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

When Methodist acquired the property a couple of years ago, the sign came down immediately. Then, in its next 30 seconds of ownership, Methodist set about turning all seven of the lots it had acquired into the kind of parking lot a major medical complex could be proud of. The trouble was, the more distant four of the seven lots Methodist owned on Bishop Street carried different zoning restrictions than the lots right across the street with the scaggy sign.

As Bishop Street plunges south from the back of the hospital, it quickly enters a place called the Bishop/Davis Urban Design Area. Not that you would have any way of knowing it. The Bishop/Davis Urban Design Area is not yet a true and actual place, in the sense of being a part of town of which one might say, "Hey, let's run over to the Bishop/Davis Urban Design Area and look for dates."

Rather, it is a conceptual area, including several neighborhoods and pieces of neighborhoods--parts of tony Kessler Park (where Miller lives), Kidd Springs, Winnetka Heights, Kings Highway, Lake Cliff, Dallas Land & Loan ("Hey, let's run over to Dallas Land & Loan and look for dates").

The particular corner of the area occupied by Methodist's lots on Bishop falls within the Kidd Springs Planned Development District #160. P.D. 160, as it is colloquially known ("Hey..."), is the recent creation of a long and agonizing effort by neighborhood leaders to get some kind of protective zoning for the Kidd Springs area.

The Kidd Springs neighborhood is a real place. It surrounds Kidd Springs Park, originally a late-19th-century country club for North Oak Cliff when Oak Cliff was a prestigious enclave like the Park Cities today.

When Kidd Springs was annexed by the city in 1945, it was still an area of gracious turn-of-the-century homes. By the late 1980s, it had softened into the kind of low-rent, high-impact area where crime and transience were taking a heavy toll.

Maureen Jones, a neighborhood leader in Kidd Springs, says the neighborhood's aim in getting the city to create P.D. 160 was to save what was old and good in the area in order to encourage things new and better.

"How do we maintain this historic and yet diverse area, and at the same time make it attractive enough to try to make people want to come in?" she asks.

How? With P.D. 160, which is a special kind of planning ordinance. It says you can do this, you can't do that, you have to do this, and so on. It is intended to be a sort of legal suit of armor to protect the area from being carved up into zoning mincemeat.

Gary Burns, an officer in an alliance of North Oak Cliff neighborhood associations, says he and his neighbors see two principal factors that cause the erosion of an aging urban area like theirs: 1) the failure of the city to enforce the building code, and 2) the ability of major property owners to get their own property "spot-zoned," allowing uses that are otherwise illegal. So important are these issues, Burns says, that they supersede any other efforts by the city to improve an area by fixing things up.

"It doesn't do any good to plant trees and create little medians and brick walkways and things if the city is going to continue to mess with the urban design plan by allowing spot-zoning and by not enforcing the code," Burns says.

The neighborhood organizations contend that Methodist hospital started out bulldozing trees and excavating soil for a new parking lot on its property on Bishop Street even though the city had told Methodist that its project violated the provisions of P.D. 160. Then, confronted with the illegality of its actions, Methodist used its clout to get the property spot-zoned for parking, the neighbors claim.

Methodist argues that the city told it several different things, one of which was that a parking lot was OK there. The files of the Plan Department and Board of Adjustment bear out that the city has gone 180 degrees at least once in its instructions to Methodist, first giving Methodist the go-ahead, then changing its mind after a contractor had begun work.

One problem with punching the go-button on a construction contract and then stopping it, according to James Bishop, Methodist's lawyer, is that Methodist would then be left with a gouged-up property and no parking lot and would owe the contractor a ton of money.

"If we got out of the contract at that point, we would have owed all of the profit to the contractor, and that was in our agreement," Bishop says. "And we would have to leave the area half-constructed and looking terrible."

The neighbors say--and the city agrees--that city officials changed their minds because they found out Methodist hadn't given the city all the facts in seeking permission for the lot. Bishop, who is suing the city on behalf of Methodist, says, "That is just plain false."

The hospital went ahead with the lot, he says, because it believed it was right and that the appropriate bodies at City Hall would eventually agree. The City Plan Commission did seem to agree with Methodist by an almost unanimous vote, although a final vote is scheduled for June 25.

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