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.

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.

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.

So Miller says she told Methodist at her meeting with them, "Look, you've got the parking lot there already. Now why don't you go help Isenberg with the meditation garden?

"I said, 'You hired [zoning consultant] Mike Coker, you hired [attorney] Jim Bishop. How much does that cost? That's not for patient care.'"

In her mind, it was simple: The hospital was going to win the zoning thing on the parking lot. Now the least they could do was win graciously and make a little gesture. What? Ten, maybe fifteen grand? Peanuts, next to what they were spending on high-priced legal and political help.

But the suggestion was no sooner out of her mouth than Miller, by profession a close student of facial expressions, saw that everyone on the other side of the table all of a sudden looked like he was having a lemon for breakfast.

In their minds: Oh, no. Not the old tit-for-tat with the fountain thing again.

"They looked at me," Miller says, "like they thought I was extorting them."
In a more pointed off-the-record remark, she says she felt they were looking at her as if she had suddenly metamorphosed into one of the more vile targets of her own sharp pen.

A third party familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, says Miller over-interpreted and took it all way too hard.

"She didn't know any of the history. They did have the sucking-on-a-lemon look for a while, but that was only because they were thinking, 'Oh, no, not the damned fountain again.' But as soon as that cleared the air, everybody was fine."

One pitch down. One to go.
"Maureen Jones and Gary Burns and some others wanted me to come learn about funding for the Bishop Arts district," Miller says. "The only time they can meet with me is in the evening, so I have to say, all right, I don't get to have dinner with my kids, but that was how it had to be, so I went.

"I got there, and they were just going along with their regular business, reading the minutes...which didn't tell me a hell of a lot about Bishop Arts.

"So finally I got up and said, 'I have sat here for an hour, and I haven't learned a hell of a lot about Bishop Arts.' They said, 'Don't go, don't go.' I said, 'Well what do you want?' And they said they wanted $500,000."

The participants in the meeting have a similar if somewhat differently shaded version of events.

"I had called her that week and asked her if she would meet with us," Burns says. "She said she wanted to keep her evenings free for her children. Then she showed up. Late.

"She came in and said, 'Just continue with your business, I'm just here to observe.' And she took out her little notebook. I talked for a while, trying to update the group on things. Then she started packing up her notes.

"She said, 'If there is anything I can do for you, let me know, but I'm not getting anything out of this.' She started to leave, so I said, 'You know, Laura, if you could get us some money, that would be great.'"

In fact, the Bishop Arts area where the neighborhood wants to spend money is mainly not even in Miller's district. Most of it is in Councilman Steve Salazar's district. There should be federal community block grant money available for the improvement projects the neighborhood has in mind. But Salazar had allowed all the community block grant money for his area to get sucked out of the budget earlier in the year when the mayor and city manager were scouring around for money for arena- and river-related projects.

Here was something Miller might be able to get done. But with that hand-holding thing still in mind, she turned to Pat Conley and made a suggestion.

"I said, 'If I get you this money, can you cut the hospital some slack on their parking lot?'"

Gary Burns describes the moment:
"You could have heard a pin drop. Nobody had said a word about Methodist hospital up to that point. I wish I had a picture of Pat Conley's face when those words came out of Laura Miller's mouth."

But Miller did have the picture. "They looked at me the way the hospital had looked at me," she says, "like I was extorting something!"

It was that old devil quid pro quo again. The unmentionable.
Maureen Jones, who is every bit as somber on these matters as Warren Rutherford, says the group tried to explain to Miller how important the parking lot was.

"I am a New Age minister," Jones says, "and everything in my life is under divine guidance. I explained that the parking lot is not just a parking lot. It is a zoning violation that was blatant and premeditated. They broke the law. Either we have zoning in the City of Dallas, or we do not have zoning. If we don't, just be honest about it, and say we do not have zoning. Don't waste my time and let me think I can steer the destiny of my neighborhood."

Burns says, "Laura said, 'Fine, fine; let me see if I can get you some money anyway,' and she left."

Both Burns and Conley mentioned that Miller used a lot of curse words in expressing herself during their meeting. Burns tends to use a few himself, and Conley admits she does too, but both of them expressed "shock" that a city council member would curse in a neighborhood meeting.

