Wednesday, September 27, 2023 Sep 27, 2023
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THE CITY Why Lakewood Doesn’t Trust Itself

East Dallas is a friendly, close-knit community where everybody wants to help make decisions. That’s what’s wrong with it.
By Charles Matthews |

Who are the people?” Willie Cothrum asked, somewhat testily, at the end of two hours of sound and fury in the Lakewood Library one evening in August. The councilman had some reason to be confused, since it was clear on this evening that his constituency, the people of Lakewood, was a house divided.

The meeting had been held because a young merchant, John Tilton of Paperbacks Plus on Abrams, had circulated a petition calling for an explanation of the four-year-old master plan for the redevelopment of Lakewood shopping center. Tilton was upset by what he describes as “a cynicism” in his community, a feeling on the part of Lake-wood merchants and residents that they were powerless to alter a plan they felt might destroy their community. Others, he found, were convinced that Lakewood Bank was involved in a land-grab aimed at residential as well as commercial property, and that the shopping center plan had somehow been manipulated by the bank for its own ends.

In theory, the public hearing is democracy in action. In practice, it usually consists of tedious haranguing by professional meeting-goers, adroit waffling by politicians, and an occasional barrage of facts from representatives of the League of Women Voters. Then the politicians go back and vote the way they had always intended to vote.

This particular hearing quickly outgrew the space allotted for it, the library auditorium, and spilled into the lobby in front of the circulation desk, which became a dais for Cothrum, his city council colleague Richard Smith, and a few bureaucrats from the departments of urban planning and public works. It was noisy and disorganized and exciting, and at the end, the house was still divided.

Khan M. Husain stood in the crowd at the hearing and listened with more interest than most. Husain had written the plan for the shopping center, and he was proud of the way it was put together. He had come to Dallas in 1972 to help develop the Interim Comprehensive Plan, Dal-las’s first modern attempt at figuring out with some care and precision where it ought to go. The city was partitioned into 34 sectors, and citizen design committees were established for each.

Among other things, both the plan commission and the thoroughfare committee wanted something done about the bottleneck at Lakewood shopping center, where two major arteries – Abrams and Gaston – ran afoul of each other. Hu-sain went to meetings of the East Dallas Community Design Committee and was impressed by the high degree of citizen participation there. At the time, however, East Dallas was only one of Husain’s concerns.

One day, taking a coffee break, Husain peered over the shoulders of some planners working on the shopping center. Traffic control had suggested thus and such, he was told, and the planning team was working out some very specific details to implement the recommendation.

“Have you talked with the property owners about the details?” Husain asked.

“No,” a staff member replied. “They had their say on the East Dallas Design Committee.”

Later, in a meeting with the head of the planning department, Jim Schroeder, Husain mentioned the shopping center project. In his opinion, the merchants deserved something better than just passive assent to a plan. The way to solve the problems of a business district, Husain insisted, was to involve the businessmen in their own destiny.

Schroeder bristled slightly. “Fella, let me tell you something. I know the people out there. We’ve wrestled with this damn problem for 20 years.”

Husain replied that perhaps the solution didn’t exist in the eads of professionals. “Let’s involve people with their hands, feet, pens, pencils, and papers.”

“Give me a memo on that,” Schroeder responded.

Husain went back and wrote the memo. Do a feasibility study on the economic potential of the area, he suggested, then put together a task force from the community to decide how to achieve that potential.

Schroeder knew that Husain had come to Dallas from a successful project in Fort Worth that involved citizens to an unprecedented degree. It was worth a try, he thought, and he told Husain to take charge of the shopping center design.

The economic feasibility study showed that Lakewood was stable, with an affluent fringe along the west shore of White Rock Lake. The shopping center was mostly service-oriented – Safeway and Skillern’s, dry cleaners, TV repairmen, plumbers, and other small businesses. The potential was there for specialty shops of a more attractive nature – clothing stores, galleries, and gift shops. – if the parking and traffic problems that discouraged the walk-in trade could be solved.

The major tenant was Lakewood Bank, so Husain naturally looked to the bank for leadership when he formed his citizens’ committee. Husain called Bob Burns, executive vice-president of the bank, and was almost overwhelmed by Burns’s enthusiasm for the project.

It was important, Husain thought, to let a businessman lead the group, reducing his own role to an advisory one. Once the plan was finished, after all, Husain would go on to other things. The committee that formulated the plan needed to be an organic body, capable of growing and changing as the years passed and the needs of the center changed. Husain would merely bring it into being, give it guidance in its formative stages, and withdraw once it came to maturity.

That’s how Lakewood Bank – in particular Bob Burns and another bank vice president, Artie Barnett – came to be the leaders of the Lakewood Planning and Design Committee.

In June 1973, the group – 23 people, including merchants in the shopping center and residents of the Swiss Avenue historic district – started to work. Hu-sain explained that they were going to do more than drink coffee and look at slides. With that, he handed them a 15-page questionnaire, covering every possible design aspect of the center. “Fill it out here,” he ordered. It took an hour and a half to complete.

