May 26, 2014

Apartment developers say Arlington unfairly rejected their plans

A California group says the city is trying to force low-income residents from the area.

A California investment group claims Arlington unfairly rejected its $2 million plan to renovate the dilapidated La Joya Apartments in favor of demolishing the complex to push out low-income residents to make way for more expensive housing along New York Avenue.

The east Arlington apartment property has been slated for demolition by the city since last year because of hundreds of code violations, which included raw sewage, mold, roaches and faulty wiring that were never addressed by the previous owner. The 185-unit complex, declared by the Arlington Municipal Court last year to be dangerous and substandard, currently stands vacant.

The new owners said they are prepared to refurbish the interior and exterior of the complex, which was purchased after being declared dangerous, to provide low-income tenants with a safe, comfortable place to live.

But the investment group’s detailed renovation plans are on hold during an ongoing legal battle to stop the city from tearing the property down. The owners are seeking temporary and permanent injunctions in a Tarrant County court to protect their investment.

“The real story is they don’t want those people living in that area. Who are those people? They are Hispanics,” said Roger Neal, a spokesman for the California investment group, 1707 New York Avenue LLC.

“How do they get rid of them? They condemn and demolish the buildings. These are the only reasonable conclusions my client can come up with on why the City Council is doing what they are doing,” he said.

Neal also pointed to Arlington’s recently adopted New York Avenue Corridor Strategy, which identifies replacing aging apartment complexes with new town homes for seniors, as one idea to revitalize the older part of town, as evidence about why the city isn’t interested in saving La Joya.

City officials denied the property owner’s allegations, saying Arlington’s concerns about the property involve quality of life for the tenants and not economic development potential.

“We are just trying to enforce the court order at this point so people don’t have to live in that kind of condition. We want people to have the opportunity to live in a safe, decent environment,” City Manager Trey Yelverton said. “That is not decent.”

Apartment makeovers

Last October, the City Council unanimously voted to set aside nearly $2 million in natural gas revenue to relocate tenants and tear down the dilapidated nine-building apartment complex.

When the new owners took control of the property, Neal said they told the city that it would not be necessary to relocate the remaining tenants because work would begin to refurbish units for them.

Those plans, provided to the Star-Telegram, included spending about $1 million on the exterior of the buildings and about $460,000 to upgrade 168 apartment units with improvements such as new flooring and paint, cabinets and countertops, and appliances and fixtures.

The owners spent about $4,000 to renovate and furnish one model unit to show off to the city and potential tenants, Neal said. The owners also submitted a separate plan for asbestos abatement. But the city continued moving tenants out and pursuing a taxpayer-funded demolition, Neal said.

“The city didn't even bother reviewing or commenting on these plans and merely rejected them outright,” Neal said

Though the council vote on demolition was unanimous, Neal specifically accused District 3 City Councilman Robert Rivera of betraying the former tenants.

“The Latino on the council didn’t stand with his people. He stood with his council, not his people. Why is that?” Neal said.

Ridiculous distraction

Rivera called Neal’s comments “a ridiculous attempt to distract from the horrible living conditions” the city had found at La Joya.

“My responsibility is to every citizen, regardless of their neighborhood,” Rivera said. “The privilege of being a citizen of Arlington should ensure safe living conditions.”

Arlington does have long-term plans to revitalize the aging New York Avenue corridor. Last August, the city adopted the New York Avenue Corridor Strategy, which identifies economically viable commercial redevelopment opportunities, such as town homes or a grocery store, and public infrastructure improvements, such as better sidewalks and landscaping, that might lure private investors.

Exactly whose vision for the complex will triumph will be decided in court.

A decision on La Joya’s fate was postponed last week, when state District Judge Wade Birdwell recused himself from 1707 New York Avenue LLC’s lawsuit against the city. State District judge Bonnie Sudderth was assigned to the case Thursday after Birdwell reported he was acquainted with Arlington City Councilwoman Lana Wolff as his son and her grandson played in baseball tournaments.

Wolff, who represents east Arlington, appeared at a hearing in Birdwell’s courtroom last week to determine whether the city can go forward and demolish the complex.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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