Miller, who grew up in newsrooms at a time when women could be fired for not swearing, let out a very pained sigh when told she had offended some people with her language. "I'm trying really hard on that," she says.

The parking-lot case is not officially over, but it is virtually over. All but one member of the plan commission voted recently to change the zoning on Methodist's Bishop Street lots, allowing Methodist to keep and use its new parking lot. After the issue returns to the plan commission on June 25 for a technical vote, it will go to the City Council for final resolution, probably in mid-August after the council's July recess.

Miller has made it clear she will vote for Methodist there, which normally means the rest of the council will too.

But there is also another end of the story. By the end of last week, it looked as if Miller had come up with the $500,000 the neighborhoods had been seeking for improvements to the Bishop Arts district.

For starters, and in less than two weeks of work, and given the fact that the neighborhood had applied for this same money already and had been turned down--half a million bucks isn't bad.

If she pulls it off, this level of funding to improve an Oak Cliff neighborhood will be fairly revolutionary. Oak Cliff has a history going back into the early '80s of similar studies that have sat on shelves forever and were never funded, mainly because of the area's history of ineffectual council representation. With the exception of a few like former council members Jim Buerger and Bob Stimson, most North Oak Cliff representatives have been old white guys who spent their time kissing up to North Dallas and never getting a dime in return for their constituents.

As miffed as he may be about the denouement of the parking-lot battle, Gary Burns is clearly intrigued by the possibility that Laura Miller may be able to go out and get that one commodity so achingly rare in the recent history of Oak Cliff: cash.

Cash to fix things. Cash to build things. Cash to make things happen.
Therefore, Burns wants to make it clear he is still willing to allow Miller to atone. "I understand she's new at this," Burns says, "and I'm not sure I wouldn't have screwed up the same way if I had run for council."

He says it's obvious that she is taking the job very seriously and very personally. After the plan commission vote in support of Methodist, Burns wrote Miller a letter explaining why the parking lot issue was so important and why he was concerned that she seemed to have taken up the cudgel for Methodist before even hearing his side of it.

"She left me two phone messages the first day she got the letter and two more the next day," he says. "She said, 'I went home last night, and I was almost in tears, I was so upset.'"

Miller says she read Burns' letter as somewhat harsher than an expression of concern. "Gary Burns sent me a 'the-fix-is-in' letter," she says.

Burns says that was not the point. He merely wanted her to know, he says, that as wonderful as it may be to get some money for Bishop Arts, none of it is worth a plugged nickel if developers and big-money interests can continue to ride roughshod over the city's zoning code.

When Miller talks about the parking-lot battle, there is a mixture of shock and excitement in her tone, as if she is seeing all the same old City Hall stuff from some exhilarating new vantage point.

The meeting where the Methodist guys looked at her like a crook was clearly the worst moment so far. "My big plan to be the peacemaker died at that meeting," she says.

But she's already on the trail of new dragons. An abandoned plating company that the neighborhood has fought unsuccessfully for years to get demolished is finally coming down after Miller told then-City Manager John Ware it was her No. 1 priority (Ware resigned last Thursday).

"My hope is that if I can help these people with the plating company, maybe they'll get over the parking lot."

Uh-oh. The old quid pro quo.
And anyway, Pam Conley says she's the one who's getting the plating company torn down. "I've been on that for years," she says. "She can't take credit for that."

And speaking of the quid pro quo, what about Ralph Isenberg, the Kidd Springs Park guy? He says a major chunk of the $500,000 Miller is getting for Bishop Arts is coming out of money that was to be spent on Kidd Springs Park.

It's always something.
Does Miller see a moral in the Methodist story?
"I see a parking lot," Miller says. "I look at it, and it looks more like a parking lot than not like a parking lot to me. I told Conley, it looks a hell of a lot better than the old parking lot. The bottom line--if you look at the big picture--is that it used to be a really ugly parking lot, and now it's a nice parking lot."

Well, the new parking lot does look a heck of a lot better than the old parking lot.

But certainly not...well, that other word.

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