POLITICS: The Conversion of Laura Miller
As a City Council member, Laura Miller thought the Trinity Project was a bad idea, but now the mayor is the Trinity’s biggest champion.
D Magazine: Why did you initially dislike this project and vote against it?
|HINDSIGHT: Miller says her husband called her stupid for initially opposing the Trinity River Project.
photography by Dan Sellers
Laura Miller: My favorite anecdote about the whole project is from 1998, when it was on the ballot. We’re on the same ballot, the Trinity and me [for City Council]. Because I lived in North Oak Cliff, and because it was being sold as this dramatic improvement of the river, complete with recreation and lakes, I was excited about it. But then, the fatal mistake was that the proponents wanted to show me the details.
They sat me down at the Oak Cliff Chamber—Halff and Associates, the road engineers who designed it, which is your red flag right there—with all the transportation folks and the floodway folks. At the end of two hours, I said, “I have only one question: where’s the water?” Because they’d talked to me for two hours about the roads.
So I went home to my husband [then-State Rep. Steve Wolens] and said, “This is bad. I’m going to vote against it, and you should vote against it.” And he said, “No. You are stupid.” This is what he told me. He said, “You should vote for it, because if you get elected at the time this project gets approved, you can then go down and work on the details of it and fix it.” I said, “Oh, that’s a mature way to look at it.” So I voted against it. Coming from a reporter’s background, I really thought it was a hoodwink.
D: You were Jim Schutze [the investigative columnist who replaced Miller at the Dallas Observer].
Miller: I was Laura Miller becoming Jim Schutze. But Laura Miller always did more homework than Jim Schutze, I’ll tell you that. At least my conspiracy theories were backed up with fact. Okay? As opposed to Jim, who’s funnier than I was, but I had better facts to back up my B.S.
D: You got elected to the Council. The Trinity Project passed. Then did you take your husband’s advice?
D: In the early stages, was this a project to build a park, or was it really just a road project?
Miller: For the first three years on the Council, I tried to work on the details and got totally knocked down by Mayor Ron Kirk. We would have one briefing a year on the project—one a year. What bothered me was that every time we had a briefing, all the environmentalists would come down out of the audience, and they’d be angry. And then all the floodway and road guys would be in the audience, and they’d be worried, because they just wanted everything to go along without any problems. And I would always say, “Why don’t we let the environmentalists talk?” And Kirk would say, “No! They’re the enemy! They’re not going to talk.” So it was always frustrating to me, because I wanted to work on the details, and I wanted the project to be better.
It was really about building a road. The whole thing was made out to be this great water project, but there were no details about the water.
I remember I said to the staff, “Would you bring me all the backup data on how we got to $246 million? I mean, clearly we have the details. The dredging is this much, the levee is this much. Bring it to me.” Four days later, they brought me three sheets of paper, which were the brochures that Rob Allyn had done for the river. And I said, “This isn’t what I’m talking about. I want the archival stuff from the Public Works Department.” They said, “Well, there really isn’t any. We just came up with a number.” At the time, I was just shocked. It was a fantasy. And what was really strange is that, if you’re going to create the largest urban park in America, you should have some urban planners working on it.
There were no recreational and aesthetic amenities to this thing. It was this eight-lane toll road, half of it on the downtown side and half of it on the Oak Cliff side—which was supposed to give Oak Cliff its fair share of the economic development. But the toll road bypassed all the highways that go south. So if you got on the toll road on the Oak Cliff side, you’d just be flying past Oak Cliff. You couldn’t get off and go to a restaurant. Plus, who would want a restaurant next to the toll road anyway? One of the great fallacies that irritates me to this day was a watercolor they always used to put on the wall. It was of a couple sitting at an umbrella table, sipping Chardonnay, looking out over the toll road.
D: How do you know it was Chardonnay?
Miller: When it’s hot and you’ve got all the exhaust and grit in your face, it’s got to be Chardonnay. Yeah. So it used to irritate me because you don’t see any of those umbrella tables on the Dallas North Tollway. It’s been there for 25 years. So why would you see them here?
D: So the project sold to the voters was a very preliminary concept. But wasn’t that necessary? Because if you just said, “It’s about $250 million, but we’re not quite sure what it is,” nobody would have voted for that.
