The rent house developer Lou Schickel finally sold to the developers of a planned Midtown shopping center on University Avenue might have bought him some goodwill at City Hall, but it didn't mean a thing to neighbors of a parcel of land along Highway 10 he hopes to level and turn into a large retail center.
Many of them planned to attend the Thursday, Aug. 26 meeting of the city Planning Commission, where Schickel's application to rezone part of the Highway 10 land is on the agenda. Planning department official Donna James said city planners were still working with Schickel on possible changes to his site plan that might appease neighbors worried about noise and traffic.
Schickel's planning the 300,000-square-foot center for two adjacent parcels of land on the south side of Highway 10 just west of Interstate 430 and east of a small shopping center housing the Hunan restaurant, among other businesses. The front part of the land is already zoned for commercial development. The back parcel, however, is zoned residential, and the city's future land use plan calls for it to become suburban offices. Schickel said he hopes to have an upscale department store, a large bookstore, a high-end supermarket and restaurants and smaller boutique stores. It's designed as a "lifestyle center" - the same kind of development Deltic Timber has proposed for land it owns at Chenal Parkway and Rahling Road, and that developer Ron Tabor is planning for the corner of University Avenue and Markham Street. "Lifestyle centers," designed with a more upscale look than regular shopping malls, typically aren't enclosed and have more landscaping.
Several years ago, Schickel bought a house in the middle of the neighborhood Tabor planned to tear down to build a shopping center for a Dallas investor, who is said to be near announcing his first retailer commitments. Schickel refused to sell until last spring, after a private meeting at City Hall with City Director Stacy Hurst. Schickel's decision to sell has given rise to a whisper campaign among competing developers that it was tied to his coming request for the Highway 10 rezoning.
"I sat down with him and told him it was very important to Midtown, that that development would be a catalyst," Hurst said. "It was not a quid pro quo. Whether or not he intended it to be that way, you'd have to talk to him."
City Manager Bruce Moore was at a second meeting with Schickel to talk about preliminary designs for the Pleasant Ridge development.
"There was no, at all, even indication that that there was some kind of perceived deal," Moore said.
Schickel said he originally bought the Midtown house because Tabor was chasing some of the same retail tenants he hoped to lure to his Pleasant Ridge development.
"It was a little Monopoly playing," he said, referring to the popular board game. As for why he finally sold it: "I just felt the bad publicity the press was giving me wasn't doing my rep any good." Asked if he sold the house to ensure zoning for his own development, he said, "I gave you the only answer I want to give you. Draw your own conclusions."
At press time, the city planning department staff hadn't issued a recommendation on whether the Planning Commission should approve Schickel's rezoning request. He's been working with planning staff on possible changes, including shifting several buildings from the back of the property - nearer residential and office areas - to the front, along Cantrell.
Schickel's plan calls for an entire hillside to be leveled - land that's now home to a dozen or so houses on Summit Drive. That hill currently stands between Sandy Bowen's house on Cedar Branch Drive and the traffic of Highway 10.
"The loading dock of the [planned] department store would be right outside my front door, and the trash compactor too," Bowen said.
Schickel counters that retail development would actually be better for the land than offices, because retail employees won't be traveling to and from work during peak traffic times.
But Bowen said she'd rather have offices, because offices aren't open at night or on weekends.
"When we're home, they're not there," she said of workers at existing offices near her house.
Schickel acknowledged that the tenants of existing offices along Fairview Road - including Easter Seals - do have a legitimate concern that they'll have more cars driving by their front doors to get to a back entrance to the shopping center.
The property owners' association in Pleasant Forest, the neighborhood just south of the planned center, is opposing the rezoning. They argue that Pleasant Forest Drive is already too full of cars cutting through the neighborhood to avoid congestion on Cantrell Road, and that the shopping center would make the problem worse.
Schickel's commissioned a traffic study that, he says, shows a minimal impact on Pleasant Forest Drive.
But city traffic engineer Bill Henry said it's impossible to tell exactly.
"We can do a pretty good job on how much traffic it will generate [overall], but where it comes from is anybody's guess."
The Pleasant Ridge development would be about four acres larger in land area than Park Plaza, but considerably smaller in square footage of shops: Park Plaza has about 514,000, compared with Pleasant Ridge's planned 300,000.
Schickel held two open houses in the last week to answer neighbors' concerns about the development. The first drew about 40 people, including one elderly lady whose main question wasn't about traffic or noise - she just wanted to make sure the shopping center wouldn't have sex shops.
Jill Fitzpatrick, who owns a house on Summit Drive that Schickel has optioned to buy, said she supports the development, mainly because Schickel would buy her house if it goes through. She and her husband bought the house two years ago, knowing it was surrounded by commercial development and would probably eventually be swallowed up by it.
"It was just a spin of the wheel, when and if they'd ask us" to sell, she said.
The planning commission meets at 4 p.m. Thursday in the Board of Directors chambers at City Hall.