Whipping boy

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

Earlier this year, people living near Bachman Lake were concerned about a proposal by the Dallas Can Academy, which auctions donated used cars to pay for youth programs, to relocate its auction site from downtown to a six-acre lot near the lake. Dallas Can is one of the city's most prestigious charities, and the Bachman Lake proposal drew a $220,000 pledge from Dallas investor Jack Furst, a partner in Dallas Mavericks owner Tom Hicks' firm of Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst.

To Bachman-area residents, the proposal meant that the lake would soon become home to a giant junkyard--a "special use" that wasn't authorized under the area's zoning laws. Although the cause was good, residents were hesitant to support the proposal. They had experience with the problems that granting exceptions to city codes can bring--such exceptions had brought a slew of sexually oriented businesses to their neighborhood. To make matters worse, the neighborhood was under pressure to support the project, says Tim Dickey, president of the Bachman/Northwest Highway Community Association.

"The heavy civic weight of Dallas Can was evoked early on," Dickey says. "It was like they could do no wrong. Everyone was talking about their board of directors as if they were civic gods."

Although the residents were willing to compromise with Dallas Can and support their request for a special use permit, they wanted to know whether the auction lot would be a permanent fixture at the lake. Dickey recalls how his impression of Loza changed when a neighborhood meeting on the proposal disintegrated into a shouting match and Loza intervened. In essence, Dickey recalls, Loza told the residents that they had better find a way to support the permit before it went to council because he was voting for it with or without them.

"Here's your council member, two months before an election, coming to a community group...threatening to shove it down our throats," Dickey says. "He lost so much support that night. This is not a group that takes that kind of dictatorial attitude from a council member well."

Loza confirms that he was direct with the neighborhood residents that evening.

"There were some other people there I thought were interfering for reasons I couldn't understand," Loza says. "My point to them was, 'Look, ultimately this is my responsibility, and I will make sure something gets done at city council on this.'"

What was especially shocking to the Bachman-area residents was how different Loza appeared than he did his first year in office, when he established a reputation for being a vocal opponent of sexually oriented businesses. Loza endeared himself to the neighborhood in early 1998, when he fought against a request by black nightclub owner James Price for a dance permit for his Lakeside Night Club. Residents opposed Price's application because Price had operated an adult club before, and they feared he would turn Lakeside into another.

By the time the issue made it to the council, Price and a number of black leaders claimed the residents opposed the club because its clientele was mostly black. After a contentious public hearing on the issue, during which Loza was viciously accused of being a racist, Price's request was denied on a 7-5 vote divided along racial lines. For many of his constituents, Loza's unwillingness to be bullied that day marked the high point of his career.

"Loza was under tremendous political pressure from the mayor and everyone else to buckle, and he didn't. He stood his ground," Dickey says. "The disappointment is, he was [once] so stellar for us and courageous, really."

Although the Bachman-area residents and Dallas Can ultimately worked out their differences and the permit was granted, Dickey says the arrogance Loza revealed was a troubling indication that his loyalties were shifting toward business interests rather than neighborhood interests.

"We want the city to stick with the plan, and they're always coming at us asking for a special-use permit," Dickey says. "All we're trying to do is get the city to go with the program [and] quit trying to get us to go along with the exceptions and telling us we're bad guys when we don't."

The frequent battles between developers and neighborhood organizations are a problem that predates Loza's council tenure. If he is re-elected, his second term likely will be filled with similar fights, and his loyalties to neighborhood associations will be further tested.

Dallas lawyer Roger Albright, a former plan commissioner who represents developers at City Hall, says the trend toward in-town living spells an increasing demand for new businesses. People who choose to live in the city rather than the suburbs still want their Starbucks and mega-markets. That's great for the economy but tough on residential neighborhoods, where vacant land is a shrinking commodity. More requests for variances and other exceptions to the city's planning rules are inevitable.

As the Albertson's case illustrates, Albright says, developers must do a better job of informing the neighborhoods of their plans rather than surprising them with 11th-hour requests for variances. At the same time, neighborhoods must keep an open mind toward development and realize that a strict interpretation of the development code isn't going to work.

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