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It's Time for Mayor Rawlings to Pick a Side in the La Bajada Battle

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Great editorial this morning in The Dallas Morning News, coming about as close as the News is ever going to come to endorsing the will and wishes of a neighborhood over development plans that would violate those wishes.

It puts Mayor Mike Rawlings into a most useful kind of focus. Now we finally get his measure.

Since his inauguration in June, 2011, the mayor has been able to walk a fine line. On one side of it he's the big D Democrat, a more affable guy than his predecessor, a mayor who respects and listens to all sides. But he ran his campaign using the old corrupt machinery of the city's rich white oligarchy, now under investigation by the FBI. On big money issues like the Trinity River toll road he tends to come down on their side of the line.

So now we have such a perfect test of that line that even The Dallas Morning News can see it. The News points out in its editorial today that the city has engaged in a yearlong campaign of intense community outreach in the working class La Bajada neighborhood at the West Dallas end of the new Calatrava bridge downtown.

Practically as soon as plans for the bridge were formalized a half-decade ago, a consortium of developers began buying up land at the West Dallas end. Their gamble was that the visual appeal of the bridge alone would be enough to spark the molting of an old industrial district into a dazzling new mixed-use butterfly. They deserve credit for daring.

The residents of La Bajada have voiced no objection to the larger portion of the consortium's plans, which would take place outside the La Bajada neighborhood. But they have spoken forcefully and consistently in opposition to a last-minute amendment pushed by the development group that would melt away the border between La Bajada and the development area and give the developers a precedent allowing them to gnaw their way into La Bajada in years ahead.

La Bajada has drawn a line. The city's Plan Commission has endorsed that line. Now as the matter nears its final City Council vote, it's clear that the developers have enlisted the help of the mayor, who has introduced delays and held last-minute meetings on their behalf.

After the mayor put things on hold, I wrote here that the delay was a good opportunity to go back and check with La Bajada. Were the neighborhood's wishes being honestly represented or had some organizer gotten in there and pushed an agenda? Sometimes people don't especially want to stay where they are and would welcome a chance to sell out at a good price.

That's been done. La Bajada stands by its line. The CityDesign Studio, authors of the La Bajada outreach, got it exactly right. The neighborhood does not want to melt away one property at a time. It wants to stay put. La Bajada holds.

So this is the mayor's test. When he talks about his "Grow South" initiative to spur development in the city's poorer hemisphere, what does he mean? Is he talking about development that will serve the interests of the people who live in that hemisphere? Or is he talking about the southern hemisphere as a kind of barren ground to be taken over by the same moneyed interests that have run the city forever, the same ones that have gotten us into yet another jackpot with the FBI?

Does this involve making life better in La Bajada? Or making La Bajada disappear? Is this deal clean or dirty?

What kind of change do we believe in? What do we think really works? Is it slow organic change that builds gradually on what's already on the ground? Or does change in Dallas always have to be all shock and awe?

And here is the sharp point of the spear for our mayor: If he sides with La Bajada, he must disappoint the shock and awe crowd at the Dallas Citizens Council, the guys at the 19th hole table at the Dallas Country Club, the group our former mayor and my predecessor here at the Dallas Observer, Laura Miller, always used to call, "The Boys."

It's what they call a defining moment. I don't mean this facetiously: If The Dallas Morning News can see it, a blind hog can.

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