A Fond Farewell for M. Thomas Lardner, Uptown Developer and Downtown Visionary

This morning's daily newspaper provided a sad occasion to reflect on downtown Dallas. Tom Lardner, an early developer of Dallas's Uptown district, died May 24. His classified-ad death notice is in The Dallas Morning News today but no editorial obituary has appeared yet.

I had lunch with him about a year ago. Lardner was a fascinating guy whose perspective on Dallas was informed by an interesting life and a cosmopolitan view. The death notice says he died in his sleep in Positano, Italy.

I was always a little fuzzy on his family history. Wish I had asked him more about it. His father, a football hero at the University of Detroit, was called "Ring" Lardner, but Tom Lardner never mentioned any connection with the famous writer. I couldn't quite puzzle it out this morning on the Web. Seems like too much Michigan connection there for Tom Lardner and the writer not to have been some kind of distant relations.

Stroll through Uptown any evening when the weather is bearable and you will find yourself in the center of Tom Lardner's vision -- a lively sophisticated scene of sidewalk bistros and delicious people-watching. Lardner brought Lehndorff, Ltd., a German-Canadian Company, to the State-Thomas area in 1978 and pioneered that part of town's transition into the city's glitziest entertainment and residential area.

We had lunch because he wanted to talk about downtown. Last time we lunched was to talk about the Trinity River toll road -- he was against it. Then and now, he thought the people running the show were going at it all the wrong way. He saw them trying to create a new residential district downtown by building only expensive high-end properties. Lardner told me the way to bring downtown alive was to subsidize rents and bring in more modest income people.


He wasn't talking about public housing. He was talking about young people, for the most part, who are employed and have credit ratings but can't afford to $1,600 a month in rent. Lardner was a citizen of the world who knew a good street scene when he saw one. A cool place, he said, is diverse -- diverse in every way, including income. Filling the streets with old rich white people is not the way to create action.

He was not exactly the common-touch type himself. He's the only person I have ever eaten lunch with who sent back his hamburger -- and I mean sent it back frostily -- because of "poor presentation." The waiter brought it back with so much stuff drizzled and draped around on it that his hamburger looked like it had been cooked by Jackson Pollock. Lardner reluctantly accepted it but took only a bite or two.

I was thinking about him recently, planning on trying to reach him. I have been doing some reporting on complaints made to HUD against the city by two developers, Curtis Lockey and Craig Mackenzie, who say Dallas has violated federal law by using money from HUD to develop expensive downtown condo towers while skirting HUD requirements for low and moderate income housing.

Lockey and Mackenzie have said the same thing to me that Lardner said: no matter how much money Dallas pours into downtown, downtown never seems to really click, because the people running it don't understand what makes a lively downtown.

So I missed my chance. And I will miss him too. I learned a lot from him. Next time I go to McDonald's, I'm going to honor him by staring at the sack they hand me from the window and saying, "You call that presentation?"

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze