Established in the 1800s, Oakwood Cemetery appears on both sides of Prairie Street and serves as a home to generations of Quakertown residents who have died in Southeast Denton, where gentrification and racism forced them to move their community 100 years ago. Many of the headstones have been weathered by time, revealing a long history and deep family roots ingrained in the Southeast Denton community.
Quakertown boarding house owners Henry and Charlotte Maddox are buried there, as are Henry Maddox’s mother and sister and about 4,500 other people, including early settlers to Denton. The state designated it a historical site in 1982.
A look at recent coverage from the Denton Record-Chronicle on the Railyard apartment project and concerns expressed by the Southeast Denton Ne…
This past Tuesday, Quakertown descendants gathered at the American Legion Hall Senior Center a couple of blocks away as part of the Southeast Denton Neighborhood Association’s morning meeting with the Railyard Phase 1 apartment developer, Dirik Oudt of Lang Partners. The developer found himself in what he called an unusual situation and in a conversation he said he never expected to have: to discuss a community benefit agreement, a mutually beneficial arrangement between a developer and a neighborhood they wish to appease.
But the descendants had a few issues they wanted to discuss first, including the use of the Railyard Phase 1 land to expand Oakwood Cemetery, the lack of affordable housing and the city’s future land-use plans, which do not include what the neighborhood wants.
“‘Wacka, wacka, wacka,’ is what we think about every time this takes place in Southeast Denton,” one descendant said about the excuses she was hearing from the developer, the planning staff and city officials, who have been helping the Railyard project to fruition since before the COVID-19 pandemic — without SEDNA’s awareness.
“I don’t understand why everything in Denton, Texas, got to come over to us in Southeast Denton,” she continued. “Do anybody else have land somewhere, do anybody else have buildings that have been thrown back, do anybody else have some construction? I feel like we could have extended our cemetery with that land coming from the [Trinity Steel] because our people have been buried on top of each other since I was born.”
She paused as several other SEDNA members agreed. “I just wished somebody got hold of us.”
Oudt, who canceled his previous meeting with SEDNA, stressed that he wouldn’t call Railyard Phase 1 “luxury apartments.” He called them “market-rate apartments” and claimed that, with rent running $2,000 a month for 1,000 square feet, they fall in line with what other apartment complexes charge in Denton.
And while he couldn’t offer affordable units or land to expand the graveyard, Oudt said that as a good neighbor, he was willing to negotiate with his future neighbors, who once again find themselves threatened by gentrification, 100 years after their ancestors’ forced removal from present-day Quakertown Park because of gentrification and racism.
The Rev. Reginald Logan, a SEDNA member and Quakertown descendant, told the developer: “Your timing is bad.”
Tuesday morning’s meeting was the first of several that will take place between the Railyard developer and SEDNA in hopes of laying the foundation for a community benefit agreement. The next step involves SEDNA appointing a representative, or several, to barter with the developer and his team to create the community benefit agreement by March and provide relief and ease gentrification concerns that one SEDNA member claimed would be another Quakertown tragedy.
“This is our neighborhood, and people are wanting to build around our neighborhood, and the city wants to extend the downtown area where you’re trying to build [the apartments],” SEDNA President Colette Johnson said. “That is our cemetery, and once you build your apartments, we won’t be able to expand the cemetery. Luxury is what the sign said, and most of us can’t afford it.”
The city’s plan to expand downtown into Southeast Denton had been in the works for 20 years when the City Council in 2002 ignored what residents wanted and changed the zoning of the land where Trinity Steel was once located, reaffirming the changes in 2019.
It’s one of the reasons Lang Partners is able to build Phase 1 of the development on that property without SEDNA’s support.
Oudt spent the first part of Tuesday’s meeting explaining how the Railyard development unfolded. He claimed that the city “had some notion that some day this property could be redeveloped.”
“According to people at the city, this is an area of town that has a lot of potential,” Oudt said. “But they had never been able to purchase it because Trinity Industries never wanted to sell it.”
Oudt, who grew up in West Texas, had a good friend who worked as a high-level executive at Trinity Industries and told him they were restructuring their publicly traded company.
Shortly before COVID-19 hit, Oudt said his friend was able to persuade the company to sell the property if Lang Partners could buy it quickly.
They did and began developing the plan for the project with the city’s help based on the city’s future land-use plans for the area. The first phase would be a market-rate apartment complex, which the developer decided to call the “Railyard” since Trinity Steel spent years building and painting rail cars there.
Oudt said he didn’t know anything about speaking with SEDNA until three years after Lang Partners had purchased the property and started planning its development. They were trying to move fast to get Phase 1 started and decided simply to build something within the zoning since they didn’t have time to request a zoning change for the “more ambitious project” they had planned.
He said he didn’t learn that he needed to speak with SEDNA until September, when city staff mentioned it to him.
Oudt explained that in his experience, a city receives feedback from the community, city staff and planning department during zoning changes, which is when he said public discourse usually occurs. He mentioned that he had heard there had been a tremendous amount of public debate surrounding the 2019 zoning changes.
“I’ve been through a ton of these, and I’ve never seen a rezoning that didn’t require community feedback,” Oudt said.
