Cursed are the peacemakers

Councilwoman Laura Miller steps right into the line of fire--and ends up wounded--in a neighborhood war over a parking lot

The early results are in. And preliminary indications are strong that Laura Miller's transition from longtime Dallas columnist to neophyte Dallas City Council member will not necessarily be smooth.

It will be interesting. But not smooth. And who thought it would be?
Miller's 15-year journalism career in Dallas and New York, including her six years as a columnist for the Dallas Observer, was always a pretty good fireworks display. When she took office for the first time on May 6, having swept 81 percent of the vote in her Oak Cliff district, no promises were made of demure behavior.

By the end of her first week in office, sparks were already flying.
Miller had devoted most of the week to a zoning dispute between Methodist Medical Center and a neighborhood that is half in her district, half in Steve Salazar's. An odd outcome of her efforts was that the two hostile and intransigent camps to this dispute, unable to agree about the time of day for years, are now united in one thing--their mutual wariness of Laura Miller.

Miller, 39, admits the hospital-neighborhood thing hasn't gone well for her.
"I have been trying to broker peace with both sides, and I stumbled very badly," she says.

Miller, who used to hunt for controversy as a columnist, sometimes sounds as if she is just now encountering real controversy for the first time. Maybe it's the difference between observing trench warfare from a certain journalistic distance and now suddenly finding herself upside-down in the trench.

"There's such a war going on!" she says. "This thing took away all of my idealism about how we should all hold hands and just work out our problems and march together on City Hall for the greater good of Oak Cliff."

For their part, the people whose hands Miller tried to hold are not feeling very idealistic about her either, even though they allow that the jury is still out. For now, they've all got her in their sights.

"We're going to watch and see what she's made of," says Pam Conley, an activist in the Bishop/Davis and Kidd Springs neighborhoods.

Conley, a very intense, wiry, big-eyed lady who can go from coquette to bulldog in the blink of an eye, says she's proud of having intimidated Miller during a lonely elevator ride at City Hall, especially after Miller had appeared at Conley's neighborhood meeting using a lot of swear words.

"Normally," Conley says, "you assume somebody who talks like that can take it, but..."

Here Conley gets a real big grin.
"She shriveled up like that when I went after her on that elevator," she says, showing a squeezed-tight fist.

The members of the board of directors of Methodist hospital didn't comment about their own meetings with Miller, although they did talk to the Observer about the zoning dispute. But two people who had knowledge of those meetings confirmed privately that Miller's thoughts on ways Methodist could wise up probably did not sit well with the hospital's board.

But she says that.
In fact, nobody in the whole situation is a quicker or more harshly critical student of Laura Miller's first week on the job than Laura Miller.

If anything, Miller probably thinks she did way worse than anybody else does.

In a generally tough week, her worst moment--by her own account--was when she tried to suggest to the board of Methodist hospital how they could get a little smarter in handling their neighborhood problems.

Founded 78 years ago, Methodist has 400 physicians on staff working in more than a million square feet of hospital and office space. It claims to be the biggest hospital in Texas with all private rooms. In the last decade, the hospital has been pouring huge sums of money into an expansion campaign that promises to become only more aggressive in the years ahead.

The neighborhood contends--and can offer some specific illustrations--that Methodist has seldom involved itself in neighborhood improvement efforts. It was on this general issue that Miller offered Methodist some advice--advice that might have gone down easier had it not been for the specific issue that has been inflaming relations in recent months.

That specific dispute is a parking lot just south of Methodist's huge medical center in North Oak Cliff. It's just a parking lot. But it's a parking lot that has become the neighborhood's equivalent of Lexington Common, where, as in Emerson's poem, "...the embattled farmers stood, / And fired the shot heard round the world."

In 1997, as part of a big, complicated land deal with private developers aimed at getting an abandoned building torn down across the street from the hospital, Methodist wound up owning seven lots on Bishop Street, two of which already had a scroungy old commercial parking lot on them.

Methodist didn't like the parking lot that was there. It was weedy, trashy, uneven, unmowed, soggy in some seasons, cracked in others. What was to like?

"It was an eyesore," says Warren Rutherford, the chief operating officer of Methodist Hospitals of Dallas.

They especially hated the big, scaggy sign that said "Hospital Parking."
"We could never get them to take that down," Rutherford says with a grim expression.

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