'M' is for mad as hell

Gather a group of McCommas and Monticello Avenue homeowners together, and traffic horror stories flow as steadily as the cars streaming through their neighborhood at rush hour. For decades, commuters heading east and west between Central Expressway and Greenville Avenue have used the M Streets, particularly McCommas and Monticello, as a convenient cut-through.

Mary Essler, a mother of three young children who lives on McCommas, once watched a speeding car jump the curb and plow into her neighbor's bungalow, shearing off several bricks.

Speed bumps the city built several years ago slow some people down, says Joy Bell, who watches 5-o'clock traffic blow past her house on McCommas. But other drivers, having escaped the grueling traffic ofCentral Expressway, hit the bumps with bat-out-of-hell fury. "You can see them just fuming," says Bell, a grandmother who moved to the East Dallas neighborhood 5 1/2 years ago.

The neighborhood enjoyed a three-year respite when construction choked off the exits from Central Expressway, but that hiatus ended earlier this month when the McCommas Avenue bridge reopened to two-lane traffic. The cars are back, and so is another round in the tight-knit neighborhood's seemingly endless battle to ease the flow of speeding commuters on its streets.

Many in the neighborhood thought a solution was finally at hand last month when 70 percent of M Streets and other East Dallas residents--represented by the Greenland Hills, Glencoe Park, and Vickery Place neighborhood associations--voted in favor of a consultant's proposal that would cut daily traffic on the area's most congested streets by more than half.

But the latest plan has once again bogged down in neighborhood bickering and petty politics. Three city-council members--after heavy, last-minute lobbying from people who mostly live outside of the area--are stalling the proposal. And in a personal snit, Councilman Craig McDaniel went so far as to send a snippy letter to the boss of one neighborhood activist, ultimately prompting her to resign from the board of her neighborhood association.

The latest traffic plan would close McCommas, Martel, and Mercedes at Central, except to local traffic. All east-west streets south of Monticello and north of Richard Avenue would also be closed at Central.

Drawn up after a lengthy traffic study by Dallas engineering firm Kimley Horn and Associates, the "Neighborhood Protection Plan" also calls for traffic circles and diverters throughout the neighborhood and an "arbor street" along heavily trafficked McMillan Avenue. The greenery and diverters would, in consulting jargon, "calm" traffic flow, forcing drivers to slow down or to take other routes, says Bill Waddill, project manager for Kimley Horn.

Not surprisingly, most people on McCommas and Monticello loved the proposal. "Our sense of community has been disrupted for years with all this traffic," Essler says. "I supported the plan because it's the best way to have a real neighborhood. It really was the best compromise for everyone."

But in the days leading up to a scheduled April vote on the plan by the city council, a block of opposition developed. People in nearby Lakewood and Swiss Avenue neighborhoods--whose residents can save time by driving though the M streets--were especially riled.

"Part of my opposition is based on what I call the neighborliness problem," says Bill Weatherford, an architectural designer from Lakewood Heights. "The people in Greenland Hills and Vickery Place feel they have the right to create a walled community and shut off the rest of the neighborhood."

In response, East Dallas-area council members Mary Poss, Craig McDaniel, and Chris Luna prodded the council into tabling the plan. The three council members criticized the engineering firm that conducted the study, and said they objected to the way neighborhood meetings on the proposal were held.

The city's contract with Kimley Horn required a series of public meetings with residents and East Dallas "stakeholders," the diehard neighborhood activists and business owners who would be most affected by traffic restrictions. In all, 14 meetings were held, says Kimley Horn's Waddill. Residents were notified of the meetings by direct mail, door-to-door literature drops, and through 10 separate neighborhood newsletters. The process moved at breakneck pace by most standards for such projects; the meetings and subsequent study were completed in 90 days.

Council member Poss says that pace was, in fact, too fast.
"I said from the beginning that 90 days was a very unrealistic timetable for this study," says Poss, whose 9th district encompasses most of the M streets and some of neighboring Lakewood. Poss believes that many residents were misled into thinking their vote for a plan would set the changes in stone. "There were a couple of people in the community who talked about one of the plans as though it were a done deal. But it was always subject to final council approval."  

(Council members McDaniel and Luna also represent portions of the study area and its neighbors--Lakewood, Lower Greenville, and Swiss Avenue. Luna did not return calls from the Observer. An aide for McDaniel responded to a request for an interview by saying, "Councilman McDaniel asked me to relay that he isn't interested in talking to the Observer because in the past you haven't been very friendly to him.")

Poss says the ambitious schedule led to mass confusion in the neighborhood, with rumors flying about street closures and projected costs. (The council earmarked $75,000 for the study last year; when asked if she expects the delay to drive up its cost, Poss is emphatic: "No.") When residents approved the plan in April, a groundswell of opposition suddenly surfaced, she says. "Once people heard about the vote on street closures, we actually had our phone lines and fax lines jammed around here for two straight days. It became clear to me that we were only on first base. No one was even close to a home run."

