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Laura Miller Is a Savage, and in This Town That Is High Praise

Wallace Savage helped build the city. Dorothy Savage helped save it.EXPAND
Wallace Savage helped build the city. Dorothy Savage helped save it.
Jim Schutze

The City Council campaign in District 13 north of the Park Cities is shaping up to be strangely like a very important chapter in my own past, although it’s also totally different. Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller (2002-2007) is running to unseat the incumbent, Jennifer Staubach Gates, who has represented the district since 2013.

The chapter I’m talking about — one I lived through as a resident and homeowner as well as a journalist — was the battle to save Old East Dallas and then the subsequent rebirth of the area as one of the city’s most vibrant regions. The reason it seems different, not like the District 13 race, is that in East Dallas when our battle began we were kind of a slummy, scrappy part of town.

Most of District 13 is fancy-schmancy. So how could those situations be the same? Ah, but they are, maybe exactly, except for the moolah. In fact, I can’t help seeing Miller as the political reincarnation of the late Dorothy Savage, wife of former Dallas Mayor Wallace Savage (1949-51). I can explain.

Dorothy Savage was savvy. So is Miller. Savage knew then and Miller knows now how stuff really works. It doesn’t change much. Their shared understanding is that neighborhoods are the real business of the city, the motor that keeps it going. To be a good neighborhood, a neighborhood must be stable. But good neighborhoods are always desirable targets for disruptive development. And the trick and the con job by which disruptive development gets its foot in the door is always so-called reasonable compromise.

Neighborhoods can’t be reasonable. At least, they can’t start out that way, or they’re toast already. They have to look at even small incursions of disruptive development as the nose under the tent, the leak in the dike, the foot in the door that eventually will bring down the kingdom. A neighborhood must be a fortress first. Later it can be reasonable, maybe about a traffic turn lane or something, never about condo towers.

David Tarrant had a good story in The Dallas Morning News recently analyzing the contest between Miller, now coming out of political retirement, and Gates, who recently took a pass on running for mayor. It’s a fight over real estate development and change. Gates, daughter and wife of developers, told Tarrant, “Some people just want nothing.” And that’s true.

Dorothy Savage saved Old East Dallas and taught the city the value and power of neighborhoods because she wanted nothing, by which she meant she wanted absolutely everything. And I can explain that one, too.

In the late 1960s and ’70s, Dallas was ruled by real estate developers under a doctrine they called “highest and best use.” An unexamined assumption of that doctrine was that the growth of the city would always be fundamentally centrifugal. People would always gravitate outward toward the new, and in the process they would leave behind what leaders of the city actually and truly referred to back then as “used houses,” like used cars.

The “highest and best use” philosophy was that these used housing areas needed to be “up-zoned.” That meant they were to be stripped of their single-family residential zoning protections and designated as free-fire zones for everything from apartment buildings to industrial uses to used car lots. Highest and best use meant uses that would produce more income.

You can get in your car and see the outcomes of that thinking today, if you want. A quick archaeological drive down Lemmon Avenue or any of the areas of the city that lost neighborhood zoning in that period will show you the end of the story. It’s not pretty, and it’s definitely not stable. Decades ago a friend of mine was driving his rather arch Parisian French-Vietnamese mother-in-law, who was visiting Dallas for the first time, out Lemmon Avenue. He heard her mutter in French, “Oh, I love it. It reminds me of Saigon during the war.” Yeah. Well, that’s not exactly where you want to raise your kids or maybe even your dog.

I knew Savage. She lived a block away from me, and she and Wallace walked a lot. I walk dogs a lot. So we talked. They were both funny, shrewd, fearless and generous. But here’s the thing. Dorothy’s experience as wife of a mayor gave her the same laser-beam insight into how things really work that Miller now has as both a politician herself and as the wife of a politician (her husband, Steve Wolens, was a Texas state representative from 1981 to 2005).

Dorothy Savage knew how the cards really get dealt. In neighborhood issues, the narrative of reasonable compromise is always a Trojan horse for disruptive change, she told me. For a neighborhood to be a good neighborhood, a place where people want to raise their dogs, it must be predictable and stable.

