Walking the hallways of Pearl C. Anderson Learning Center in South Dallas, Ken Smith, 69, says he can still remember the first time he entered the “big, beautiful new school right down the street” from his home in the historic Rose Garden neighborhood of South Dallas.
More than 50 years later, he still has fond memories of his time there.
“We had the best teachers I ever had,” he says. “We could have left middle school and gone straight to college. It was that good.”
Dallas ISD’s board of trustees voted to close Pearl C. Anderson in 2012 along with 10 other schools, attributing the decision to old buildings, shrinking enrollment and budget deficits. Four of the 11 schools were located in South Dallas — H.S. Thompson, Julia C. Frazier, and Phyllis Wheatley elementary schools in addition to Pearl C. Anderson. All of them were named for historic Black leaders in Dallas and constructed as schools to which Black children were segregated.
In 2019, Watermark Community Church purchased Pearl C. Anderson from Dallas ISD for $211,111. Watermark, which has campuses in Frisco, Dallas, Fort Worth and Plano, spent $2.5 million for asbestos abatement and renovations so the space could be used for Sunday services and ministry partners. Watermark Health’s Mobile Clinic was the first partner on the South Dallas campus, and its Community Development Corporation followed soon after, providing job training, financial empowerment and business development courses.
Smith, president of the Revitalize South Dallas Coalition, has returned to his former school campus to participate in a series of community meetings hosted by Watermark South Dallas to help decide what’s next for Pearl C. Anderson. While Smith appreciates being included, he and other neighbors in the community are uneasy about what’s actually in store for their neighborhood.
Watermark submitted a proposal to the City of Dallas for a new planned development district (PD) for the almost 10-acre space on July 12 — less than two weeks before it held its second community meeting.
“It feels like an arranged marriage,” Smith says. “It seems like we were brought into Watermark South Dallas’ plans.”
Smith says Watermark needs more time in the neighborhood to understand the community’s nuances — goals, desires, challenges and assets — if they want to develop a strong, community-supported comprehensive plan.
Earlier this month, Tabitha Wheeler-Reagan, co-chair of the South Dallas/Fair Park Area Plan Task Force, attended Watermark South Dallas’ latest community meeting on rezoning. She felt the church was not sharing “all of the information” with community members.
Everything the church wants to do can be done, but they don’t need the zoning change they’re requesting to execute it, Wheeler-Reagan says.
Watermark’s proposal includes office, medical and limited retail uses for vocational training, a permanent medical center, youth programs and a grocery store.
These are all things the community wants, Wheeler-Reagan says, but their request for a PD feels like the church is overreaching.
“You’re asking for us to give you your own planet,” Wheeler-Reagan says.
The neighbors we spoke with for this story are Black, just like 65% of South Dallas. In contrast, the 9,000-member Watermark congregation is led by five white men, and their staff is predominantly white. Pastor Marvin Walker, who leads the South Dallas campus, is one of few Black staff members.
Dallas Free Press requested to speak with Walker but Caitlin Van Wagoner, Watermark’s senior director of communications, says she could not accommodate an interview.
Wheeler-Reagan says she spoke with Pastor Walker at the Nov. 7 community meeting and told him it was important to the community that Watermark South Dallas would remain part of PD 595, the planned development district that governs all of South Dallas. A less substantial zoning change would allow neighbors to see the church work towards the services and programs the area has been wanting for years while still being a part of the community, she says.
Karl A. Crawley of Masterplan, who is working on behalf of Watermark to push their zoning change through the city process, says he understands Wheeler-Reagan’s zoning concerns. However, he believes the best option for the church would be a new PD because once the city approves the development plan, Watermark can’t deviate from it. Crawley says a new planning district establishes accountability and “immortalizes” Pearl C. Anderson.
“The church wants to show the neighborhood, and everybody, ‘We’re gonna keep this building,’” Crawley says. “We’ve invested a lot in this building. We’re staying in this building.”
Watermark’s purchase of Pearl C. Anderson in 2019 — and Dallas ISD’s listing and sale of the historic school property — took South Dallas neighbors by surprise. It’s a major reason Wheeler-Reagan and others have trouble putting their faith in Watermark. To act without consulting and engaging South Dallas neighbors “is disrespectful to a disenfranchised community who already does not trust,” says Wheeler-Reagan. “The one thing about South Dallas — it is an island [that] has been mistreated. Every nonprofit that wants to start out — everybody that wants to start a political career — they come to South Dallas.”
Wheeler-Reagan says it’s been an uphill battle for the “white church from up north.” The recent community meeting felt more like another church service with testimonies from a panel of South Dallas neighbors that spoke about their journey in becoming members, she says. Many Watermark church members and staff attended, but many influential community leaders didn’t.
“It says a lot when community leaders don’t show up at the community meetings and that is probably because they haven’t been invited or they don’t believe in the project,” Wheeler-Reagan says, adding that she believes both are true.
Crawley says Watermark is doing its best to work with the community. He says it’s actually more difficult for Watermark South Dallas to apply for a new planned development district than to work within the existing PD 595 as a new subdistrict. If neighbors don’t want a zoning change, “it would be easier on us, to be honest,” Crawley says, adding that Watermark could start adding onto the historic school building without the need for City approval.
The proposed plan before the city council shows additional parking for the grocery store and the medical clinic, he says. Each floor plan provides a tentative layout for the programs that will occupy former classrooms.
LaSheryl Walker, director of community engagement at Forest Forward, shares Wheeler-Reagan’s concerns. She had the chance to tour the unused space after the July 23 community meeting, and left impressed after learning about some of the projects they plan to start. South Dallas needs a quality grocery store, she says.
However, she wants to see Watermark South Dallas partner with longstanding programs and resources in the area like Park South YMCA, Larry Johnson Recreation Center and TR Hoover Community Development Center — which all are within a 2-mile radius of Watermark South Dallas. These grassroots nonprofits have struggled but managed to consistently serve the community, and it seems like a “slap in the face” to them, Walker says, for the church to appear out of nowhere and roll out large-scale programming in less than five years.
District 7 Planning Commissioner Benjamin J. Vann, whom Councilmember Bazaldua appointed in April, attended his first Watermark South Dallas rezoning community meeting this month, which was the church’s eighth community meeting. Vann says he didn’t know about the prior community meetings and learned about this one when the Watermark South Dallas team invited him.
“I do think there are some transparency challenges that have to be overcome,” Vann says, adding that community “conversations should have happened a long time ago.” He also affirmed that Wheeler-Reagan is correct in her assessment that the church can achieve the objectives laid out in its zoning change proposal within the current PD 595 area plan.
Vann invited community members to voice their opinion about the rezoning at the City Plan Commission public hearing on Dec. 15, which, though less than a month away, isn’t yet listed on the City’s website. The city also is required to send mailers to property owners in a “notification area” closest to the site 10 days before the commission hears the case, and those owners can respond by mail in support or opposition.
The commissioners will vote on a recommendation to City Council, and Vann expects Council to vote on a final decision by the end of January 2023.
Although Watermark South Dallas has no tentative timeline for construction and remodeling, Smith says Walker told him at the Nov. 9 meeting that developments would be underway before 2024.
“The community must own our community,” Smith says. “If we don’t own it, we can’t shape and develop it the way it wants to be. We’re always begging someone else to do what we want them to do. If we own it, we can determine what we want our community to be.”