Downtown Living Focus Group

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A preference for urban living is growing, even right here in Denton, Texas.  There is an increased desire among many to live in a place where you can work, shop, play, and socialize all within walking distance.  We are already beginning to notice this in many of the core neighborhoods connected to our historic square.  A slow renaissance is emerging as young professionals and young families are opting for a post-suburban experience and willing to take a chance on neighborhoods previously in decline.  Additionally, with the continual revitalization of the downtown area and the new train line, interest in urban-style apartments and condominiums has and will continue to attract new development projects in this part of town.

As the council member representing this area of town, I’d love to hear from those of you on the front-lines of this emerging living option, so that we can be better advised on livability issues in this area – what are the joys and struggles of downtown living? what infrastructure is needed to help you get around sans cars? what amenities can the city or developers provide in order to make this area a more attractive choice for future residents? etc…

If you live in the heart of downtown or one of the surrounding neighborhoods, please consider serving your city by chatting with me over drinks this Thursday, June 23 at 8pm at Simone Lounge – 222 Hickory Street #104.

RSVP at this Facebook event page.

Gas Drilling Fee Vote – Some Context

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June 7, 2011

No doubt there will be some chatter regarding my vote tonight at my first city council meeting regarding the reduction of fees for gas drilling operations in Denton.  I voted with the rest of council to adopt an ordinance effectively doing away with the fees voted in by the council nearly a year ago as part of their Phase I review of the city’s gas well ordinances and instituting a new fee structure as recommended by an outside consultant.  The Denton Record-Chronicle’s Lowell Brown already caught up with me after the vote with a very honest question: “During the campaign, you argued that you would nickel and dime the hell out of the industry.  How does your vote tonight match with that claim?” (in reference to a statement I made regarding local gas drilling regulation at the Denton Neighborhood Alliance forum.)

I invite everyone to spend some time with the back-up agenda material that is available online relating to this item (4N of the Consent Agenda) – go here and then click on the link for the “Agenda with Backup.”

The city Planning Office admittedly “shot from the hip” when they suggested the new fee structure voted on by city council last August.  The fees were attempting to cover the costs of needed employees and support that would allow the city to effectively regulate the industry.  And this is a good thing – it would be a bad idea to essentially subsidize the gas industry on the backs of taxpayers.  Unfortunately, without having the Gas Well Inspection Division in place, the planning team had very little internal background in order to justify their fee suggestions.  Without this justification, the city risks a legal challenge that they are imposing a fee beyond what the service actually costs.  J. Stowe and Co., LLC came in to attempt a more thorough analysis.  It is unfortunate this issue played out in this way.  The increase of fees was a more popular component of the Phase I process.  I imagine the fees suggested under the current proposal would have been welcomed had they been a part of the original proposal last August.  Unfortunately, it now appears that the city is actually lowering the fees – and this perception is meaningful.

Here’s one silver lining – the council opted not to assess annual inspection fees of gas well sites in the Extra-Terrestrial Jurisdiction areas following their August 2010 review.  The consultant has argued that this should happen and tonight’s ordinance made this happen.  Considering there are 762 wells to be inspected in the city’s ETJ (and only 210 in the actual city limits), at $580 per annual inspection, this means a yearly increase of around $400,000 in fees assessed to the industry that resulted from tonight’s ordinance that wasn’t in play in the previous fee proposal approved last August.

Unfortunately for the general public, most of the discussion on this issue happened during a closed session called by the city’s legal department.  I can say this: concerned citizens would have appreciated the rather spirited discussion that took place on this issue.  Several questions remain about the new fee structure – and here are some of mine:

  • Little to no analysis was done on certain items by the consultant, making some of his fee suggestions seem as arbitrary as the original city analysis.  This came to light specifically relating to the fee for the Gas Well Development Site Plan, which is why this suggestion was pulled out from the motion to approve the ordinance tonight.
  • It is still unclear how the books balance between the costs associated with the new Gas Well Inspections Division (which now stands at 6 Full Time Employees – an increase of 2 since last August) are completely covered by the new suggested fees.  Taking into account just the annual inspection fees (which cover all wells – even those that have been around for a while both in they city and the ETJ), assuming a 85% collection rate, the salaries of the Division are covered.  Other items still need to be accounted for such as vehicles, equipment, office space, technology, administrative support, etc.  We will continue to examine this – there should be NO subsidization of the industry with tax payer money.
  • Much of what we mean by “inspection” will not be filled-out until we proceed with Phase II of the ordinance review – the costs associated with this may certainly rise depending on the levels of protection we afford our citizens from these sites.

Rest assured, this issue of drilling and production fees will be fully vetted as we move through the Phase II process – and the fees can be re-examined at any point where it appears discrepancies exist.

