Settling for more
Dec 04, 2014 01:51PM ● Published by Dia
by Gina Mayfield
We all know how the story ends: Forbes names Southlake the most affluent neighborhood in America, businesses and families flock to the area and its family-friendly culture – exemplary schools, well-kept parks and recreational facilities, world-class shopping, and, of course, the state champion teams bearing the Carroll Dragon name.
But how did that happen? How does a city that didn’t even have basic infrastructure until the early 1990s overtake New York and San Francisco in a 2008 Forbes listing of the “Twenty Most Affluent U.S. Neighborhoods”?
To find out, we stopped by Southlake Town Hall and sat down with straight-shooting Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes, native of Houston who has lived in Southlake since 1982 and served as mayor from 1989 to1996, key growth years.
Fickes became involved in local politics the way so many others have before him: There was an issue he had a personal stake in. Right about the time he began construction on his new house in Southlake, D/FW Airport began construction on a runway that would send planes directly over his home. He banded together with a group of neighbors, the city backed them, they filed a lawsuit – and, of course, … lost. But that was just an early battle in the fight to shape Southlake as the nearby regional airport became international in scope and started to attract more and more people to the area.
“From that, I was asked if I would be interested in being on the Planning and Zoning Commission,” Fickes says. His community engagement didn’t stop there; he later became chairman and then president of the Chamber of Commerce.
Back then, in the mid- to late ’80s, things were somewhat simpler. “There were only about 5,000 people who lived here,” Fickes says. “It wasn’t really difficult to very quickly know who the main businesses were; the main business leaders, who were the civic people who were involved with the community, the schools. It was a lot smaller community than it is today.”
Still, during that time, there was a lot of “confusion,” as Fickes so graciously puts it, amongst town administrators. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m a business guy, I can handle this.’ So I ran, and nobody ran against me,” says Fickes, with a smile.
“Southlake was in kind of a unique position, in that we hadn’t grown,” he says, referring to the meteoric rise of nearby cities, such as Grapevine and Colleyville, during that time.
“Everything around us was growing, but we didn’t grow,” Fickes continues. “It’s something people never really think about, but until Southlake got sewer, which happened about 1990 [when Southlake joined the Trinity River Authority], we couldn’t develop.”
About that same time, the city approved the first of many major subdivisions, Southridge Lakes, with around 300 homes. “That subdivision was kind of different than anything else in Southlake,” Fickes says. “It had amenities for its residents – private amenities that were maintained by the homeowner association. It was fairly high-end for the area.
That new buzzword, “amenities,” proved to be a boon to the city. Along came Timarron, the biggest subdivision in the city, with its golf course development and loads of private, resident-only offerings. “From my perspective as a mayor, that didn’t bother me because that was costs that the city didn’t have to spend. And, more importantly, it was costs the city didn’t have to spend on maintenance, forever and ever,” Fickes says. “So we have some really fine public parks, but we have some really nice amenities for all the residents within their subdivision that those residents take care of and cover the cost of.”
The bar was set. “Anybody coming in —and there were a whole bunch of other subdivisions working on coming in — had to hit that bar or go over it,” Fickes says.
As more people moved within the 23 square miles of Southlake, the 16-county North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) association, which assists local governments in planning for the future, came in and determined Southlake’s target population should be at a jaw-dropping 65,000 - 70,000 people. Um, no was basically the response they got from the city. “We, as local elected officials kept saying, no, were not going to be. We’re going to be maybe half of that,” Fickes says.
“When I was mayor, we put into place a zoning density of 2.18 lots per acre,” Fickes says. In other words, if you’ve got 100 acres, you can do 218 homes, which amounts to about a half-acre density.
“You go look at towns like Frisco,” says Fickes, referring to the population explosion in that area during the past five years. “It’s full of multifamily and apartments and high density. That’s not us. Never has been us. And its not going to be us.”
From the beginning, city leaders knew what they were after. Even dating back to the ’60s, there was always some kind of plan in place. (Today, the Southlake 2030 Plan defines the community’s values and acts as a blueprint for the city’s future.)
But during the high-growth years, they were on a mission. “Our number one goal – number one – was let’s get the highest quality we can get. Let’s not settle,” Fickes says.
“We could look around and see a lot of things that we didn’t want to be,” he says, referring to the old Northwest Highway in Grapevine and particularly what Highway 26 through Colleyville used to look like, due in large part, to fragmented zoning up and down that stretch of land. “They had some real junk,” Fickes says, before acknowledging the strides Colleyville has made in the past 10 years. A town littered with random independent structures in various states of repair was not what Southlake was after.
