
My college living experiences include an on-campus dorm at UNT, an off-campus dorm at UT, apartments, and houses near campus in Austin and Arlington, and buying a house in Greenwood Hills just south of UT Dallas. While I was a student, we rented out rooms in our house to other students. Our next-door neighbors were students most of that time until this year. One overdosed and died at a fraternity party they were hosting in 2014.
I have been a Toastmaster for over 20 years and have been a member at the main Toastmasters club hosted by the UTD management school for the last 9 years where I currently serve as its president. In that capacity, I have been mentoring adults and have substantial knowledge of the living experience of students, especially international students.
Upon graduation, I started a 501 c3 nonprofit organization here in Richardson devoted to local community and economic development. To this point, we’ve mostly focused on developing research products. Normally, I focus on research and don’t get involved in individual cases. This denial seemed too egregious to ignore though.
My recent employment also includes teaching data science and FinTech coding boot camps at SMU both in-person and online during the pandemic.
There seems to be some debate on whether UTD has a housing or shortage or not. Representing the facilities management interest of UTD, Calvin Jamison has previously made claims that UTD is struggling to fill its residential units. Probably, that has changed this semester as students returned to campus. Per The Daily Texan, UT Austin’s residential capacity has returned to 100% occupancy as of last week. Additionally, we would expect the international student population that peaked in 2016 to begin to return as the anti-immigrant rhetoric calms down and more student and work visas become available.
Calvin Jamison does not speak for the university as a whole and his opinion should not be construed as UTD’s position. He speaks only for facilities management. Each of the faculty, student body, and staff all have a diversity of opinions. A common one is that student housing is of poor quality and inadequate quantity. This application process is the first time in my 9-year association with the university that I have ever heard anyone say UTD has too much housing already.
In talking to students in the past couple of weeks, I know that even two weeks into school, there are still students struggling to find housing accommodations. Some students were living in the hotels on Frankford and the one north of President George Bush Turnpike in Plano where I have seen multiple groups walking toward Coit and on Coit itself to get to the UTD bus route on Renner. I know of other students that are sleeping 7 students in a 2 BR apartment – a common arrangement I’ve heard of multiple times both on and off-campus. That apartment on Frankford was priced at $1500/month in March. The same unit is now renting for $2300.
Everyone knows the McCallum apartments are horrible. Students talk to each other and they know that people are murdered there periodically. The fact that any UTD student is living at McCallum is evidence of a shortage. That students commute from McCallum, Frankford, or Renner is strong evidence of a shortage. If they could live on or within walking distance of campus for a comparable price, they would.
Disallowing more student housing in effect is the City pushing students out to longer commutes and substandard housing.
UTD’s Master Plan states that their goal is to house 25% of their full-time enrollments. Data from Real Page states they are currently at 19%. During the previous city council meeting, it was stated (without citation) that the national average student residency is 22%. According to The College Board, the average residential population for public universities is 40%, for private universities it is 64%. https://www.reference.com/world-view/percent-college-students-live-campus-d1d5a0fac8718894
It’s a fairly widespread opinion that commuter schools are not as good as residential schools. UT Austin has a page on their website documenting the reasons that is so. The best universities all have high residency exceeding 90% in some cases. MIT is 93% and Stanford is 97% of undergraduates and 75% of graduates. https://facts.stanford.edu/campuslife/
To reach the national average, UTD would need to house 40% of 26K full-time enrollments which would be 10,400 beds. They are only projected to have 8,100 beds in the near future with their target of 25%. Hopefully, UTD’s vision is to eventually one day not be a commuter school. They will never have the capacity to house sufficient students on campus. As with many universities, that’s where the surrounding area comes into play.
As a city welfare concern, UTD pays no property tax. The City of Richardson should encourage as much private development as possible along Waterview to minimize the growing traffic impact of daily student trips, improve its tax base, and minimize student vulnerability.
I read through the previous agenda packets and meeting minutes and watched the previous meetings related to this application. I would like to address the previous concerns identified by the CPC.
Inconsistency with the Comprehensive Plan
As many have noted, the Comprehensive Plan is woefully dated. Published in January 2009, it lacks the experiences we have had both since the global financial crises, the rise of telecommuting, and the current pandemic. The original zoning for the parcel in question is from 1997 which even predates the Internet bubble when Richardson may have accelerated its legacy enthusiasm for office space.
As has been stated and studied, no one wants to build office space on the subject parcel. Most of the abundant office space along Waterview is vacant and won’t be absorbed in the near future. No one wants to build hotels there either now that there are two others within a half-mile of it. Nothing will be built there for the foreseeable future without a zoning change. Waiting for Amazon is just wishful thinking.
Judging by the course of this application, people seem not to have read The Plan, only reviewed the Future Land Use Map. As a subject matter expert on maps, I can assure you that this map gives people a false impression of precision and authority of the planning process.
For instance, The Plan shows the land immediately adjacent to this parcel designated as TOD Village. Real estate professionals generally understand that TODs extend at least a quarter-mile from any rail station. If that were applied to this case, this parcel should also be designated part of the TOD Village.
A specific concern that was expressed was that student housing is an incompatible use with the existing uses. In its narrative under the land use section, The Plan states an example of incompatible uses is mixing heavy commercial or industrial uses with residential. It encourages medium and high-density residential to be integrated with retail, office, or other uses as a “live/work/socialize” unit. According to The Plan, student housing is not only appropriate, but it is also ideal.
