The Good Laura
I have to tell you this story because it's three things: 1) an appalling example of arrogance and sleaziness at City Hall, 2) a stirring example of integrity and courage at City Hall, and 3) it's about Laura Miller.
This guy owns a business that has been in his family since 1938. Since the 1950s the business has occupied a series of metal barns on nine acres down in a hollow near Walnut Hill and White Rock Trail, in a little leftover remnant of countryside swallowed up by the city.
A small equestrian center is near him, as is a DART train track and a creek called Jackson Branch. You could pass this place a thousand times and never know it's there.
Across the DART tracks from him, major development plans are afoot. The guys doing the developing want this guy's nine acres. Offered to buy him out. He said no. Not interested.
Jack Pierce's business, Hollywood Door, makes garage doors, but its main business is the hand manufacture of huge, very heavy industrial overhead doors. His product is expensive to ship because it's so heavy. Over the last seven decades, his family has developed a good regional trade based in part on having the business right where it is.
He does not want to move, at least not at the prices being offered. The location is worth more to him than its real estate value. This company employs 40 people, and it makes a product, which it actually sells to other people.
Makes stuff. Sells stuff. This is what used to be called a "business," as opposed to insider grease-ball political land-flipping, which is what some people think is a business today.
Got it so far? Developers offer. Business owner says no.
Then he gets a letter. An official letter. A City Hall letter. It appears that Bill Blaydes, the council person for that area, wants to call a hearing to see whether the city should yank the man's zoning out from under him, which would force him to sell.
Pierce, part owner with his brother and sister of Hollywood Door, told the city council last week: "The first time I became aware of this item was when I received notice in the mail.
"I called for additional information and was told that Councilman Blaydes had placed this item on the agenda. So I spoke to Mr. Blaydes.
"I was informed that it was time for our company to move out. I was informed that since I had previously rejected discussing the sale of our property, they decided they might get my attention by putting this item on the agenda.
"I was informed that the process which starts today will end up removing us from our property. This was the first time I ever spoke to Mr. Blaydes."
Stunning, what? But get this. Blaydes doesn't even deny it. With Pierce standing down there at the microphone, quaking in his boots like Charlie Chaplin in front of Big Brother, Blaydes gives this speech that is Gomer-Pyle-meets-Tony-Soprano:
"Mr. Pierce is threatened," Blaydes says. "There's no doubt about the fact that he's threatened, because that's his livelihood. We're not asking to close it. We're asking to move it."
I mean, are you still with me here? The guy's been on the property since the 1950s. His business is almost invisible from the road, emits no smoke or noise, generates very light traffic. But Commissar Blaydes comes along with his letter and pretty much tells him to get the hell off his own property.
And even worse in my book: While Pierce is standing there at the microphone looking up at the mighty councilpersons with his life and his family's business in his hand, Councilman Ed Oakley, one of two candidates for mayor in the June 16 runoff election, launches into this big, sleazy package of lies aimed at pushing him into giving up.
Talking in his trademark incomprehensible used-car-salesman-on-crank cadence, Oakley says to Pierce: "Let me just ask you hypothetically if you were to go through this process and the process and the staff would allow you to have your area that allowed the use that you have there today which is a manufacturing facility and in addition to that it was created into a p.d. or sub-district that allowed for the other uses such as mixed-use or whatever the neighborhood would determine but you were allowed to be legal and conforming but along with that some of the obnoxious uses that maybe the neighborhood would be fearful of such as a recycling plant or something would be left out of that and would allow you to continue the family business in perpetuity which would be legal which would be a given zoning which would allow you to use that specific use but then the additional uses would allow for residential or mixed-use development or office or retail which aren't allowed there today which actually gives you more land-use rights than what you would have today giving up some of the things that would be obnoxious would you be amenable to sitting down having that conversation?"
Pierce gave the perfect answer. He said, "Sir, I am out of my depth here today."
That would be, ah, no. Just like when the guys offered to buy his land. No. Two little letters.
I wasn't there for the council session. I listened to it the next day on tape at the city secretary's office. When I heard Oakley's speech, I was speechless. Not one word Oakley said to that man was even distantly related to the truth. Pierce would have been a pathetic fool to give up the zoning designation he already holds and jump into the political carjacking that Oakley was proposing.
I think even the Harvard Business School would have advised Pierce, given Oakley's proposal, to wave his shotgun over his head and scream, "GIT OFFA MAH LAND!"
Which, in a very gentlemanly way, he sort of did.
So what's the good news? Let me tell you what saved this guy. Mayor Laura Miller saw the item on the agenda at the end of the previous week and smelled a rat. And she called him.
Pierce had already given up on even going to City Hall for the meeting. A well-known high-dollar zoning lawyer had already told Pierce to bag it. He said Pierce would never be able to prevail against Blaydes.
Standing out among his manufacturing barns with me, Pierce re-enacted the moment of absolute amazement he had experienced a week earlier when he received the call: "Out of the blue, on my cell phone I get, 'Hi, this is Laura Miller.'
"And I said, 'WHO?' Because I tell you, I'm not political.
"And she gave me 30, 45 minutes. I explained my legal advice. She said, 'Well, Mr. Pierce, you must throw that attorney away.' She said, 'You come down.' She encouraged me to come down. She helped me with advice. 'Wear your working clothes. Just tell us what you just told me.'
"And it was really her encouragement that made me come down. She said, 'Don't worry, you come down.' And I had faith, so I did what she said."
I could tell even on tape that the effect of his appearance was riveting on both the council and the audience, who were there for other issues and knew nothing about his case.
Council member Angela Hunt said, "I, for one, am extremely troubled that we are moving to authorize a hearing to rezone property out from under the property owner.
"This is remarkable to me. One piece of property. That to me seems extremely overreaching."
In his typically very decorous way, council member Mitchell Rasansky took out his razor-edged saber and whacked both Blaydes and Oakley into sushi.
"Let's don't play in fairy-land talk here," he said. "We know how this works." He told Pierce that if he gave up his zoning and threw himself into "the process" at City Hall, as Oakley suggested, he would be dead meat.
But the real hero of the day? Hey, no question. It was Miller. She was everything the city voted for her to be as mayor.
I ran into the mayor in the city secretary's office. Our relations have been strained of late. But you know, two veterans of the newspaper business can still talk about a good story.
She saw that little item way down on the agenda, that odd blurry snippet of bureaucratic lingo. Her years as a reporter came back; her nose twitched; she smelled smoke. She picked up the phone and called that guy, way the hell out on Walnut Hill at White Rock Trail, way down in that hollow by Jackson Branch where nobody even noticed him. That guy who wasn't political. That guy who couldn't even get the slick City Hall lawyers to take his money. That guy who had been told not to even show up at City Hall.
She said, "Come on down." He had faith.
And he won. Ten to three.
He won. I still can't believe it.
Members Blaydes, Steve Salazar and Ron Natinsky voted to screw him. Oakley switched over when he saw how the wind was blowing and voted against Blaydes. Then Oakley left the dais, went down into the audience and spoke with Pierce. Pierce told me Oakley told him he really probably shouldn't give up his zoning after all.
Hey, there's leadership for you, eh?
On the tape when the votes were counted and Pierce won, the chamber erupted in applause. Sitting in his office amid jumbled files and door parts a day later, I asked him who had cheered.
He looked up from his desk and shook his head in amazement. "All those people," he said. "Everybody. All those people who came down there for other things. They knew nothing about my case. They all cheered."
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