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Big-Ticket Laura

Laura Miller used to call the downtown moguls things like "the boys" and "the fat cats." Now she calls them "stakeholders." Has she been hoodooed?
Peter Calvin

Look, I'm a Laura Miller fan. I was thrilled when she got elected mayor. Her victory was a sea change. But lately I've been a little seasick.

I know you've been watching the potholes on your street as closely as I have on mine, patiently awaiting the arrival of the golden pothole coach that one day will come down out of the clouds and repair our suffering pavement.

So the city's busted and broke. We all understand. We have to wait on the potholes. But now, in the absence of notable pothole repair, the mayor seems to be coming out for big-ticket items instead.

You remember big-ticket items. Those were the bad things that Mayor Ron Kirk pushed for: the Trinity River project, the new not-in-downtown sports arena, the significance bridges or whatever they were called. That was the whole message of the Miller campaign: reordering priorities. I remember her announcement speech. She said, "First we have to eat our vegetables, then we can have dessert."

But now the mayor is working with a group of downtown fat cats (whom she now calls "stakeholders") to build a 46-acre park in the middle of downtown. Maybe we should call it Pothole Park. You haven't heard anything about it? Join the club. Pothole Park is one of several brainchildren of a group the mayor formed and called the "Inside the Loop Committee," chaired by Belo Corp. (The Dallas Morning News) CEO Robert Decherd.

You and me, we're in the Out-of-the-Loop Committee. Don't feel bad. So is the city council. They haven't seen the slick PowerPoint presentation for Pothole Park either. But all the fat stakeholders have. The presentation currently making the rounds of fat stakeholder organizations shows the park hunkered down on an area bounded by Main, Harwood, Wood and St. Paul streets, plump on top of the Harwood Street Historic District, much of which has been obliterated in the graphics.

You have to watch out for those graphics, man. Think of poor President Kennedy. The Inside-the-Loopers are also pushing for another big plaza-shmazza-type deal at the other end of downtown, in front of the Records Building and "Big Red" Courthouse, to create a connection between the West End, the Belo properties and the Convention Center.

If you saw last week's Dallas Morning News story on Plaza Shmazza, you may have noticed that the Kennedy Memorial was gone. Yeah, gone. Zapped. The graphic totally obliterated the assassination memorial and replaced it with a fountain. You had to read two-thirds of the way down into the Morning News story to get to the headline:

"INSIDE-THE-LOOPERS KIBOSH KENNEDY."

They had some half-baked little weasel stuff in there about how they might be able to find a spot they could move the memorial to out behind the Records Building. Is that like, "OK, Kennedy, we've shown our grief, now we want a water feature."

None of this makes Pothole Park a bad park or Plaza Shmazza a bad plaza (if they get over the dump Kennedy idea). But it may make all of this a bad process. Why should the mayor, who was elected to fix potholes and get us away from glitzy pie-in-the-sky stuff, be skulking around with the fat stakeholders, doing things behind the scenes that make us little people nervous?

Let me give you an example. At some point last month the city's Landmark Commission got wind of Pothole Park. They called Ken Hughes, the developer of Mockingbird Station mall. He's an Inside-the-Looper and the principal pusher for Pothole Park.

Why should the Landmark Commission care? Oh, maybe because the park--as it's being described around town--would obliterate two solid blocks of the Harwood Street Historic District and require the demolition of the old Dallas Public Library. The park also destroys two and a half blocks of a National Register of Historic Places District (some of these districts overlap), requiring demolition of eight of the buildings that contributed to that designation. It also would require demolition of the old Statler-Hilton Hotel, now called the Grand Hotel, designed by William Tabler and nationally heralded in its day as an exemplar of cutting-edge engineering and design.

OK, I know; not everybody's a preservationist. But the people on the Landmark Commission are. That's why they're on the Landmark Commission. Allison Reaves-Poggi asked Hughes if the board could see the PowerPoint.

Guess what? No PowerPoint. Instead they got Mayor Miller, who popped in to "answer any questions" and to smooth things over, but without the PowerPoint. She told the commission they couldn't really see the PowerPoint yet because it hadn't been shown to the city council. She failed to mention that it had been shown to the Central Dallas Association, the downtown Tax Increment Financing District Board, the Citizens Council and, I would assume, also the Rotary Club, the Optimist Club, The Toastmasters Club and those guys who ride the miniature motorcycles in parades.

 

But oh, no...not the city's Landmark Commission. Can't let them see this plan to obliterate several square blocks of historic buildings.

I don't think the mayor's smooth-out operation worked. At all. I attended a subsequent meeting of the Landmark Commission two weeks later at which the commission expressed a unanimous sentiment of un-smoothness. At that meeting, Mayor Miller's own appointee, Ronald P. Emrich, lashed out bitterly at the proposed park but also at the process:

"We asked for a briefing at our last meeting because the Landmark Commission and the preservation community at large have perpetually and consciously been left out of these conversations as long as possible. All the decisions are made, and then the preservation interests, those of us who care about these places, are painted as the last-minute naysayers."

The commission was presented with a letter from Dallas consultant Jay Firsching, an important authority on preservation issues, who said in his letter, among other things, that the city had no business considering big new parks when it already does such a deplorable job of stewarding the ones it has.

"Those proposing a new Dallas park are apparently oblivious to the already dismal state of our city's parks," Firsching said in the letter. "Most notably, the historic parks in our city are in a remarkable state of disrepair."

Sounds kind of like, "First we have to eat our vegetables, then we can have dessert," doesn't it?

At the end of the meeting, the Landmark Commission voted unanimously in support of a long acerbic resolution condemning Pothole Park and the horse it rode into town on.

But look, I'm not trying to build a big case that it's a bad park. I talked to James Pratt, the architect and land use planner, who said he thought both the Pothole Park and the Plaza Shmazza idea could be done in ways that would be wonderful for the city. On stuff like that, I tend to go with the James Pratt-type people more than with my own considerable inexpertise.

But I do know a thing or two about the urban political process--enough to know that in this urb in particular, you are going to ring a certain set of bells if you appear at the parapets arm-in-arm with a certain set of people too many times in a row. So, back to my original question: Why is Laura Miller, of all people, smoothing out the little people for the loopers?

The mayor was kind enough to sit down with me for a while at the end of last week. I said: "Laura Miller ran for office on potholes and sticking up for the little guy against the big guys. Now the big guys are called stakeholders. Why are you not concerned that you would be perceived as working behind the scenes with the stakeholders against the little guys, like the preservationists? Are you not concerned about a larger perception that you are winding up on the other side of the line?"

She said: "You know, I spent a lot of time as mayor fighting against Palladium [the proposed development around the new arena]. I didn't do very well on that, but next time I'll win.

"I said from the minute the thing started that I was totally opposed to Wal-Mart coming into that [northwest Dallas] neighborhood. Even though they threw tons of money at it and never would give up, the council unanimously said no.

"City Hall has never had a master plan for downtown. We've never had a vision and a road map to get downtown put back together, and it's terrible. I look out this window every day and think, 'How am I going to get this done?' A lot of the money is going to have to come from the people who own the properties downtown. But they're not going to do anything if they don't think City Hall is going to do anything."

I asked what the big rush was. Why does everything have to be pushed along so fast?

"Bond package," she said. "The bond election is in May of 2003. If we're going to have any parks downtown three years from May, we're going to have to have some money in the bond to do that."

Sigh. Makes sense, I do see. Things have to move along. It isn't like she turned out to be a weenie. I don't believe she's a shill. By the way, the stakeholders call it "Dallas' Central Park," not Pothole Park.

But the basic Laura Miller political package is still relatively new, a work in progress. Nobody knows her that well, because we haven't had that long to watch her in action. And I say the jury is still out. I'm hearing people say things like, "What's the difference between the way this park is being done and the way Palladium was done, except that she didn't like that deal, and she does like this one?"

 

I only know that that is a really good question. Oh, and one other question: Wasn't the Trinity River going to be Dallas' Central Park? Is that truth no longer operative?


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