They filed into Lake Highlands Baptist Church on a Tuesday night in April, 500 mostly angry White Rock Lake-area homeowners. Ostensibly they were there for a public meeting to discuss smart growth and sustainable development, issues raised by a controversial proposal to build a restaurant atop Boy Scout Hill, the paradisiacal slice of prairie grass and weeds at the intersection of Mockingbird Lane and Buckner Boulevard. In reality, though, they were there to burn a couple of witches, the two men who were seeking community approval for their restaurant plans. At the door, volunteers handed out green ribbons for those “in favor of the lake.” One bemused man in front of me asked, “What do we wear to show we’ve got an open mind?”
Developer/restaurateur Lyle Burgin and his partner, real estate lawyer Rick Kopf, were booed throughout their PowerPoint presentation and the subsequent Q&A. No answer would placate the audience, because they weren’t there to listen; they were there to make their angry voices heard. And heard they were. The next morning, a shell-shocked Burgin and Kopf announced they were suspending efforts to get city approval for the development.
Victory for East Dallas, right? That’s the way the story was framed in every news report, yet another in a long string of defeats for invaders with plans for restaurants, parking lots, and high-rises.
That’s not the way I see it. They stopped the Boy Scout Hill development. Bravo, I guess. But in doing so, they showed a provincial, self-absorbed ugliness that has turned a segment of East Dallas into a group that should be cautioned, not championed.
This provincialism has deep roots. One of the reasons East Dallas sees itself as a liberal oasis in a cold, conservative city is because East Dallas was once its own city. When the area was annexed in 1890, many residents were unhappy with the move, and the place today can sometimes feel just as isolationist. This sentiment manifests itself in ways both wonderful (the strong B.S. detector of former councilwoman Angela Hunt and her successor, Philip Kingston) and ridiculous (the woman who climbed her pecan tree with a pellet gun to keep Oncor from trimming it).
Given the area’s liberalism and strong sense of place, it’s understandable that lake-area residents protect White Rock as if it’s theirs and theirs alone. In 1986, it was the Arboretum that wanted to build a restaurant on the lake. Rejected! In 2005, a 25-story high-rise was proposed. Denied! The next year, developers floated the idea of turning a well-known building at the lake’s northeast corner, Big Thicket, into a restaurant. Not in my house! A parking lot at Winfrey Point (swatted into the stands) and even a floating boathouse for a rowing team (okay, but we’re not happy about it!) were dismissed for being environmentally insensitive plans of callous developers who didn’t understand the specialness of the lake.
In defeating the Boy Scout Hill development, residents showed a provincial, self-absorbed ugliness that has turned a segment of East Dallas into a group that should be cautioned, not championed.
The problem: with the Boy Scout Hill restaurant, that wasn’t the case. Burgin and Kopf were sincere and worked hard to address residents’ fears. When the developers were asked legitimate questions—about noise, lighting, traffic, environmental sustainability, access, infringement into recreational areas, etc.—they had reasonable responses. Maybe not perfect responses, maybe in some cases not even good responses, but serious replies that could be debated by the few who would have donned open-mind ribbons.
That’s why I believe many Dallasites would have welcomed the restaurant. And my initial thought was that these torch-bearing homeowners don’t speak for me and aren’t interested in hearing answers to their questions, so why do they get to decide? They don’t own the lake.
Sure, their house values are directly tied to what happens in and around the lake. They have a greater stake in its day-to-day activity than I do. But they don’t have exclusive rights to it, no more than I have exclusive rights to Klyde Warren Park just because I live within walking distance. So, as a longtime Dallasite who loves the lake (objectively, it’s a crap lake, but it’s our crap lake), I was appalled by the vitriol and closed-mindedness on display.
Hal Barker gets it. He understands the irrational anger of the people at that meeting and my being repulsed by it. Barker is a legend around White Rock Lake. He figures he and his dog have walked a mile or more at the lake 9,500 times since May 2001. (Twice a day, every day, not counting the 600 or so bonus lunchtime trips, minus eight days out of town and eight days he was too sick to walk.) He’s a lake activist, always ready with a never-say-die quote for the media when White Rock Lake is threatened. He’s also a computer programmer with a background in construction. He has worked with and for some of the wealthiest developers in Dallas. He gets them, knows how sneaky they can be, how they can work back rooms and shadows. As such, lake protectors look to him for counsel. He’s one of them.
But Barker didn’t speak at the meeting. The next day, when I asked why, he didn’t really want to talk about it. After a while, he admitted that the tenor of the meeting wasn’t for him. He appreciated the passion of those involved, but, frankly, Barker is too thoughtful to lose his cool or boo someone. He doesn’t argue my point, that no one cared if Burgin and Kopf had reasonable answers to neighborhood concerns.
And that’s why he doesn’t argue against these developments on their merits. He argues against them on principle. “It’s a wedge into the lake for all developers,” Barker says. “The problem is not this restaurant; it’s any restaurant. It’s not just this development; it’s all the ones that have come before and the ones that this will open the door to.”
In this way, Barker is smarter than I and his fire-breathing brethren. He’s saying it doesn’t matter if these developers are good people who love the lake (they are). It doesn’t matter if the noise and light and traffic and preservation concerns are being addressed (they were). What matters is that even an ideal development has unintended consequences, and that risk is never worth taking.
But Barker brings up another point that really resonates. He says that, yes, many of those fighting for the lake do so to keep their evening runs framed by oak trees and sunsets. “Like my brother and the spandex-and-bike crowd,” he says. But when he walks the lake every day, those aren’t the people he sees. He sees Hispanic families picnicking. He sees African-American families fishing. He sees people for whom lakes are the most affordable gathering spots. “They are the ones who really use the lake,” Barker says. “The ones who can’t afford $100 dinners on a new restaurant deck.”
He’s right. After the meeting, which I left early because I couldn’t take it anymore, I found a large Spanish-speaking family having dinner at the gazebo on Boy Scout Hill. The previous weekend, on Easter Sunday, hundreds of Hispanic families had covered Tee Pee Hill with their picnic blankets and volleyball nets and gas grills. I didn’t take a census, but I’ll bet none of them lives on Van Dyke Road or Lawther Drive.
So I get why the lake doesn’t need a restaurant. There are good reasons for shooting down such plans. But you’ll never hear them from White Rock’s staunchest defenders. They won this fight, but I wouldn’t want to be a neighbor of an angry, irrational mob.