That principle is exactly the same for working-class families in West Dallas, for middle-class families in East Dallas and for rich families in North Dallas. All the way across the socioeconomic spectrum, everybody has one thing in common: We all have a need and right to preserve the stability of our neighborhoods. By protecting our neighborhoods, we form the basic building blocks of the city.

But good neighborhoods are never safe from destabilization. The fact that a neighborhood is attractive, in fact, makes it a target. If a developer can penetrate the shield of existing zoning, find a way in and put up a disruptive development in the middle of all that stability, anything from a condo tower to a strip mall, that developer can feed parasitically off the health of the neighborhood.

And if he can get in, so can the next guy. The argument is always the same. Hey. The city changed the zoning for Joe over there and let him do condos. I’m Shmo. I’ve got some land in that neighborhood, too. What’s fair for Joe is fair for Shmo.

The community’s right to control what Shmo does with his land is thinner law superimposed on more deep-rooted property-right law. The community can only impose zoning if it is doing so for a clear public good and only if the zoning works the same way for everybody. The city can’t pass zoning laws that say, “No Shmo, just Joe.” No fair.

When Savage was telling me she wanted nothing at all on some land where new condos were being proposed, she was telling me how it really works. Those would be nice condos, she said, but we can’t look at them that way. We must see them as the foot in the door. If we allow those condos, we lose our standing to say no to the next condos.

Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miler is running for the District 13 City Council seat.
Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miler is running for the District 13 City Council seat.
Laura Miller

She wanted nothing, because she wanted everything. If a neighborhood starts out on an equal footing, making nice with a savvy developer who is versed in all the precedents and workarounds, then the neighborhood gets its lunch eaten. The neighborhood doesn’t come to the table. It owns the table. The developer comes to the table hat in hand. Otherwise the neighborhood gets whittled and nibbled away by a thousand Joes and Shmos.

Savage was a founder and the driving force behind the creation of the city’s first historic district, the Swiss Avenue Historic District, enacted by ordinance in 1973. The Savages were prosperous, I think, and their own house was always grand, but at that time many of the other old mansions on Swiss Avenue were seriously down at the heels. Much of the surrounding area, including the street I live on now (neighbors, please don't kill me), was considered quasi-slum. Our own house was all the way slum. (It's great now, no complaints. It only tries to shoot us and stab us and strangle us in our sleep with repair bills once every five years or so.) For Savage, the challenge was not preserving stability in an already good neighborhood. It was salvaging an already decayed neighborhood by imposing stability on it and doing so by decree.

The old oligarchy in charge of City Hall back then denounced the Swiss Avenue ordinance as “down-zoning,” a defiance of the rule of highest and best use, practically akin to communism. Savage’s legacy today is one of the strongest urban residential areas in the country, where the old guard would have covered the landscape with cheap car lots and tenements.

This brings us to Gates and her disparagement of people who seem to want nothing. All of Gates’ pronouncements and the actions she has taken in office have been on the side of incursion as a reasonable compromise. Underlying her entire approach is an assumption that developers have an innate right to disrupt successful neighborhoods. When I hear her talk at council or read her comments, I do not smell deception or guile. I think she states exactly what she has been raised to believe and sincerely believes now in her heart.

But Gates’ philosophy is total toast for Preston Hollow and other residential areas around it. It’s not that that part of the city will never change or should never change at all. But the neighborhoods must rule the change. They must come first. The neighborhoods themselves — the stable communities of people — are worth far more to the city in the long run than a quick shot in the arm from a new development. The neighborhood must start out tough. Then it can compromise on traffic lights. Otherwise the neighborhood gets taken down a brick at a time.

Here’s another thing. Real estate development is not this city’s sole enterprise or purpose. It’s not even close. People here make their money as eye surgeons, artists, lawyers, Uber drivers, classical musicians, tech entrepreneurs, weekly newspaper columnists. City Hall’s sole purpose cannot be to constantly gin up new real estate development. In fact we should ask ourselves why City Hall is so addicted to ballooning ad valorem property taxes. Maybe the city could cut back on things like fake suspension bridges for a while and get by on its current income.

Dorothy Savage was a lion at the gate, and the kingdom she protected with her genteel roar is now prosperous and stable. Decades later, other side of town, other end of the income scale, Miller looks like Dorothy all over again.

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