Suburban clash: Apartment developments generate tension in growing towns

A year ago, Tom Burnett and other residents fought plans to build 240 luxury apartments on one of the city’s few parcels of vacant land.

They won the battle to stop the apartments from being built in Bedford Commons.

But the city, with almost 50,000 residents, is at a crossroads, as it is 98 percent built out, and the population is aging.

The growth in North Texas isn’t letting up, and communities are looking at ways to provide housing. But residents aren’t always supportive of apartments coming to their communities and this has created tension in several cities in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Bedford Commons is located near city hall, and zoned for mixed use and multifamily. It is bounded by Texas 183 on the south, Bedford Road on the north, Forest Ridge Drive on the west and Central Drive on the east.

Burnett and others said Bedford’s future depends on new businesses that will bring in sales tax dollars to offset the heavy property tax burden.

“We had lots of apartments, and we were lagging in our sales tax dollars,” Burnett said.

The group, called Bedford Citizens Against More Apartments, was also successful in getting the city council to pass a density ordinance, which places restrictions on how many apartments can be built per acre and the height of buildings.

Residents such as those in Bedford say they understand the need for housing, but they don’t want to be overrun by apartments.

Challenges of city growth

Burnett said 48 percent of Bedford’s residents live in 35 complexes throughout the city. Bedford is 10 square miles, and Burnett said the 48 percent figure is too high for a city of Bedford’s size.

“Those are figures you would see in a college town,” he said.

However, Bedford city manager Brian Bosshardt said the existing apartments are older, and the city needs the type of housing that would appeal to millennials.

The newest complex that was built was during the 1990s, according to information from the city.

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An apartment complex on L. Don Dobson Drive in Bedford. The city has 35 apartment complexes, all built before 1998. Velton Hayworth Special to the Star-Telegram

Burnett said the city needs to reduce debt, the streets need repairs and the city needs more police officers and firefighters.

“Putting in more apartments was going to kill our potential to generate more sales tax,” Burnett said.

Bosshardt said millennials want to live in urban lofts, apartments built above shops and restaurants. He added that urban lofts are going up in surrounding cities, such as Euless.

“We are in redevelopment mode. Our need for more housing is driven by a need to redevelop certain areas of our city,” he said. The housing could include the redevelopment of the older garden style apartments, and replacing them with the loft-type apartments that are going up in other cities, he said.

Bosshardt said the city council wants a redevelopment study to explore how to revitalize neighborhoods. He added that another possibility is to offer owners of the aging apartment complexes incentives to tear down the existing buildings to construct the lofts.

Bosshardt said the city hasn’t reached out to any of the property owners.

Burnett agreed that Bedford’s best option is redevelopment, but said adding new businesses is crucial if the city wants to remain viable.

About 24 percent of the revenue for Bedford’s operating budget comes from sales taxes and 45.2 percent comes from property taxes.

Mansfield is another growing city where residents fought against plans for more apartments. There was a proposal to build 295 apartments in east Mansfield. Residents and some members of the zoning commission questioned the need to build more apartments.

Despite opposition, the Mansfield city council approved plans to build the upscale apartments. The apartments will rent for $2 per square foot. The zoning was already in place for the apartments in east Mansfield as part of a master plan for the area.

Tension not unique to the Metroplex

Lauren Fischer, assistant professor of urban planning and policy at the University of North Texas, said tension over apartments is not unique to the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

“The fear of communities changing and the change of single-family home stock to apartments often draws concerns,” Fischer said.

People are coming to Texas in droves because of the lower cost of living. Fischer said that around 1,000 people are moving to Texas per day with a third showing up in the Metroplex.

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An apartment complex in Bedford’s Martin Drive. Cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area grapple differently to accommodate a growing population. Velton Hayworth Special to the Star-Telegram

Multifamily doesn’t just mean apartments, there are town homes and accessory dwellings, she said.

Fischer added that there is a perception that if someone doesn’t choose to own a single-family home, the person is an “economic failure.”

The vast majority of new apartments are at the top end of the rental market and are often more expensive than a single-family home.

Communities with various types of housing tend to be less prone to recessions, she said.

“Multifamily housing can increase property values, and it needs to be done to fit the characteristics of a community. It can be a boon and not a negative, older apartments are often more affordable,” she said.

Residents have their say

In Watauga, a group of residents also opposed a developer’s request to build 400 apartments behind homes at Whitley Road and Hightower, near the city hall.

Scott Prescher, who helped start the Say No to Rezoning group that opposed the apartments, and who is now on the city council, said the plan to have that many apartments in a small area was unsustainable because tenants would have to park on neighborhood streets, and there wasn’t infrastructure in place to handle the influx of people.

But the city is getting new homes.

City manager Andrea Gardner said work will start in 2020 to build approximately 71 single-family homes on the land where the apartments were going to be built. The houses will be on lots around 5,100 square feet, and half of the homes will be restricted to 1,600 square feet in size, and the rest will be a minimum of 2,000 square feet, she said.

“The city focus is more on commercial development to help relieve the property tax dependency for funding city programs. That commercial development could have a mixed-use style, which would likely include some type of residential component; but not necessarily apartments,” Gardner said.

Sean Crotty, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University’s Center for Urban Studies, said apartments can benefit cities financially because it costs less to provide water, sewer and street lights to apartment complexes than it does for single-family housing.

“There is a perception that apartments will bring in people with lower incomes and crime. It can be a code word for poor people,” Crotty said.

He added that apartments can bring more activity to the community, such as those that are built near train stations.

“There is a cultural expectation of getting married, starting a family and buying a house. That isn’t necessarily the case in other parts of the world,” he said.

Nicholas Sakelaris contributed to this report.

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With my guide dog Barbara, I keep tabs on growth, economic development and other issues in Northeast Tarrant cities and other communities near Fort Worth. I’ve been a reporter at the Star-Telegram for 34 years.