Where the Crowds AreJul 26, 2017 ● By Amy Richmond
At a macro level, Frisco has become the latest and greatest thing. Now known nationally, people and businesses are clamoring to be part of the action. Land is being snatched up, neighborhoods are sprouting and giant cranes are erecting their mark on our popular city.
Residents have welcomed the astounding 287 percent growth since 2000 with open arms and sweet, southern hospitality. We have cheered when retailers decide to join the ranks in Frisco, and, maybe, we have even boasted about The Star or other high-profile destinations. We applauded the expansion of the Dallas North Tollway and gave a collective sigh of relief when a little black-top road known as State Highway 121 was transformed into a free-flowing highway. We yearn for progress and convenience, sometimes without considering what might happen down the line. Suddenly, density has become a hot topic in Frisco.
Our newly-elected mayor, Jeff Cheney, has witnessed the growth first-hand since 2003.
“I would say I saw a shift when Frisco went over 100,000 people. That was kind of a magic line that suddenly made people start paying attention. The news media started covering us. There was just more attention on the city and more attention from developers. It seemed like it almost happened over night.” And with this new popularity, things started to get crowded …
“There are a lot of misconceptions with density,” Mayor Cheney explains. “The residents of Frisco moved here for a reason … for a great school district, a great standard of living, a high quality of life, great facilities, parks and world-class amenities. Really, it is just a special place to come and raise a family. So, traffic is certainly building in Frisco. That is a growing pain of being one of the fastest-growing cities in the country for many years. If you are sitting at the light at Main Street and you have gone through three cycles of it, and you look over to your left and see another apartment building being built, a lot of our residents are equating one with the other, when it is not necessarily the cause and effect. But, that is a lot of the public perception.”
To truly understand requires a step back through history. “One of the things we are going to be working on as a city is telling our story and sharing our vision for the City, so the citizens understand it,” Mayor Cheney explains. “Decades ago, there was something we refer to as ‘zoning for dollars’ that happened here in Frisco, where a lot of landowners came before the City and got multi-family zoning on their property because they knew it made their property valuable. At one point, the City started looking to see if all these were actually built-out, what would it look like? I think the number was about 65,000 [multi-family] units that were planned.”
John Lettelleir, Frisco’s development services director, adds, “All cities go through that [zoning for dollars] as they are growing. They do not have a professional staff at that point to really evaluate the consequences of granting that zoning request. So, that is why, today, Frisco has a professional staff to thoroughly evaluate these zoning requests before they get approved.”
However, based on state law, once zoning is established, the City has very little power to change it. “Texas is a property-right state,” Mr. Lettelleir explains. “Trying to change zoning against the property owner’s wishes becomes very difficult and almost impossible to do without being sued. If the plans comply with the development standards and they have the zoning in place, they can continue. The city cannot abruptly say, ‘We do not like your project. We are going to deny it.’ That cannot happen.”
Mayor Cheney states, “It has taken decades of work from the City, using a few tools, to try to reduce that [65,000 units], such as allowing down-zoning by right, doing negotiations with developers as they brought their spec plans in and so forth. Through that work, there are now roughly 25,000 approved units, and the city is still working to remove as many of those as we can.” Mr. Lettelleir adds, “When I first joined the City, back in 1998, you could not even do single-family on property that was zoned multi-family. So, we amended the ordinance so you could do single-family by right. From 2003 to 2006, roughly around that timeframe, council asked the City attorney and myself to reach out to property owners who had property that was zoned multi-family to see if they would be willing to change their zoning. We were successful on some of those. Others, we were not. That further brought the potential density down.”
Going forward, the city continues to negotiate with landowners and developers as proposals get presented to the City. If multi-family is zoned for the property, and the landowners are unwilling the change the zoning, the City then works to negotiate higher-quality, multi-family concepts, such as mixed-use urban living. Mayor Cheney describes these developments as “higher-valued concepts that are connected to retail or office centers,” like Frisco Square. Mayor Cheney explains that mixed-use urban living concepts reduce traffic by allowing residents and employees to walk to work and surrounding amenities, instead of driving in mass to restaurants, stores and other destinations. He says that in 10 years, millennials will comprise 70 percent of the workforce. Mixed-used concepts are highly sought after by employees and employers alike, which can attract future employers to Frisco. Unlike free-standing, garden-style apartments, without commercial attached, that have 10-year life spans, mixed-use urban living concepts tend to last 30 to 40 years, since there is more incentive to re-invest in updating the property.
Mr. Lettelleir is quick to add that just because someone is proposing a mixed-use urban living concept, there is still a high level of scrutiny to ensure it is a good fit for Frisco’s future.
“It has to be the right location, and all the parts need to come together,” he says. “It is like baking a cake. You have to have the proper ingredients, and if you leave one out, or you just do not have the right proportions, it is not going to come out great.”
Mayor Cheney elaborates, “Our strategic plan is to build out along an urban spine. We are planning our Tollway corridor in a way to bring mixed-use projects that actually reduce our traffic burden. As our residents see those kinds of projects develop, I think they should be excited about that, as it is actually a traffic-reducing measure. I am very passionate about making sure we look at every single development, making sure it is being designed in the best way. The City staff shares that same vision. We have been the fastest-growing city for a long time, and I think, now, we are at the point where we can afford to be patient and wait for the right kinds of development and make sure that it is being done correctly. Quite frankly, I am OK if a developer does not want to meet our standards and they do not do the project.”
“A lot have walked away,” Mr. Lettelleir confirms. Beyond the constant scrutiny and skillful negotiations over future developments, to reduce density when legally possible, Mayor Cheney says Frisco is also working to build “a culture of innovation in the transportation department. We really want to be on the leading-edge of all those technologies, from partnering with private entities, such as Uber and Lyft, to working these automation programs for traffic light signals, to getting the right kind of data. The city does hear the residents’ concerns about traffic. We drive the same streets they drive every day, and we are actively working toward all measures we can to reduce that burden.”
Frisco continues to carefully study comparable cities, such as Plano, collaborate for high-value results and thoughtfully plan ahead to ensure our city grows and ages beautifully. Mayor Cheney concludes, “At the end of the day, when Frisco is built-out, our end goal is to deliver a high-quality city with the expectation that the quality of life will be the same, if not better, than what we are experiencing today.”