Teamwork transforms eyesore into an asset
North Oak Cliff: Twelve Hills now site of school, nature
09:01 AM CDT on Sunday, October 23, 2005
By FRANK TREJO / The Dallas Morning News
On the surface, this 22-acre tract in north Oak Cliff doesn't seem like such
a big deal.
But many of those who struggled for nearly two decades to turn a neighborhood
eyesore and safety hazard into a community treasure say the land actually houses
three dreams come true. It's a situation where nobody got everything they wanted,
but most say they are happy with the results.
"The word 'compromise' keeps coming up whenever people talk about what
happened here," said Oak Cliff resident Felipe Gomez. "But the more
I listen, the more I realize it's all about benefit. What we have here now benefits
children, families, the neighborhood and the city."
At issue is the old Twelve Hills property, named for the massive apartment
complex that last occupied the rolling terrain just north of Davis Street. Apartments
originally were built on the land in the 1950s and in the beginning were considered
a great place to live.
By the 1980s, that had drastically changed. The apartments had become a source
of frequent code violation complaints, as well as police calls.
Things had deteriorated so much at the apartments that in 1987, the Dallas
Housing Authority terminated all Section 8 contracts there and relocated families
who had been living there under that program.
By 1989, only about 35 tenants lived in the 500-unit complex.
Also in 1989, The Dallas Morning News published a series of articles detailing
problems with a city administered federal program that was supposed to help
renovate moderately rundown apartments into decent housing for low-income people.
Twelve Hills was to be the centerpiece of that program.
The city intended to pour $5.3 million into four complexes despite violations
of federal regulations, questionable financial arrangements, incomplete files,
unverified renovation plans and long histories of physical and financial problems
with the apartments.
The articles pointed out that developers, former government housing officials
and real estate speculators stood to benefit from the program more than low-income
The city eventually suspended the rental rehabilitation program. Twelve Hills continued to slide downhill, and the units stood vacant for years, crumbling even further and becoming even more of a problem for north Oak Cliff.
"By the time I got involved, they had already fallen into great decay," said Bob Stimson, a neighborhood resident and former City Council member. "It had just turned into this big crime haven."
The neighborhood battle to get the city to address the problem was his introduction
into politics, Mr. Stimson said. After years of debate and discussion, the apartments
eventually were torn down in 1992 at a cost of $1.2 million.
Ownership of the land reverted to the taxing entities the city, county
and school district. And for years the land, tucked in behind St. Cecilia Catholic
Church and Rosemont Elementary School, lay vacant, slowly being reclaimed by
About 10 years ago, however, things began to change. The land, about four miles from downtown Dallas, began to attract attention as a potential site for development.
The Dallas Independent School District, faced with an exploding student population,
was looking for new school sites. Private developers also were looking at the
property, and some residents considered it a likely spot for a driving range,
possibly affiliated with nearby Stevens Park Golf Course.
But others, like Jennifer Barrash Touchet, saw something else. They saw an
opportunity to take advantage of what nature had begun.
Ms. Touchet is past president of the Twelve Hills Nature Center, a nonprofit
organization formed about five years ago to turn the property into an educational
The group consulted with experts and found that a nature center would be feasible on the land.
Karen Cameron, the nature center's current president, said that in the beginning,
her group was very much focused on using all the land for a nature center or
preserve. But at one public meeting, she heard a plea from Bebe Gomez, who is
a member of St. Cecilia along with her husband, Felipe.
"She spoke so eloquently about how important it was for all of us to consider
the children and do what was best for them," Ms. Cameron said.
That, Ms. Cameron said, was when the nature group began trying to work for
a better solution.
Mr. Gomez, who now is also on the nature center's board, said he and his wife
have been involved in Scouting for more than 20 years, and they felt the land
could be developed into something that could benefit the entire community.
By 2003, however, the future of a nature center was in doubt when the DISD
bought out the city and county and began plans to build a school there. The
district decided to build an elementary school on 10 acres of the property and
put the remaining 10 acres up for auction.
That was when the real negotiations began.
Ms. Barrash and her organization, along with council member Ed Oakley, DISD
staff members and Matt Holley, a developer who already owned an adjacent tract
on which he was building higher-end housing, began to talk about what could
"I'd already kind of had my eye on it [the property] because of the development
I had immediately adjacent to it," said Mr. Holley, who is developing nearby
Kessler Woods, a gated community where homes are selling for about $500,000
to close to $2 million. "Ed and Jennifer and I sat down and talked about
it, and it seemed to make sense to reach some sort of compromise, or we were
going to be stuck for a while."
Mr. Holley couldn't buy the land without going through a public auction. The
nonprofit group couldn't pay top dollar for the land at auction. There also
was the problem of street access to the land for other developers.
"That's where Ed really got involved and said, 'Let's do something creative
here,' " Mr. Holley said.
Plans in motion
Mr. Oakley said his role was to make sure land-use requirements and zoning
for all three elements housing, nature center and school were
in place before the land was auctioned.
Mr. Holley bought the 10 acres for about $750,000. Then he sold 5 acres to
the nature center's nonprofit group for a fraction of market value. So now Rosemont
Primary School covers 10 acres. Mr. Holley plans to develop 5 acres that will
be joined to the existing Kessler Woods, and the Twelve Hills Nature
Center is a reality.
On a recent warm morning, Mr. Gomez, Ms. Cameron and fellow board member Monica
Petersen walked the grounds of the new nature center, which they note is just
There are plans for trails, an entrance structure, bird and bat houses, birding
stands and even a wetlands area. But it already has been used as an outdoor
lab for children from nearby schools.
"A lot of times, especially in an urban setting, people don't have the
environment to teach their children about taking responsibility and caring for
their surroundings," Mr. Gomez said. "We hope they can begin to appreciate
nature here and begin to take care of it."
Ms. Cameron stressed that the center will not be a manicured, trimmed, picnic
table-filled park, but a natural setting that will give people a glimpse of
the land's original look.
Ms. Petersen said she believes the center could be a great place for all elements
of north Oak Cliff's diverse community to enjoy.
"I believe this is something that can draw the community closer together,"
Ms. Petersen said. "This creates another opportunity for people to come
out of their homes for something other than to get in their cars."
Mr. Oakley said the Twelve Hills property should provide lessons for others.
"We are doing what we should be doing everywhere: listening to the parties
involved, and figuring out how to divide the pie so everybody's happy,"