It should be noted that two other encouraging decisions were made tonight for those concerned about natural gas drilling activity in Denton.  First, the council voted unanimously to adopt the Fair Share Resolution in order to encourage TCEQ to mandate new control measures for the release of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from the gas drilling industry ahead of its upcoming vote on a new DFW Air Plan.  The technology is already in place that can help both our air quality and the industry save more money – a rare win, win for this issue.

Second, there was support on the council to examine how citizens will be involved in the process of the Phase II gas well ordinance review.  Denton’s citizens are up for the task.  If you are interested in helping out, let me know.

As always, please share with me your thoughts and your questions – you can email me at or call me at 940-206-5239.

Roden for Denton T-Shirts

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We now have a new and fun campaign t-shirt on limited supply… This is a great way to spread the word about our vision for Denton as we head into the final weeks of the campaign.

For a minimum donation to the campaign of $12, this shirt can be yours! Just click on the PayPal link to the right and put your shirt size in the comment section of your donation submission.  But don’t feel confined to $12 – please consider a $20, $50 donation or more.  We need help as we push to get the word out to as many District 1 voters as possible!

Here’s the front:

And here’s the back:

DCTA Tower Update and Thoughts

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The Denton City Council tonight voted to approve a controversial DCTA communications tower set to be built just off Teasley Lane in the SE Denton neighborhood.  The vote passed by a margin of 6 to 1 with District 1 council person Charlye Heggins voting against it.  At issue was the approval of a Special Use Permit allowing the construction of a 180 foot tower on DCTA property.  Prior to approval, the council attached three conditions to the permit including: 1) landscape screening surrounding the tower, 2) monitoring of possible TV, radio, or cell interference complaints for six months, and 3) only DCTA communication can be used on the tower.  DCTA claimed the site was the best of possible options.  Neighborhood concerns centered on neighborhood aesthetics, electrical interference from communication equipment, health and safety concerns, and placement decisions.

After a lengthy work session discussion with DCTA officials, council members at tonight’s meeting said they felt comfortable that the neighborhood concerns were met with the answers to their questions and the conditions placed on the project.

This entire issue sheds light on the problem of a decision-making process that tends to treat otherwise connected issues in isolation from one another.  Sure, the city council tonight technically addressed some of the concerns raised by the neighborhood critics concerning this tower.  But there is a larger narrative at play with this A-Train issue that runs beneath the surface of this specific neighborhood fight.  The fact is that the SE Denton neighborhood, more than any other Denton neighborhood, has bore the brunt of the issues relating to the upcoming A-Train.  They have had to deal with a rail line suddenly becoming active again.  They have had to deal with the future knowledge that a train would soon be running through their neighborhood.  They have had to deal with the constant construction with its associated road closures for the last couple of years.  They have had to deal with the possible safety issues for their children who might play around the tracks.  And much more…

Add to this the more fundamental subtext of a neighborhood that has a tragic history of being slighted by the city ever since the citizens voted to uproot and forcibly move historic Quakertown to make way for a city park back in the early 1920s.

To be sure, DCTA has made attempts to work with the neighborhood on a variety of issues: investing in previously non-existing infrastructure, insulating a house near the train, working with local schools to provide education to the students, and communicating with neighborhood leaders and businesses on key issues.  But at the end of the day, it is not DCTA’s responsibility to make sure neighborhoods are treated fairly with such a process – that is the job of the city council.

Although attempts have been made throughout the process to ease the burden of the coming train and its associated construction, the impression has been that these attempts are “just enough to get by.”  But a more important question must be addressed by our city council: What has been done to get the SE Denton neighborhood on board with the train?

What has been done to meaningfully sell them on the great possibilities this train can create for their families, neighborhood, and businesses?  All the focus of the potential of the train has been aimed in one direction – away from SE Denton and toward the downtown area.  No doubt, the square area stands to benefit from this, as it should.  But what plans are in place to make sure the neighborhood most impacted by these changes stands to gain considerably from this train?

As the train comes to town, it’s time for District 1 to have an experienced, proactive, and visionary voice sitting on the City Council to make sure their interests are represented.  Given the large sacrifice put upon the SE Denton Neighborhood, here are just some of my ideas of how they should benefit:

  • Every school age child living within a certain proximity to the A-Train tracks should be given a free train pass that is good for the entire summer.  This should be done as a joint partnership between DCTA, the City of Denton, and private donors who can even set-up SE Denton neighborhood outings to help the children learn more about train safety and to sell them on the benefit of the train.
  • DCTA is planning a series of Rail Safety days to introduce the train to the public.  The Denton day, scheduled for May 21, is set to be held at the Med Park station.  No such day is scheduled for the downtown station – the station closest and most available to residents of SE Denton.  This is a mistake.  Either the location should change or an additional day should be scheduled to accommodate the needs of that neighborhood.
  • Through adequate signage and brochures, the city should work with SE Denton businesses to develop a “Discover SE Denton” marketing campaign to direct out-of-town train visitors to the amenities to the East when they pull into the Downtown Transit Station.  This should highlight SE Denton eateries and businesses as well as other historic attractions in this historic neighborhood.
  • The city should fast-track a mobile food cart pilot program aimed at helping SE Denton businesses take advantage of rail traffic.  There are already existing taco stands along McKinney and other local businesses just waiting for the relaxing of regulations that would allow such an option.  The A-Train station is a great place to try out such a program and the SE Denton businesses should be given special consideration.
  • and let’s keep brainstorming…

The train is coming – let’s make sure it is a good thing for ALL of our residents.  Justice requires as much.

Welcome to Beautiful Southeast Denton!

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The town square says something about the soul of that town.  For all the genuinely good things that can be said about our downtown – its focus on humans, its increasing walk-ability, its constant invitation to linger a bit, its conduciveness to conversation, its historical preservation, and its eclecticism – it has yet to overcome one major obstacle: its own whiteness.

Look around.  Who is hanging out on the courthouse lawn on sunny weekends?  Who is attending plays at the Campus Theater?  Who is dining in the restaurants or perusing the shops?  And lest we have the tendency to peg this problem on the more conservative segments of town, who do you find up until 2am frequenting our internationally renown indie music venues?  Typically, it is middle class white people.

Denton is much more colorful than this: 22% of Denton is Hispanic, nearly 9% is black, and altogether non-whites make up close to 40% of our population. In fact, the highest concentration of Denton’s black and Hispanic population resides within walking distance to the square in Southeast Denton – quite literally just on the other side of the tracks.  The story of how SE Denton came into its current demographic situation is tragic.  The area you now know as Quakertown Park or Civic Center Park (just North of Emily Fowler Library and the Civic Center) was once the home to a thriving working-class black neighborhood, complete with its own grocers and churches.  After being forced out by a city-wide vote in the early 1920s, many of the residents moved to Solomon’s Hill, a fly-infested cow pasture near the railroad tracks.  You can read more on this story here…

While most of the city’s commercial focus is directed at either the square or the Loop, this unassuming spot in between has continued to nourish a culture all its own.  Here’s a list of reasons to spend some quality time in Southeast Denton…

Denton’s overly-cautious and embarrassingly-outdated ban on mobile food carts doesn’t stop McKinney Street vendors from serving up some of Denton’s best late night cuisine on Friday and Saturday nights.  One warm evening this Fall I saddled up my little red Honda scooter and made a solo ride to check out the scene.  Along the way, I brushed up on my best Spanish: “dos asada tacos,” I kept repeating, in hopes of sounding legit.  As soon as you cross the tracks, you’ll see a bright yellow dive that is all things to all people – a gas station, a mini market, a grill, and a carwash.  Ready with my bueno espanol, I was at once relieved and defeated when I was greeted with a “What’s up, man?”  La Estrella (602 E. McKinney) will boast that they are the only stand that cooks its meat outside over a fire grill.  After two wonderful asada tacos topped only with cilantro, onion, lime, and salsa, I headed East down McKinney.  Within a couple blocks there is a spot on your left where you usually pull up and buy Elotes and snowcones (just near the charming, one-roomed Veronica’s Cafe) – they weren’t open that night so I continued on a bit to Taqueria Guanajuato.

Located at 1015 E. McKinney and attached to a mini market, Taqueria Guanajuato’s entrance into the late weekend night street taco market is just another step of greatness that keeps coming from this little place.  An appropriate mix of techno-laced Tejano music blared from a pick-up truck parked next to their taco stand.  You could choose between tacos al pastor and asada tacos before heading back to your car or finding a spot to sit on the sidewalk.  More than one truck seemed to be treating themselves to some sort of unofficial parking-lot-BYOB-special as a compliment to their tacos.  I considered the same thing, but I quickly concluded that I couldn’t pull off the same sort of vibe sitting alone on my scooter.  Both spots are worth trying again and again.  Think date ideas, gentlemen…

Get on your bike and head East on Sycamore past Rubber Gloves and start exploring the neighborhood along some very bikable streets.  Along the way you’ll find plenty of charming older wood framed houses, historic churches whose history dates back to the days of Quakertown (check out St. James AME Church on E. Oak and Mount Pilgrim Church on Robertson, for instance), the historic Fred Moore High School, and a few tucked away small businesses (SE Denton has maintained a certain amount of mixed-use living, a city planning trend that is becoming fashionable once again).  Each time I bike or walk through this area of town, I find a phenomena that is rare in most other Denton neighborhoods – people outside their homes.  It is the exception when I am not waved to or greeted by neighbors sitting on their porches, conversing with one another.  There is something very human about all this…

If you have kids, bike them to one of SE Denton’s neighborhood parks.  Referred to respectively by my two-year old as “purple park,” “Rosie-size park,” and “yellow park,” Carl Young, Sr. Park, Fred Moore Park, and MLK Park provide some great equipment and scenery.  Neighborhood centers are also prevalent in SE Denton and often times connected to the parks (the MLK Recreation Center is beside MLK Park and The American Legion Hall borders Fred Moore Park, for instance).

Tucked away at 511 Robertson, Sweet Y Cafe and Catering provides all the charm and flavor that you look for in a hole-in-the-wall establishment.  Those of you old enough to remember the days of Steve’s BBQ near downtown will appreciate this.  The building is historic and the name hearkens back to an old cafe that used to serve pastries to the black residents of SE Denton during the days of segregation.  Literally sitting on a ‘Y’ created by the convergence of Robertson and Wye Streets, the old Sweet Y would serve sweet treats to students coming to and from nearby Fred Moore School.  Owner, chef, and Renaissance man Raymond Redmon is someone to chat up after you are served the best BBQ in town.  Though he might deny it, Redmon once held the District 1 City Council seat for two terms and he just might engage you in a discussion of city politics and happenings.  He might also take you outside and show you his organic garden where several of his side dishes are grown – all with the help of two on-site rain harvesters.  As Raymond will tell you, “I’ve been green before being green was cool…”

A Texas Historical Landmark, Oakwood Cemetery, located just North of Fred Moor Park, began soon after the settling of Denton.  The cemetery is the resting place of many early Denton pioneers, including a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s.  Try and find the headstones for Andrew and George Brown – there you will find the inscription, “Executed.”  They met their fate at the Denton gallows in 1879.

Beyond the McKinney Street taquerias already mentioned above, here are some other personal favorites:

– TACO NACO (501 E. Prarie) – housed in the old RJ Burger joint, this spot run by a former long-time Morrison Milling company worker will surprise you with their adventurous take on authentic mexican cuisine.  If you don’t know already, ask them what “Naco” means while you eat.
– TORTILLERIA LA SABROCITA (201 Dallas Dr.) – much more than just a place where you get tortillas, this place serves delicious meat options by the pound.  You must try their tacos al pastor along with an assortment of their many homemade salsa options.  If you plan on take-out and dine-in on the weekends, get there with time to spare – but it’s worth the wait.  The gal at the counter tells me that they have plans to open 24 hours soon…
– CASA GALAVIZ (508 S. Elm) – this is often my first choice for breakfast tacos in Denton.  Their tortillas are fresh and made on the spot.  Their salsa is never mild, yet it fluctuates between a 7 and a 9 most mornings – a great cure for early morning sinus headaches or late morning hangovers.  I suggest the chorizo, potato, egg, and cheese taco or a bowl of caldo de res.  Owner Joe will surprise you with his outskirts of Denton sounding Texas draw.
– LA MEXICANA (619 S. Locust) – one of the rare authentic Mexican spots that actually serves up cerveza, so this is a great spot for lingering dinners – it is also one of the only ones that is a sit-down establishment.
– ESTER’S TORTILLERIA AND BAKERY (710 S. Elm) – you must try their tortas and gorditas.  The best part of Ester’s is saving room for some fresh-made pastries for dessert.  My suggestion: churros.

For all its glories, downtown Denton risks pricing itself out of its own uniqueness.  High dollar consultants, an upcoming train, and special fostering by city leaders have resulted in an increased interest in investment and development of the downtown area.  That is good news in that the area will continue to prosper and add to the tax base of the city.  There is, however, a downside to all this: as interest in the area grows, so do rental costs and property values. The once “funky feel” of downtown Denton just may be harder to maintain once young, creative, risk-taking business ideas are priced out of the market.  Already, much of the lauded upcoming businesses are not entirely local or unique – they are coming from well-financed entrepreneurs who have succeeded with the same model in other college towns.  The likes of Sweet Y, Taco Naco or Taqueria Guanajuato could never dream of relocating to the square.  Yet it is precisely those sort of businesses that would make the downtown area more of what we all want…

All this to say, as the creative class of Denton continues to grow and prosper, there will be a increased demand for space to open up and try out new sorts of business ventures – from coffee shops and bars, to restaurants and small grocers, to record shops and art galleries.  If the downtown trend continues, these new start-ups will no longer see downtown as a viable place.  Denton just might see a shift of its cultural center as a result and a new place will be found.  Once Fry Street was torn down, we saw a shift to the Square – and once the Square prices folks out, we just might see a shift, once again, to the East (in this sense, Rubber Gloves is THE visionary venue).  The above mentioned amenities, combined with dirt cheap housing options (a fixer-upper’s dream neighborhood) provide a strong argument for the possibility of a new cultural district emerging in SE Denton.

In the meantime, let’s all spend some more time in this beautiful section of town.

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