Window on the Next Two Years at City Hall: Rape of the Sabines

Arnold Spencer
Arnold Spencer
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Wednesday morning in a clearly written, earnest, heartfelt letter to the editor of The Dallas Morning News, Susan D. Cox conveyed her dismay about a big zoning case at Northwest Highway and the Dallas North Tollway that would go before the City Council later that day. The council member for District 13 where the case was located, Jennifer Staubach Gates, was in favor of a vast giveaway of zoning rights to developers, a plan Cox believed would harm her part of town.

Cox was dismayed that almost no other City Council member would even meet with the 85% of nearby property owners who oppose a zoning giveaway plan called “planned development district 15” or PD-15: “It will be very telling on Wednesday,” she urged, “if the Dallas City Council supports the democratic process or not.

“If the council ignores 85% of owner opposition to the city’s proposed PD-15 zoning plan, sidestepping the democratic process, it’ll be open season for developers to up-zone any neighborhood! Is yours next?”

And, yes, when the vote came later that evening, it was telling. The entire City Council totally ignored the opposition to the measure. All of the 13 council members present and the mayor voted with Gates to allow developers to build high-rise towers in an area where neighbors had been assured development would be restricted to four stories maximum height.

The assurance of a four-story limit had been achieved after a two-year battle between neighbors and developers and after adoption of an area plan that was approved by Gates. But developers told Gates the area plan wasn’t what they needed. They wanted permission from the City Council to turn an open air space over 12 acres into a soaring tower.

Gates, daughter and wife of developers, said OK. She tossed the area plan, told the neighbors tough and pushed for this new winner-take-all zoning.

But now for the part I really hate. I have to defend Gates and the Dallas City Council. Sort of. I must do this, even though I will have to wash my mouth out with soap later. It goes like this.

One of the public speakers who spoke to the council on the issue before the vote was Arnold Spencer, a former federal prosecutor and cryptocurrency lawyer who lives about 15 blocks away from the area in question. Spencer said, “There was an election recently in our district.

“Jennifer Gates ran generally favoring the development. Her opponent opposed it. Ms. Gates won by almost 30 percentage points. The democracy in the district has spoken.”

Actually she won by a margin of 2 to 1. He’s right. The district spoke. And Wednesday night when the City Council voted unanimously to support the Gates giveaway, it honored the democratic process the way democracy works at Dallas City Hall, maybe not the way it works in democracy heaven.

The way it works here is this: Each council member is the absolute ruler on planning and zoning in his or her own district. The others will not cross that line. And no, they won’t even meet with dissidents from another member’s district.

Residents of City Council District 13 had one opportunity — a clear opportunity — to defeat the Gates giveaway when they chose between Gates and her challenger, former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, in the May 4 City Council election. They chose Gates.

And that was it. Done deal. The die was cast. No do-overs. When voters of District 13 chose Gates, the incumbent, over Miller, the challenger, they decreed with their ballots exactly what the letter writer described in her message to the Morning News — open season for any developer to up-zone any neighborhood.

Miller has a long history as a fighter who will stand up to the powers that be. Gates has exactly the opposite kind of personality and the opposite record. Miller ran against this specific giveaway. Gates talked all around the block about it. She said she was for progress and a brighter tomorrow. That meant she was for the giveaway.

If you’re against the giveaway, you say you’re against the giveaway. If you’re for it, you say you’re for a brighter tomorrow. By voting to return Gates to office, the voters of District 13 voted to get this giveaway done.

Cox, the letter writer, suggested it was wrong for the other 14 members of the Dallas City Council to refuse to meet with Gates’ constituents who are opposed to the giveaway. But the letter writer, I am sorry to say, is the one who is wrong.

Under the informal but seldom violated rules of this council system, each council member is the mayor of his or her district on zoning. It’s been this way since the late 1970s — the better part of a half-century.

Jennifer Staubach Gates
Jennifer Staubach Gates

They all agree not to cross each other’s district lines on zoning questions. Therefore, what you get in your council person is what you are going to get on zoning questions until you get a new council person.

This is not something you can sue over. It’s not something you can change by complaining. It’s not something you can change at all. It’s how it is.

Voters of District 13 chose Gates over Miller by an overwhelming margin. I suspect the outcome in 13 was not unlike what happened where I live, District 14 in East Dallas, where voters tossed out the incumbent, Philip Kingston, in a runoff.

Among people who follow this sort of thing, both Kingston and Miller are known as contentious street-fighters — the kind of people who like a good rumble once in a while. David Blewett, who defeated Kingston handily, and Gates, who trounced Miller, are both the opposite type. They are conciliators who would do almost anything to avoid a nasty confrontation.

Especially in today’s supercharged and volatile national political climate, I fully understand why people get tired of contention. People get sick of it. They just want it to go away.

Here’s the problem. These battles to ravage existing neighborhoods with raw up-zoning involve financial stakes that are easily in the tens of millions of dollars. In a very hot upscale area like the one around Northwest Highway and the Dallas North Tollway at issue Wednesday, the stakes are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

You buy some air, as developers have done along Northwest Highway. Air. And you ask the City Council to turn your air into gold by voting for new massive zoning — zoning you didn’t pay for when you bought your air. It’s the vote that gets you your money, so the vote is worth a tough fight.

If you want someone tough enough and smart enough to win that fight for you — to protect you and the place where you live — you have to vote for a fighter, a Miller or a Kingston or former City Council member Angela Hunt or Scott Griggs. Former council member Griggs, a fighter, ran for mayor in May and was defeated by Eric Johnson, who is of the other persuasion.

And what is that other type? Well, those are the ones who tell you they believe in civility, whatever that means. I don’t think the word, civility, is a secret code, exactly, but it usually does wind up always meaning the same thing. Surrender.

The handwriting is on the wall the moment the voters make their choice in a City Council election and put a civility type in office in place of a fighter. A vote for civility is a vote for surrender.

Don’t believe me? Look at this outcome.

This vote also answers an important question that was on a lot of lips when Kingston, Griggs and Miller were rejected by voters. Who will be the fighter now? Who on this new City Council will have the guts and the fortitude to stand up and fight?

Some people thought it might be Chad West, who occupies Griggs’ old seat. Others hoped it might be Omar Narvaez, who occupies the West Dallas seat. I even heard a few faint and unconvincing whispers that maybe Cara Mendelsohn, a new council member from North Dallas, might turn out to have a secret backbone.

Forget about it. Based on this performance, the answer is nobody. There are a lot of nice people on the council this time around, and I think there’s going to be just a huge ton of civility, more civility than anybody has ever seen around here before. And for at least the next two years until the voters can reset the balance, the upshot of all that civility for neighborhoods will be rape.

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