A “college and university neighborhoods overlay district” aimed at controlling development around Baylor University got the unanimous vote it needed to pass Waco City Council on Tuesday, despite some public opposition.
Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. prefaced a public hearing before the vote by declaring that the district is intended to protect neighborhoods — not to displace them in favor of Baylor development, as some opponents have suggested.
“This was at the request of the council for orderly development and protection of the existing neighborhoods, not a scheme to require people to do anything to their homes, not a scheme by the university to take property, not a scheme to reduce (the power of) neighborhood associations or council districts,” Duncan said, alluding to comments made in prior public forums.
The measure needed a “supermajority” vote because it had no recommendation from the Plan Commission, which deadlocked in a 5-5 vote last month on the overlay district. The measure passed 5-0 with Councilman John Kinnaird absent.
Opponents dominated the Plan Commission’s public hearing, but the eight people who spoke at the council meeting Tuesday expressed a range of opinions.
The overlay district adds an extra layer of rules on new private development in the Baylor area, forbidding front-yard parking, limiting building heights and requiring windows to face major streets. The district encompasses most South Waco neighborhoods on the Baylor side of Interstate 35, as well as some between downtown and Baylor, and the East Waco neighborhood around the new McLane Stadium was added in recent months.
Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez said the rules are better late than never for her South Waco district, where she has seen working-class neighborhoods disrupted by large student housing developments that bring parking, traffic and noise.
“Seeing how much my district has changed from when I first came on the council to what it is now was a challenge to us to help the neighborhoods,” she said. “We want to try to protect them and the integrity of the neighborhoods.”
During the public hearing, Northeast Riverside Neighborhood Association president Jeanette Bell reiterated her opposition to the overlay, calling it the result of “selfishness, greed, power and control . . . and big business exercising their corporate power.”
Bell raised fears that the overlay would pressure low-income residents to move out of East Waco because of higher taxes and pressure to fix up their homes. City officials say the overlay has nothing to do with taxes or code enforcement, and only new development or major renovations would be affected by the rules.
In an interview earlier this week, Bell said residents’ suspicions of the overlay plan stem from the experience of Urban Renewal in the 1960s, when federal and local officials cleared whole neighborhoods along the river and sold much of the land to Baylor.
“There were a lot of families displaced,” she said. “That’s what we’re concerned about, being displaced. History shows it’s a matter of time.”
Fears of breakup
At the public hearing, District 1 council candidate Cecil McDowell told the council that the overlay district would “break up neighborhoods” and set the stage for breaking up District 1. Council members denied that was the intention or likely effect of the ordinance.
A couple of homeowners in the stadium area expressed fears about the future of their neighborhood, but Carla Dotson, a founder of the Olive Heights Association that formed in 2012 to protect the neighborhood’s interest, spoke in support of the overlay.
Marsha Martie, a pastor and co-founder of the Gospel Cafe low-income ministry on South 10th Street, also spoke in support of the rules. But she said they aren’t enough to protect low-income residents who live around Baylor from the higher taxes that come with the redevelopment of their neighborhoods.
“I think residents have a legitimate concern taxes are going up,” she said. “I know you can’t do anything about appraisals, but I wonder if you can’t do something on the other end.”
She asked the council to consider tax abatements for longtime residents of the neighborhood to shield them from the effect of rising property values.
Councilwoman Toni Herbert said the overlay district should have been in place more than a decade ago, when a student housing boom began flooding the neighborhoods around Baylor.
“It’s ironic that, until now, the only criticism is that we didn’t move to do something about it sooner,” she said.
District 1 Councilman Wilbert Austin said misinformation in the community has caused residents to think that a measure to protect homeowners was going to turn them out of their homes.
“It got all blown out of proportion,” he said.
The second of two required votes on the measure is set for the regular council meeting May 20.