Miller: Sure. But if it were me, I would have said, “We have to do something, and this is a good start. This is what we think it’s going to cost, and we’re going to bring in an urban planner to work out the details. Okay?” Which is not how it was sold. Or I would get the urban planner, do the design work, and then pitch it to the voters. But we didn’t do either, and that’s why you get conspiracy theories.
D: How did things change once Kirk was gone and you had the reins?
Miller: When I got elected mayor, one of the first things I did was have an all-day Trinity River summit in the Briefing Room with the City Council. I said there was one ground rule. Because when I was on the Council in one of Ron’s briefings, the ground rule was you couldn’t criticize anything. You had to be quiet. Look at the pictures and be quiet. So my ground rule was: you have to criticize the project. We have to figure out where we are on this. And, of course, all the floodway and road people—who are not wetlands and lakes and trail people—were aghast because they saw the wheels coming off the train, and they thought the project was dead.
D: A month after you were elected, you had to go to Washington, D.C., to ask for money for the project. Were you still conflicted about it?
Miller: I was really conflicted. I have to credit [acting city manager] Mary Suhm. Because she said to me, “Listen, I know how you feel about this trip. But you gotta go. You can work out the project. We know you want to make it better. But this is when we go every year at this same time to get the money. And if the mayor doesn’t go, if you’re off the ship, then we’re going to stall on the money.” And, of course, Kay [Bailey Hutchison] had said, “You know, I’ve been pushing this as hard as I can, getting the money, overriding the president’s budget. Are you onboard or not?”
D: As you were up there in Washington, making your sales pitch, did your own attitude begin to change?
Miller: No. What I focused on that year was the flooding. Because Houston had just had its flood. So we took a map that shows what would happen to downtown Dallas if the same flood that hit Houston hit us. Basically, the river comes up to the steps of City Hall. And all the buildings downtown have water in them.
D: And the water wouldn’t just flow into downtown. South Dallas would be swimming, too.
|photography by Dan Sellers
Miller: Yes, I was also concerned about Cadillac Heights. Because when I was on the Council, we were building these levees, and the residents would come down and say, “Don’t build a wall and keep us in there, when our houses have been flooded 50 times and they’re all full of lead from the smelter. We want to be bought out.” So while we were having the Council summit, the staff and I were also working on what we could do to buy out the Cadillac Heights residents. And that’s when Jill Jordan, who’s our assistant city manager over public works, came up with the idea of changing the use over there. Instead of it being residential, we made it municipal. We had to build a new police academy anyway. So instead of building it in South Oak Cliff, it’ll be right across the street from the new police headquarters. I thought that was a great idea. The Council agreed to buy out the people of Cadillac Heights. We’re in the middle of doing that. We’ve moved 26 of the 107 [residents] so far. That’s Phase 1. In the next bond package, we have to do the other half.
D: Four years after the project was approved by the voters, the city hired an urban planner, Alex Krieger, to review the project. His firm retooled the entire thing. Would that have happened without you?
Miller: No, because we had no money. The Council agreed that we needed help. And I thought, Okay, we’re going to go hire somebody great. The first person who agreed to write a check was Deedie Rose. She wrote a check for $200,000 out of her own personal funds to start the process.
D: Did you go to her personally?
Miller: I think Gail Thomas talked to Deedie and let me know that Deedie would be willing to help. And then I talked to Deedie. Once we got the first $200,000, we asked three groups to collaborate on the effort: the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, the Dallas Plan, and AIA Dallas. Then the Dallas Plan managed the project. And we put together a selection committee and took proposals from urban planners around the country. The selection committee had a major toll-road guy on it and Gail Thomas, who’s a major river person, anti-road person, on it. So we had that whole group on there. The committee took the [request for proposals] and unanimously and immediately wanted Alex Krieger. [Former county judge] Lee Jackson and I became the clients, and they started working on it.
D: You say the first $200,000. How much more did it cost?
D: You’ve joked that you didn’t want a road in the project. You wanted a donkey trail. How did your thinking change on that?
Miller: Every time they came back down, it got bigger and bigger. And they hired Hargreaves Associates, the park planners, to help. It got bigger and bigger. And it got more and more expensive. So every time we’d near the end of the funding, I’d pick up the phone and call the next person to get funding. At the end, we raised $600,000. The last part came from Boone Pickens. I called him and I said, “I’m short some money. Can you give me some money?” He said, “How much are you short?” I told him $118,000. He said, “Okay. Done.”