Russell Ramsland, who actually lives in the study area--the 5300 block of Morningside--calls the traffic plan a "flawed process." From the start, he says, "there was an assumption [among the supporters] that we have to close a bunch of streets, and we'll do whatever we can to accommodate that."

Such discord has long marked the neighborhood's efforts to grapple with its traffic problems, perhaps because many of the residents suffer from split personalities: The post-40, consensus-building-Woodstock-generation side of their brains is battling the upwardly mobile, taxpaying, property-owner side of their brains.

Back in the '80s, Ramsland was part of the "let's all agree" group that brought speed bumps and extra stop signs to the M streets. He liked it that way.

"I object to any traffic approach that pits neighbor against neighbor," Ramsland says. "If we start closing streets for our own personal convenience, that's not what neighborhoods are about."

Ramsland says he wants to leave neighborhood streets as they are for now, at least until Central Expressway construction ends and the city gets a true feel for what neighborhood traffic levels will be.

But others are tired of waiting, and say the Kimley Horn proposal may be the best possible compromise. "Nothing is going to be traffic-free," says Joy Bell. "But we thought this plan gave everybody a little bit of something."

Bell is particularly riled that the council members now stalling the plan didn't attend neighborhood meetings when it was being formulated.

"I asked Mary Poss recently if she found everything so objectionable, why wasn't someone in authority at our meetings to tell these people they weren't satisfied?" Bell says.

Poss says she stayed away from early neighborhood meetings on City Manager John Ware's advice. "When a council member voices an opinion, people get the idea that it's official, that that's the way it's going to be," Poss says. "Even if you try, you just can't shake your council-member persona." Poss did, however, attend later meetings in the neighborhood.

McDaniel, Greenland Hills residents say, never attended any official public meetings on the issue. But he did find time to lash out at one neighborhood activist who publically questioned the councilman's absence.

According to the minutes of one key January 25 meeting during which stakeholders discussed concerns about the absence of McDaniel's District 14 from the traffic study area, M Streets activist Bobbi Bilnoski noted McDaniel's lack of attendance.

"...We are quite far down the road and I am worried that [McDaniel's] absence could jeopardize this process. We have not had any verbal or written statement directly from him regarding his support of this process," Bilnoski said.

Four days later, McDaniel wrote a letter chastising Bilnoski, and sent copies to Luna, Poss, former assistant city manager Ted Benavides, and Catherine Horsey, executive director of Preservation Dallas--and Bilnoski's boss.

"My city-council colleagues and our staff told me that you took issue with my absence from the East Dallas Traffic Management Study meeting on January 25," McDaniel wrote. "In fact, they have said that you had rather strident comments about me personally that they considered inappropriate and offensive. I regret that you chose a public forum to lambaste me."

McDaniel explained that he had attended a Dallas Plan meeting instead, which had been scheduled before the traffic meeting. "My time, I believe, was well-spent encouraging the real-estate community to invest in the inner city and meeting with District 14 constituents concerning the long-term future of our neighborhoods.

"It seems to me that Preservation Dallas, and specifically the marketing function which employs you, would support my efforts in this regard."

Bilnoski declined to be interviewed for this story, citing concerns for her job as neighborhood development specialist at the nonprofit Preservation Dallas. But Greenland Hills Neighborhood Association members say Bilnoski resigned from the association's board in mid-May under pressure from her boss, Horsey. Bilnoski has lived on Monticello Avenue for 20 years and has been active in the neighborhood group for almost as long.  

"I'm just incredulous that Bobbi would be asked to resign, or to be silenced on an issue she's worked on for years," says McCommas homeowner Essler. "She's always been very clear that she is representing Greenland Hills, and not Preservation Dallas at the meetings. Doesn't she have any First Amendment rights?"

Horsey says Bilnoski stepped down from the Greenland Hills board voluntarily, after a "discussion" about the different roles of Preservation Dallas and neighborhood associations.

"Preservation Dallas isn't involved in the traffic-management plan," Horsey says.

Still, Bilnoski's involvement apparently only became a problem after Horsey received McDaniel's curt letter. Horsey says she knew of Bilnoski's involvement in the traffic plan all along, but "when he sent the letter we became concerned because we didn't want him confused about what was a Preservation Dallas issue and what was a neighborhood issue."

It also so happens that Bilnoski supported McDaniel's opponent, Sharon Boyd, in his last two runs for city council.

As for the traffic plan, it now languishes at City Hall, awaiting further study and at least two more public hearings, Poss says. "I can't make a firm commitment," she says, when asked when the plan might be resurrected. "I am not the engineer. But I'm hopeful it will be within 90 days."

Back on and around the M streets, the buzz is that the traffic plan is barely alive.

"It's dead," Ramsland says. "People are realizing it doesn't make sense to spend taxpayers' money on this right now."

Joy Bell isn't about to give up. She's joined in a couple of neighborhood pickets to help keep the issue out front, and more guerrilla tactics are in the works as well.

"The city wants to just flush this down the drain and we're not going to let that happen," she says. "We've got plans to keep this alive. We're asking our neighbors to start parking on the street. If the city can't support us on something the majority supports, we'll have to slow the traffic down some other way.

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