“We really wanted quality development,” Fickes says. “We turned down some things at certain times and set some standards. I think one of the best things we ever did was we created a corridor overlay ordinance that took in Southlake Boulevard and Highway 114.” That ordinance created very stringent masonry and landscape requirements, sign restrictions, setbacks, even parking lot guidelines —there would be no vast sea of concrete — for every nine or 10 parking spots you would need an island, landscaped and irrigated. They knew what they wanted, and what they didn’t.
“We wanted to eliminate the big box,” Fickes says. Still, Walmart made inroads and arrived in the mid ’90s. “They came out here and built one of those big two-tone cinderblock dark blue/light blue Walmarts, and everybody hated it,” Fickes says. “The first thing we did that probably kind of upset them is that we wouldn’t let them put all their paraphernalia out in the parking lot,” he remembers. Amidst Walmart’s plans for expansion a decade or so later, they moved to Grapevine, right on the border of Southlake. In no time, the big blue box was gone.
The same rules applied to other comers, including Home Depot and its landscape center that spills out into the parking lot. While they were going through the zoning process, back at the Home Depot’s headquarters in Atlanta, “Everybody was referring to the Southlake Home Depot as Chateau Depeaux,” Fickes says with a chuckle. “Instead of just building a tilt-wall building, we made them put some rock in it, change up that ugly painted mansard orange roof,” he says. “We made them do some things. They couldn’t build their box. We made them do what we call architecture articulation.”
Of course, retailers aren’t big fans of articulation. It’s a hassle. It increases their costs. But, for Southlake, it wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics. “It’s gives the community longterm value,” Fickes says. “And it gives the owner long-term value. Their buildings are worth more money to them – and on the tax rolls.”
And that was it. “It was just a matter of saying this is our standard, and you have to meet it if you are going to come play,” Fickes says. “After a year of that, everybody goes ‘You’re right. This is a great market. We want to be there. We’re willing to do that to be there.’ ”
Fortunately, for commercial properties, the bar had been set early for campus development. In the mid ’80s, IBM partnered with high-end developers to create the Solana complex. “From a commercial standpoint, they kind of set the tone,” Fickes says. The project was master planned by world-renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. He also designed the Fort Worth Science and History Museum. At around the same time, the expansion of what was then a farm to market road (now Southlake Boulevard) and 114 started to become a priority, but it would be the mid ’90s before a ribbon cutting took place.
“In 1995, the guys who did Southlake Town Square showed up,” Fickes says. They were ready to transform 130 acres, once home to a chicken farm, into something more. “We all envisioned this to be the center of the town,” he says. “In the ’90s, everybody’s thinking malls. I was quoted somewhere as saying, ‘We don’t want a mall.’ And we didn’t – as a community.” Still, that comment warranted ridicule from the local media “for wanting something a little less intense —like what we ended up with,” he says, laughing. Fickes was in office for the initial zoning and set up, but gives Rick Stacy, who succeeded him as mayor, much of the credit.
Turns out businesses want to invest in cities with a stable local government that clearly defines what you can and cannot do. “You’ve got to have local government that’s predictable —what you’re told today will be true 10 years from now,” Fickes says.
Much of the city’s success can be attributed to how well city leaders worked together during the early growth years. “It’s not what I did. It’s what we, as a council, did,” Fickes says. “It wasn’t me. It was a whole bunch of people —city managers, other council members —it was us as a group. I take great pride in that the years I was mayor, my councils, we all worked very, very well together. We had no major fighting. We really accomplished a lot of work together.”
Over time, as property values grew, so did land value and vice versa. “It’s not uncommon at all for somebody to pay half a million dollars to a million dollars for a piece of land to build their home on,” Fickes says. “That’s fairly common.”
“The schools are great,” he says. “They come here for the schools, but they love the community. They may get transferred away, but when they get a chance, they come back.”
And they don’t want to leave, but Southlake is just about built out. Fickes expresses a sentiment shared by many who built large homes in the area during the sprawl of the ’80s and ’90s. Now in his mid 60s, Fickes has lived in Southlake since his kids, long since grown and gone, were babies. ‘I don’t really want to leave,” he says. “What we’re hearing from residents is, ‘I really like it here, and I really don’t want to move, but I don’t want to stay in this house.’ So it’s a challenge: Where do you go next?”
In the end, the late start Southlake got turned into an advantage - they had the benefit of hindsight. “We had a blank canvas,” Fickes says. “We could have painted this city anyway we wanted to. I’m not so sure we totally knew what we wanted, but I think we all had a pretty good idea of what we didn’t want. Wehad the opportunity to do things a little differently.”