He then said the situation was an unusual one for him and pointed out that some of the homes south of his property are actually on his property. He said he decided to let those properties have their extended fence lines because he didn’t want to take it away from them.
But what he failed to mention is that Denton’s rezoning process doesn’t require council members or city staff in the planning department to listen to community feedback, which is what happened in 2002, when residents opposed the zoning changes, and again in 2019, when zoning throughout the city was updated, according to minutes from the 2002 meeting and residents’ comments submitted during the 2019 zoning changes.
Denton Mayor Gerard Hudspeth, who was also at Tuesday’s SEDNA meeting, reminded members that he and another SEDNA member had gone door to door to raise awareness about a zoning change on another nearby property. He claimed he was ignored and that the City Council and planning and zoning department went ahead and approved the change despite their concerns.
“I was heartbroken,” Hudspeth said.
Hudspeth’s explanation was echoed by other SEDNA members, who said it was important to stay involved and be aware of what is being proposed for their community.
But even then, it is not a guarantee their voices will be heard.
As another SEDNA member pointed out in regard to the redevelopment of Southeast Denton and the expansion of downtown, “That is what the city wants, not what the community wants.”
Members of the Southeast Denton Neighborhood Association (SEDNA)
meet Tuesday with Dirik Oudt, center, the Railyard Phase 1
Community benefit agreements
SEDNA members began discussing the CBA after they watched Alice Street, a documentary about gentrification affecting minority and low-income communities in California, at SEDNA’s September meeting. They learned they could possibly receive concessions from a developer even though the zoning now allows the proposed project to be built.
In this case, the CBA would be a private agreement between the developer and SEDNA, but there has been a call for what is known as a community benefits ordinance, which would require developers to establish a CBA with neighborhoods prior to any development impacting them, as former Denton City Council member Paul Meltzer discussed in an Oct. 14 op-ed for the Denton Record-Chronicle.
“After more than 20 years now, the verdict on CBAs seems to be that they’re not a complete substitute for, say, a good affordable housing program,” Meltzer wrote. “But they can lessen some of the harms of new projects and help ensure those projects benefit the incumbent populations.”
Meltzer claimed some of those benefits can include “guaranteed minimum local hiring, percentages of affordable housing units, improvements to parks and other community amenities, and sometimes environmental set-asides and green building practices.”
It’s also a way for residents’ voices to be heard when city leaders choose to ignore them or when, Meltzer pointed out, they “feel like they’re a lone voice in the wilderness being ignored as the bulldozers close in.”
Meltzer has been credited with helping to bring the developer to the table with SEDNA, local historian Randy Hunt said.
“Spurred by the regrettable no-show incident, I’ve been happy to research and provide constructive ideas to participants on both sides so they could envision a collaborative way forward and ultimately get on the same side,” Meltzer wrote in an email Friday to the Record-Chronicle. “I’m delighted that the dialogue is now underway. This will be beneficial to all concerned.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, it felt as if the bulldozers were closing in on SEDNA members — the dozen who were able to attend after their Bible study since many had to work. They discussed how their neighborhood is becoming unaffordable and reiterated that they didn’t want the multifamily apartments they couldn’t afford, wondered about the graveyard’s expansion and struggled to wrap their heads around why the city would do this to them again after what had happened 100 years ago to their ancestors.
One of the older members suggested the developer go back to the council and tell them what the residents wanted and change the zoning to single-family residential, especially given all the apartment developments council members have been approving.
The Rev. Logan finally spoke up to remind people there was nothing that could be done at this point. “Folks, folks, folks, it is already zoned,” he said. “They are not going to change it to a single-family. We get that. We’ve been invaded. We know it’s been coming.”
Both the developer and his representative, Aimee Bissett, stressed that they are willing to negotiate with SEDNA. And while they couldn’t do much with Phase 1 of the development since every inch of the property is needed to make it profitable, they said they could offer something to the community in regard to Phases 2 and 3 since they’re still planning them.
Those phases will be located across the street from the Railyard apartments and could include about 20,000 square feet of retail space.
Bissett said she had watched the Alice Street documentary and previous SEDNA meetings and researched other CBAs to come up with a list of possible suggestions for SEDNA’s CBA: scholarships for child care, park or school improvements, hiring opportunities, economic opportunities, community market or “pop-up” and satellite grocery options and programs and grant funding to prevent gentrification and displacement.
“Let us fix that for you,” Bissett said regarding the city ignoring the community’s wishes. “We’re here to do a community benefits agreement. We know this is important to you.”
SEDNA also gave the developer and his representative their thoughts on what should be included in the CBA: a local grocery store, a daycare, affordable apartment rentals and set-asides for organizations such as the Small Business Association, the Minority and Women Business Enterprises and the Denton Black Chamber.
They plan to continue the CBA negotiations. In the meantime, one SEDNA member seemed to capture what the community was feeling about elected officials’ and the planning commissioners’ willingness to ignore the majority of residents and continue with plans that don’t include their voices.
“It just irritates me that this is going on,” she said. “And then we got to sit up over here and be quiet like. … We’re not stupid in Southeast Denton. We know every step that’s fixing ready to go down. We know what’s trying to be planned. Everybody in Southeast Denton, pack your bag and get up out of here because we got this over here.”