Additionally, within a half-mile of the parcel, we have a large senior living complex, a charter school, two hotels, an emergency room, and a car dealership. Further south along Waterview, we have a gated community. If any uses were incompatible, it would be the car dealership and the gated community.
The proposed use is well within the intent and spirit of The Plan.
Timing of the DART Silver Line service
I’m not sure I understand this concern even after hearing and reading it. I do agree that this is the wrong time for this project. It should have been completed 20 years ago. Now is the next best time. The fact that the rail station may be completed shortly before this student housing project is a benefit, not a drawback. This is exactly the kind of development TODs are good for.
Apartments not guaranteed to be student occupied
This is an advantage of this business model, not a drawback. Northside is operated under the exact same circumstances. This is the only legal way for housing to operate in the US due to fair housing laws.
Hard student requirements as on-campus housing carry create housing instability. A number of students will need to take a semester off for any number of reasons. Immediate eviction will not help them with whatever they might be going through.
Additionally, when students graduate, they may not be ready to move and go through the apartment hunting process again. They may still be looking for employment or settling into a new job. Many realize that a more secure financial future can be had by extending the time a person minimizes their expenses living as a student.
I can imagine other traditional student-aged people may need additional time to establish Texas residency or might prefer the student life while they build a startup instead of attending college.
Finally, on-premises management will work to ensure a safe environment for students and help them with meals, recreation, and roommate issues. If non-students want to pay for the additional services, I don’t see that’s cause for concern.
Uncertainty regarding the 3-acre parcel adjacent to the south
There is always some amount of uncertainty. I don’t see how that is relevant. The rail station is going there.
Circuitous/disconnected sidewalk network to campus
I would agree that blind students should probably take some help walking to campus from this location. Everyone else should be fine especially once the DART station crossing is in place. This location is closer to campus than some of the parking lots at UTD. Distance is not a factor here.
Shuttle service necessary to reduce vehicle trips
It’s less than half a mile to campus. For years, I walked a mile to campus in both directions. Given that parking passes are expensive and don’t get them substantially closer to campus. Perhaps most Texans don’t remember what it’s like to walk anywhere. This is well within what the planning community would consider to be walkable.
It might be nice if the operator wanted to provide a shuttle service for the convenience of the students. It certainly isn’t needed and shouldn’t be a requirement for this development.
Additional Discussed Concerns
Other concerns were brought up in the meetings that I’ll address here.
Reduced parking ratios
The undisputed expert on parking policy, Donald Shoup, recommends that all parking ratios everywhere be abolished. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be parking. That’s to say that arbitrary formulas generated through city planning processes can never predict the actual demand for parking.
Most development constraints are driven by parking issues. A typical structured parking spot costs around $40,000 per spot. That’s money that could be spent on additional housing. That cost is passed on to residents. That’s why we can’t build any affordable housing for students.
My experience has been that virtually no international students get cars their first or often their second year until they start their internships. Out of the seven students I mentioned living in the 2 BR apartment, none of them have cars.
One of the benefits of a TOD is almost always reduced if not eliminated parking. Rideshare companies abound in DFW. I know students utilize the Zip Cars available on and around campus too. The trend is toward driving less.
In this instance, the best practice is to eliminate any parking requirement and let the developer make the best use of the property responding to the market demand.
There were concerns even beyond the “circuitous” route comment. There is a signal-controlled crosswalk at the intersection on the way to campus. Presumably, DART will want additional sidewalks and traffic control leading into their station.
There were concerns students might get cold or wet walking. They will encounter the same conditions walking through a parking lot on campus or even between buildings.
There was concern about biking. Since Richardson considers itself a bike-friendly city, they can either add bike lanes for the half-mile to campus or add more direct sidewalk routes. Students riding their bikes from my neighborhood don’t have any better conditions to ride in.
Specific Zoning Modifications
- Minimum dwelling unit size
If the city and the residents want affordable housing, this requirement needs to be removed. We have many examples of smaller units for students or other transitional populations with units as small as 80 square feet. These typically go by the name Single Room Occupancy or Single Resident Occupancy (SRO).
- Max building height
There’s no substantial reason to set a building height. It should be determined by the market and financial feasibility studies. It would be extremely difficult to overbuild this parcel given its proximity to the rail station and the university. Presumably, no one will be upset that their view of President George Bush Turnpike has been obscured.
As noted in the agenda packet, a density of 100 units per acre is not atypical for a TOD. This should not be specified in the zoning.
Thinking long term, the appropriate building form along Waterview will be more urban, not less. This parcel should be built out to the sidewalk as typically stipulated in Form-Based Codes. The apartments west adjacent to the City Line Station are built that way. There should be no required setbacks beyond the sidewalk and amenity easements.
- Minimum parking ratio
As discussed earlier, there should be no minimum parking ratios for this TOD project. Let the market decide.
My professional opinion is that UTD has a severe housing shortage even with an embarrassingly low goal of housing 25% of its students. Student housing is an ideal use for this parcel. This application should be granted a mixed-use PD zoning without minimum dwelling unit size, maximum building height, density limit, setback beyond the amenity zone, parking ratio, or shuttle requirements.
It should allow for residential, retail, office, SROs, and live-work units. All of Waterview between Campbell and President George Bush Turnpike should get the same zoning aside perhaps from the gated community inserted near Campbell. Ideally, a Form-Based Code would simplify the process.