There are two giant success stories about the road. One is that it is going to be on the downtown side, where we already have roads. Two, instead of being eight lanes, it’s going to be six lanes coming from Irving, until you get to the levees. When you come over the levees, it narrows to four lanes; it becomes more aesthetically pleasing. And then it goes down to I-45 as four lanes. Everybody signed off on that. And the reason Lee Jackson signed off on it was because Michael Morris [director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments] became a big proponent for doing this road in a way that relieves traffic but works in concert with the amenities. I credit him 100 percent.
Another piece of this happened early on, when I was on the Council. There was only one major thing I got accomplished, as far as the river. I brought in the Urban Land Institute, out of Washington, D.C. Each year, they do panels of experts: retail, transportation, urban planners, all facets of development. They come together pro bono, from all over the country, to a city that has a design problem. And they stay a week and figure it out. So I asked them, “Would you pick Dallas and do the Oak Cliff gateway?” I wanted to know, No. 1, how do we develop that side so people finally come over to that side once we get the river project built? And, No. 2, can we get the people to come across and can we get the kind of development we want if we have a four-lane highway on our side?
So they came down, they spent a week here, and they interviewed 60 people. Bill Eager was the transportation guy from Seattle on the panel. He sat there and looked at this project and looked at the Mixmaster and all the issues. At the end of the day, they gave a formal presentation in the City Council chambers on a Friday afternoon. And they said, “We strongly advise that you not put the highway on the Oak Cliff side because it will inhibit the kind development that you want.” You know, the Mockingbird Station kind of development, where people are going to come and walk around and walk on the levee and eat dinner and sit at the umbrella table and look out over the lakes and the downtown skyline. That one project got the Council moving toward putting the highway on the downtown side, even before I became mayor.
We still haven’t voted on an alignment. Now there are six alignments. The problem with the bureaucracy is that even though we know now that we want to do six-four on the downtown side, the federal government has to look at all the different options and give us its blessing on all the different options and how they affect the river.
D: The way you used to think five or six years ago, anytime big money moves like this, it has to be bad. Take care of your schools and roads first, then the bridges. Your husband called you stupid. Was it this project that made you smarter?
D: We still need a lot of money to fund the full-scale version of the project. Where’s it going to come from?
Miller: My whole view of what we need to focus on has done a 180. It’s a total process of learning and seeing from a different perspective. My job changed totally from councilmember to mayor because now, as mayor, I do what I never did as a councilmember, which is go out around the country and sell the city. I go on these sales trips with the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Every councilmember should do one of those. Because when you go out and sell the city, you have these huge groups tell you that they’re not going to come to your city because there’s nothing to do.
I went to Rome in March with my kids and my husband, and I had this really fabulous tour guide, who spoke five languages, say to me, “There’s only one thing I really want to do if I come to Dallas. I want to get a tour of Southfork.” And I said, “I don’t even know where that is.” And he said, “How can you not know? You’re the mayor of Dallas.” I said, “Because that’s a 30-year-old image.” So I know that most of the world looks at us like we’re the Cowboys and J.R. And we can’t be that anymore. We have done nothing to attract visitors.
Ron Kirk always said we’ll never go back for more money. That’s ridiculous. You have to do the project the right way no matter what it costs. Right now we need to raise $110 million to put all the bells and whistles on the $246 million, just Phase 1. If we can’t raise it privately, we’re going to have to go back to the voters. I’m happy to go back for more money.
D: How will this project change people’s perception of Dallas?
A couple of summers ago, Steve and the kids and I rented a travel van and drove from here to San Diego. We had this triptych. And I’d be reading about stuff in the car, and then we’d get off the highway when I found something interesting to do. And I always said the same line because it’s cute and it’s real: never go 100 miles out of your way to see the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico, because it’s bad. But I was thinking in the van, What if there was a family going the other direction and they were going through Texas and they had to pick one city in Texas to go? Where would they go? They wouldn’t come here. They’d go to San Antonio.
I was in San Antonio last week, and there were all these Dallasites saying, “Oh, Mayor, isn’t it wonderful what they’ve done here? Isn’t it incredible? This is so much fun.” And I said, “It is nothing compared to what we’re doing in Dallas! Wait five years. You won’t come to San Antonio anymore. You’ll come to downtown Dallas.”