Head of Economic Development Explains $2 Million Grant Proposed for North Oak Cliff

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Click to embiggen the map of the area that would be impacted by the proposed $2 million economic development grant.
On Friday we sneak-peeked that proposed $2-million economic development grant proposal intended to "support emerging development opportunities in North Oak Cliff." Before Wednesday's vote, the council's Economic Development Committee is slated to take up the subject in mere moments; here's the PowerPoint prepared in advance of their chitchat, which you can watch here.

But long story short, says Karl Zavitkovsky, head of the Office of Economic Development, is Farrokh Nazerian and son Michael have invested "a fair amount of money" in and around the Bishop Arts District -- "$5 million easy," he says -- and either the city ponies up more dough, or it risks watching "one of the few organic growth stories we have here" stumbling before it reaches full stride.

Hence, the proposal: The city could give the Nazerians $2 million to help buy more land in North Oak Cliff, and in exchange that would have some kind of a development in place by the end of 2015. If nothing's in place by then, the city would says it would either get its money back or take $2 million in land, at which point, Zavitokvsy says, "you then have the ability to pair up with somebody else" interested in developing the land.

"Things might not work out for a number of reasons, but right now the capital markets are still so constrained it's hard to start something unless you're starting with HUD or you've put together a consortium" of lenders, he says. What the city's suggesting for North Oak Cliff, he says, is no different than the millions in economic development grants handed out for land acquisition along the Lancaster Road corridor, near the VA Medical Center Station.

"We're recommending we put some money in there to help with assemblage and predevelopment and planning," he tells Unfair Park. "And you want a good partner with good skins in the game and is willing to invest and go forward with the concept. ... In Bishop Arts, you have a situation where it's the most successful organic growth in the city in terms of mixed-use. It's a place that's ethnically mixed -- all groups in the city seem to mix very easily there -- and it's something you want to see sustained. So, in order to get the kind of public spaces that we feel could enhance that, I think it's incumbent upon the city to play a role to ensure that happens. You could very easily have somebody come in and buy a huge swath of property and put in three-story multi-family, and the zoning would be fine, but that wouldn't necessarily be the best thing for the neighborhood."

According to this morning's briefing, the group receiving the money is called Bishop Arts Village, LLC, and its principals are a family investment trust that has "structured over 25 million square feet of real estate transactions around the world with an approximate $3 billion in value through family-owned vehicles," including the Paseo Nuevo shopping center in Santa Barbara, Caliifornia; Harrow on the Hill in London; and Archstone Tech Ridge in Austin. There's also a lot of Einstein bagels in that bag.

"When you see the deal these guys did in Santa Barbara, I think it gives us and gives the public at large more of a say in terms of sustainable development," Zavitkovsky says. "I thinik what the public needs in terms of participation is a good partner, and hopefully you have one willing to put some skin in the game."

Which is why, he says, the city has targeted North Oak Cliff this go-round -- because people are willing to sink money into that part of town, along Davis and Jefferson and in between.

"There are areas of town where we can't get skins in the game, and we're working hard to get good partners and are willing to put a significantly higher percentage in there in conjunction with HUD or new market tax credits," Zavitkovsky says. "Here, I don't think the percentage will have to be as great, but it will give us the opportunist to develop meaningful development. You've seen a lot of growth along the Jefferson corridor, but it hasn't been what it could be.

"And, yes, there's always a sense that you're robbing Peter to pay Paul especially in times when there are resource constraints. But when I look at that area, and I hope council will agree, if we can accelerate growth there, it'll be significant, and if it's successful it provides a model for other parts of the city."

I asked Zavitkovsky: He refers frequently to the organic growth in and around Davis and Bishop Arts. Why, then, invest public money in a part of town in which people are already willing to invest private dough -- more so, no doubt, following the passage of the Bishop/Davis Land Use & Zoning Study and the expected arrival of streetcars to and from downtown sooner than later?

"I understand the points you're making, and there's nothing wrong with that argument," he says. "But we have to make some choices with resources, and part of those choices are gauging your ability to succeed. And that doesn't mean you do things because they're easy. But when you have the opportunity to co-invest with a partner who has skin in the game, you take it. And you're taking land collateral, so if it doesn't pan out it's not a total grant that's just gotten pissed away."

At present, the BAV project is still vague -- far more hypothetical than tangible. Which is why one council member with whom I spoke Friday isn't sure if she'll support this particular proposal. Angela Hunt said she's "skeptical of people 'fixing' Oak Cliff" and worried: "Will they West Village-ify it?" Also, asked Hunt, "Will they be required to create public spaces, wide sidewalks, parking in rear, storefronts along the street (as opposed to stand-alone, isolated/isolating towers or apartments)? Will their project embrace and encourage an active street life?" There remain, she said, "lots of questions."

To which Zavitkovsky responds thusly: "If there's gong to be more public money, it's standard to require wider sidewalks. There's a committee that has to review and require wider sidewalks, more lighting, more public spaces. One thing we've talked about is substantial public space. That doesn't in of itself generate revenue, but it allows for more development. They'll be a lot more requirements than are normal. And you already have some planning guidelines that have been approved for parts of the area. I feel like this is a good place to make a bet."
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