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Can’t y’all just get along? – With the EPA on the Big Tex case, Lifshutz and community can make a fresh start

And now, a word about developers. Some of my best friends are developers. OK, one of them. And he, like a lot of developers, is not a bad guy, but the way development issues are often debated in this town, it seems like you have to take a black-and-white approach: Developers are either villains who want to scrape every tree off with the topsoil and run sewer lines directly into the aquifer, or they’re the victims of radical environmentalists.

Let’s take a recent case in point: “Part of the legacy left to developer James Lifshutz by his late father are reminders of the honor in honest carpentry and the value of very old things,” began a recent Express-News story about the proposed Big Tex redevelopment in Southtown, which was approved by the Zoning Commission but is currently on hold while the Environmental Protection Agency examines the property for asbestos contamination. `See “Big Tex lives to fight another day,” February 15-21, 2006, and “Big runaround,” February 8-14, 2006.` After painting Lifshutz as the victim of state and federal agencies that had failed to address the site’s potential problems, the story ended with a quote from the developer that reads like a veiled threat: “These are the reasons that residential development in the inner-city is such a challenge,” Lifshutz said. “It’s why a lot of developers go to the edge of town.”

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Developers go where they can make money, period. Are the costs of developing on a former industrial site potentially greater? Sure, but so are the rewards. In this case, the site is located next to Lifshutz’ Blue Star property and the King William neighborhood, where the price per square foot for real estate is competitive with the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. Although the adjacent LaVaca neighborhood, which is not as gentrified as King William, would be foolish to oppose any reuse just because they fear rising property taxes, it’s not in their interest to risk long-term health consequences to appease the developer, either.

The new Bihl Haus Arts community center offers an enlightening example of developers working with a neighborhood `see “The Alamo lives” in this issue of the Current.` Last week I attended an art opening at the center, which is located in the Primrose Senior Retirement Apartments on Fredericksburg Road, across from DeWese’s Tip-Top Cafe. City residents will remember the lot, which was anchored by an eye-catching eyesore: a two-story limestone building covered in graffiti and topped by the remains of a fire-damaged roof. Today it is a beautifully renovated art gallery, filled with natural light and attended to by members of the retirement community. And all because neighborhood residents told their first suitor, KB Homes, no.

When the Monticello Park Neighbor-hood Association organized to oppose the project, some observers called them foolish. Who else would be willing to invest in an aging inner-city neighborhood?

A Dallas-based company specializing in affordable but well-designed housing, as it turns out. When the community asked the company to save Bihl Haus and turn it into an art center, Southwest Housing took the neighborhood’s three-page wish list and made it a reality in six months. When I visited Primrose on a recent Sunday afternoon, two large tables of residents were having a grand time by the pool, while a well-dressed gentleman read a paper on a bench near Bihl Haus. While a management agreement between Bihl Haus and Southwest still needs to be finalized, it sure looks like a win-win situation.

And therein lies a lesson for Lifshutz and the District 5 residents who are concerned about the Big Tex development. Lifshutz, unlike Southwest, appeared uninterested in giving his opponents the one thing they all agreed they wanted: an impartial evaluation of the site with government supervision. Now the EPA has stepped in, giving both sides the chance to start with a clean slate.

If the EPA comes back with a positive report, or finds contamination that can be remediated, the neighborhood should support Lifshutz’ vision for redevelopment of the site. Lifshutz, for his part, should stop offering platitudes about his father to the press while dodging community activists. Together they could provide another example of how developers and community can work hand in hand.

By Elaine Wolff


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