Whipping boy

John Loza learns that making friends is easy for a city council member. Keeping them is harder.

Instead, Loza is allowing issues of class and, to a lesser degree, ethnicity to color what should be a debate over zoning. Albertson's wants to rezone residential property to build its market. Many homeowners don't want a gargantuan store sitting in the middle of the neighborhood. How did that become a class issue? Much of East Dallas is split between District 2 and District 14, and the boundaries divide neighborhood associations such as Mill Creek, Vickery Place, and Swiss Avenue. Loza's district tends to be poorer and more heavily Hispanic, Veletta Forsythe Lill's District 14 more affluent and Anglo.

"There are people in District 14 who feel that they not only ought to control their own district, but they ought to control District 2 as well," Loza says. "It certainly has not been an easy call for me, but I think there are a few people within the confines of District 14 who feel that because of my decision on Albertson's I'm not qualified to represent my district, and I think it's wrong."

The "few people" are Swiss Avenue residents who oppose the store, a point Joe May--who on Loza's behalf is registering people to vote--made clear in a March 11 letter he distributed throughout East Dallas. "The true rehabilitation of East Dallas neighborhoods is up to everyone, not just the homeowners on Swiss Avenue," May wrote. "In essence, they want to determine the quality of life of every resident in Old East Dallas. It is now time to make your opinion heard. Do not let a few loud voices on Swiss Avenue drown out our thousands of voices."

While the neighborhood activists opposed to the store know how to get their voices heard at City Hall, May says they have historically ignored the opinions of their less affluent neighbors--many of whom live in low-income apartment buildings that have been neglected for years. (Several of those buildings will be razed if the Albertson's project is approved.)

"As a general rule, the only development that Swiss Avenue has ever advocated has been that development that gentrifies," says May, who adds that until the Albertson's debate came up "I didn't see anybody on Swiss Avenue wanting to preserve that affordable housing."

May is correct: The Albertson's debate has highlighted the absence of lower-income residents, who are mostly Asian and Hispanic renters, in East Dallas neighborhood associations that consist primarily of homeowners. If anyone knows the role these low-income tenants play in council politics it's May, who helped draw the original district lines in East Dallas when single-member council districts were created.

"The reason everything is the way it is...it's the only way we could get adequate minority districts that would allow adequate, in our case Hispanic, representation," May says. "I worked...to preserve an inner-city white district and preserve a second Hispanic district. John's is a Hispanic district, Veletta's is white."

As a result, the lines of District 14 snake through East Dallas toward Lakewood, gobbling up buildings Anglos live in and avoiding those occupied by Hispanics block by block. Neighborhood associations had to be sacrificed in order to accomplish the goal of increasing the number of minorities on the council.

While Loza can't be blamed for the way the district lines were drawn, Swiss Avenue resident and Vaca supporter Virginia McAlester says she's disgusted by the divide-and-conquer strategy the Loza campaign has employed. McAlester, a member of the city's Landmark Commission, says Loza ignores the fact that many of the neighborhood associations that oppose the Albertson's project lie in his district as well as Lill's.

"You can't divide a neighborhood down the middle and say, 'OK, people on this side of the street can work for one council person and people on the other side of the street can work for this other council person," McAlester says. "Part of our [Swiss Avenue historic] district is in District 2, and those people have as much right to ask their council person for help. What happens in two blocks of our neighborhood affects the other 10 blocks of the neighborhood."

Jo Blount, the president of the Mill Creek Homeowners Association, which lies in both districts, says that although she likes Loza personally, his position on Albertson's has turned her into a Vaca supporter.

"When the constituent homeowners who are working so hard to reclaim a neighborhood...are just pointedly ignored, I just can't feel safe putting my trust in him," Blount says.

Although he knew his decision would be unpopular in East Dallas, Loza says, he decided to support Albertson's for the same reasons he backed the arena and Trinity River projects.

"The one thing that I have to look at above all else is what's going to be good for the entire district," Loza says. "The bottom line with Albertson's is, I'm supporting it because I think it's good economic development for the district and the city. The only way I can even try to do all of those things I would like to do for the district is to have an expanding tax base."

Loza says his job is to decide what's best for the district and take a stand--even if it goes against the wishes of neighborhood associations. Yet while there's no doubt that the Albertson's project is the root of Loza's political troubles, it's not the only decision he has made that has angered neighborhood residents.

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