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

As contentious as all of this might seem, it still isn't enough to explain the deeper enmity and mistrust that have grown between this struggling neighborhood and its mighty neighbor. What seems to fire the issue from within is the absolute conviction of neighborhood leaders that the hospital does not respect them, is lying to them, and is playing a long-range game at the end of which the neighborhood is expected to dry up and blow away.

Both Burns and Conley say they are convinced the hospital's plan from the beginning has been to bust open P.D. 160 like a cheap watch and then come marching down Bishop Street with some gargantuan expansion plan that will industrialize the whole area and push them off the map like cockroaches.

"I know it in my heart," Conley says, with her hand on her heart.
Warren Rutherford, the hospital's chief operating officer, stands over a model of the hospital campus in the board room and taps a finger on top of the Plexiglas box in which the model is entombed. A big man in a pinstripe suit with steel-gray hair and metal-rimmed glasses, he is polite in spite of his obvious anger at being accused of lying.

"All of our expansion plans are toward Beckley [east], not Colorado [south], and we have said that over and over again," he says.

He stabs with his finger toward the area around the parking lot. "The fact is, this is ugly over here. This is terrible over here, and what we looked at was, in effect, a way we could improve the visibility of our institution and in that way help the community."

He backs away from the model and lifts his chin. "We had a chance to leave Oak Cliff 13 years ago, and we decided not to do it," he says. "We have spent $100 million on expansion over the last 10 to 12 years. We chose to stay in Oak Cliff, and we have totally rebuilt this campus in a first-class way from the ground up."

He is quiet for a moment, probably thinking about the accusation that he's prevaricating and intends to annihilate the whole neighborhood. He shakes his head.

"I just can't talk the way I'd like to about that to a reporter."

Between this deepest level of mistrust and the more mundane stuff, there are by now several layers of in-between mistrust. There is, for example, the fountain/extortion issue.

Maureen Jones explains that the neighborhood had invited Methodist at one point to participate cash-wise in an effort to dress up the intersection of Bishop and Colorado, perhaps with some kind of sign or fountain. Jones says the idea was inspired by advice from a city planner who had worked in other parts of the country where hospitals regularly participated in such neighborhood improvement projects.

But a person familiar with the thinking of the Methodist board, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, says the hospital may have thought a tit-for-tat was being suggested--that the zoning issues might go away if a nice fat checkie showed up one day with Warren Rutherford's signature at the bottom.

Methodist didn't like that idea. Another person who has regular dealings with the hospital board says, "For somebody to suggest that there was a quid pro quo would run absolutely contrary to the cultural values of the institution."

So. Another reason for both sides to sit up nights thinking how much they despise each other.

Enter Councilwoman Miller, with the hand-holding idea.
"I made two pitches," she says.
Both bad, it turns out.

Even before she was elected, Miller had met the top officers of Methodist, some of whom had contributed generously to her campaign coffers, at a breakfast meeting in the Methodist boardroom. (Miller also received money from some of the neighborhood leaders.)

She asked Methodist, "What are your issues?" Miller says they told her, "The parking lot."

Also during her campaign, she met another generous contributor for the first time--Ralph Isenberg, an Oak Cliff developer. Isenberg is interested in renovating the Japanese meditation garden in Kidd Springs Park, not as a business deal but as a good work.

After she was elected, still thinking about the parking lot, still thinking about the meditation garden, not knowing jack about the fountain/extortion issue, Miller had what she thought was a great idea. She called Isenberg and asked that they go together to see the Methodist board.

Isenberg says that he knew she was going to pitch them for the meditation garden, but that he had no idea she was going to link it to the parking lot or he would have warned her off. He knew the history of the fountain proposal and would have known it was a mistake to hit up Methodist for any money in a conversation that also included zoning issues.

"I had no idea she was going to bring that up," Isenberg says.
Miller, who had been feeling out the political realities, knew by then, she says, that neither the plan commission nor the city council was ever going to vote to make Methodist hospital tear up its parking lot, nor did she think they should.

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