Innovator paves the way for a new type of neighborhood, one that could elevate North Lake Highlands

Innovator paves the way for a new type of neighborhood, one that could elevate North Lake Highlands. (Photo by: Kathy Tran)
Innovator paves the way for a new type of neighborhood, one that could elevate North Lake Highlands. (Photo by: Kathy Tran)

Uncommon Sense

Developer Diane Cheatham insists bigger isn’t always better, not that big is bad. After all, it is from her office, located on the third level of her 4,336-square-foot abode in Urban Reserve that she lays out plans for her forthcoming Urban Commons.

Along the LBJ frontage road just east of Abrams, 80 or so modern homes, varying in size and cost, will exist “in harmony with our environment,” she promises. That the land is situated across the street from a low-budget motel and one of the region’s busiest highways is of minimal concern to Cheatham. Almost a decade ago she proved her property-transforming prowess when she founded Urban Reserve, built on a similarly problematic 14-acre swath. An accountant by trade, she appreciates capital and the lovely things it can buy, but she is more interested in creating a legacy and charting a path for progressive neighborhood planning. She embraces challenges, takes things a step at a time and lacerates City Hall’s red tape like a code-and-regulation-navigating ninja.

Urban Reserve is magnificent and pricey. How will Urban Commons compare?

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Commons will share the Urban Reserve essence, embracing the outdoors, the environment, natural water sources — we do not want to buy any water from the city, but use the consistently refilling creek as a source. There are no alleys; two- and three-story homes will be in rows between the creek and greenbelt. Respected architects and small firms will design the houses. They will be different from one another, but whether one of the smaller or larger homes, the architecture will be impressive — sustainable, made with a combination of modern and natural building materials. One will not see a difference in architectural integrity — only the sizes will fluctuate. I learned so much building Urban Reserve, and there are things I wanted to do better, or differently. We’re taking an even bigger step in Urban Commons to create a neighborhood feel. Here, your front lawn, so to speak, is one of 10 pocket parks maintained by the Homeowners Association, whose dues will be very low, like $25. That saves people the labor of lawn care, and, the bigger idea is that someone is, say, picnicking out at a park table or walking the trail, and others will see them and join them, come out and chat, commune with each other and the surrounding nature. That is the dream. You will have over a mile of trail, several small parks and picnic tables, a pond with wildlife, wood ducks, owls.

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So, how much more affordable than Urban Reserve are we talking?

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What we want is to create a more-diverse socioeconomic mix, incorporating architect-designed houses you don’t have to be rich to own. The plan is a range in size from about 1,200-2,500 square feet. About half of the houses will come without attached garages — that alone can make a $60,000 difference. We will try to build some homes in the $275,000 range. The residents without garage parking will have spaces nearby. People, we are attached to our cars, so it takes some getting used to. But it also will mean more neighbors outside, even if only on a brief walk to their front doors.

This land is hidden, previously
overrun with bushes, and nearby areas are known for panhandlers and rundown buildings — how’d you decide on it?

I initially had a bid on the Hearthwood property in the same area; this is the burned down complex on Abrams near Richland College. I showed up thinking I was the only one interested, but here’s three attorneys and they bid it up over $600,000 more, paid cash. So [my broker] found this space, which is perfect. It was covered in thick brush and inhabited by a tent city, with clothes hanging from trees, a ton of trash. When our workers began clearing the land they asked me what to do and I said to move the tents and clothing to the clearing, and when we did that, they left all of their trash behind, and moved up near the Chimney Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood watch [members] got rid of them immediately, threw away the tents. Me, I see both things. Everything these guys owned went in a dumpster, but homelessness is also just a huge, nuanced citywide problem. I would not want to be the one in charge of fixing that.

Do those issues concern you, as a builder in the neighborhood?

I’ve attended neighborhood meetings [Chimney Hill] and have been impressed. They have a very active group that is quietly but surely keeping this whole area at the forefront. I think Urban Commons will help to continue to elevate and transform the area. I became a believer a long time ago in the way [beautification] can lift everything around it — years back, the city was granting funds for home renovations; one project was a house on a street where everything was dilapidated and I thought, “What’s the point?” But a year later, every home  on the block looked improved. And I saw the intelligence of the whole idea. I can afford to buy class-C properties [typically, locations that take extensive work to ready for development], which means things like deed restrictions and more problems to solve, in order to develop single-family residences.

Your husband mentioned you
are against gated neighborhoods —
why so?

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True, I don’t believe in gating. It is an extra expense and it provides a false sense of security. Urban Reserve [west of Stults Road, east of Central Expressway] is open to cyclists, joggers and others passing through from surrounding neighborhoods to the White Rock Creek Trail [or DART rail station], yet there have been so few negative incidents. It will be the same at Urban Commons. People from outside will be welcome on the trail, at the parks. Certain design elements discourage crime — for example, with pocket parks in lieu of large front yards, everything is closer to the street. Everywhere else in Lake Highlands, you’re set back, which is nicer for a thief.  [Urban Commons] homes will have front porches facing the parks, people are out, eyes on the street.

The signage is up, no construction yet. what sorts of holdups have you encountered?

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I know [Urban Commons] is different and I understand the caution at the city level. It’s not something the city planners, especially those on the committees that deal with the nitty-gritty design elements, have seen before or feel comfortable approving, but I have my spiel ready. There are rules in place — and there should be, but it’s a Catch-22 because rules can promote mediocrity, and there are some that don’t mesh with my ideas, so we have to chart a path. Hopefully we can open the door for more creative development this way. I have been doing this a long time, I’m from the neighborhood, so I know the language and ins and outs of city code and planning — I think I have built some trust and relationships and I know how to compromise when needed. And, I don’t have this development machine, so I can go at my own pace. That’s a luxury the bigger companies don’t have.

When might we see houses going up?

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I’d like maybe May or June. We will build the first three near the entrance. I’d like it to move fast, for the sake of the owners coming in. I think when people actually see it, this will be a big eye opener. I would like to keep creating spaces like this, making something that will outlast me and promote a different way of living. It might not be for the masses; it is for a smaller group who thinks this is really cool.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

Explore Urban Commons’
via an interactive map at
urbancommons.live.

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