Then Husain handed them a map, on which a route through the center was clearly marked. They were asked to record impressions, the time it took to get from one place to another, and to isolate major problems. Among other things, the group found that if they crossed with the lights, it took five minutes to go from Skillern’s, on the southwest corner of the Abrams-Gaston intersection, to the Mickey Finn’s Billiard Parlor, on the northeast corner.

Husain had wanted the group to know how people who shopped in the center felt. He succeeded: They felt uncomfortable; they took their lives in their hands when they crossed the street; they were depressed by the randomness with which shops were distributed, the visual disarray, the run-down stores, the decentralized parking.

Virtually all of the problems they isolated could be traced to traffic and parking. The consensus was that solving these two problems would automatically solve the others.

At the next meeting, Husain brought in five huge maps and a supply of colored blocks, and five sub-committees went to work redesigning the center. It was, Hu-sain says, fascinating: “They drew the plan. We didn’t have to.” The group as a whole suggested modifications on the individual sections of the plan, and the staff of the city planning department put it all together.

Husain called the group back together and presented the aggregate plan, calling for the diversion of Abrams traffic away from the center onto Prospect, and the creation of a landscaped median on Gas-ton. The Abrams bypass was the key element of the plan. The rest of it – creation of a small park in the area where the buildings are to be demolished for the bypass, landscaping, storefront renovation, and the redevelopment of an entire block of the center between Prospect and Oram into a mixed-use office-retail-parking-housing complex – would depend on a long-range commitment of the community to review and implement specific sections of the plan.

By this time, August 1973, Husain felt he was through. He had developed the consensus plan and set up the ongoing review committee that would oversee its implementation. The University of Texas at Arlington was beckoning with a job offer that would allow him to develop a curriculum in city planning and free him for freelance consulting. So in January 1974 he went to UTA.

The Lakewood group wanted one more thing – a published report that would convey the city’s commitment to their community. Schroeder assured Husain the city would take care of it.

But a few months passed and Husain received a call from Bob Burns. The city hadn’t produced the report yet. Husain called Schroeder, who told him that the city didn’t have either the time or the budget to do it. “I think I’d find a way if I were you,” Husain said. “Those people are serious about this plan.”

Several weeks later, Burns phoned again. “We’ve decided to hire you to write the report,” he told Husain.

Husain balked – he didn’t have the time, he insisted – but finally agreed that if the Lakewood committee could fund a research grant to the UTA planning department, he’d prepare the report. Burns and the group raised $7500 for the project, Husain gathered the materials from the city planning department, wrote the report, supervised the preparation of graphics, and delivered the report to the city and the committee in June 1974.

Four years later, the plan is under attack. How could something so carefully worked out, with so much community participation, be the focus of so much controversy?

Like a small town, Lakewood is a place where you know your neighbors. Families of several generations live there, and merchants know most of their customers by name. And like most small towns, Lake-wood is full of gossip.

The crowd at the Lakewood Library included a good number of older residents, lots of young East Dallasites, a handful of professional meeting-goers (including a young woman in a Bois D’Arc Patriots T-shirt), Bob Burns, and Lakewood Bank president Don Wright – looking concerned but pleasant – and the usual fleet of minicams. Some were there because the plan affected their livelihood. Others were there because of the gossip. Some of the gossip is plausible (that Don Wright is near-ing retirement and would like to see his memorial in the form of a high-rise building, the Wright Professional Building), some of it is implausible (that the bank is going to buy and tear down the Lakewood Theater).

Willie Cothrum called the meeting to order. But it was never orderly. After the usual run-through of the plan, the floor was opened for questions. The first one went to the heart of the matter. It was also out of order.

“My name is Joan Stagner. I have Vanity Cleaners on Oram Street, and I’d like to know what the Lakewood Bank proposes to do with my property in the next two years.”

Gayle Pepper, of the city’s public works department, is presiding. He is taken aback: “Well, of course I don’t have any idea what the Lakewood Bank’s plans are.”

– Webb Stagner speaks up: “Well, does Lakewood Bank own that building?”

For a minute or two all is confusion. The question has hit a nerve, though it is not the job of a public meeting or a public official to address it.

Finally, Don Wright responds to a call from Cothrum for Lakewood Bank to speak up. “I’ve been in your place nearly every day with cleaning,” Wright says to the Stagners. “I’d have been glad to answer your questions.”

The Stagners are furious. They insist that they have asked Wright repeatedly. “1 have approached Lakewood Bank since January of this year and they said they do not own the property,” Webb Stagner insists. “Yet I know they own it. But what I’m trying to say is just be honest – if they want my place of business they can have it!”

The Stagners have heard the gossip. They have run their cleaning shop on Oram for 15 years. Now the grapevine says they may have to move. Webb Stagner says he’s been told that it will cost $35,000 to relocate. That’s a big debt to face when you’re 50 years old, he says. He wants a straight answer from the bank about whether they’re going to force him to relocate. When the answer isn’t forthcoming, and the rumors persist, the Stagners begin to panic.

If Lakewood were really a small town, rather than a neighborhood in the midst of a restless and competitive city, maybe Lakewood Bank could be candid with the Stagners about its development plans. But if you’re planning a development of any sort in Dallas, you play your cards close to the chest. Lakewood Bank is no more likely to tip its hand about long-range plans than is Trammell Crow or Bob Folsom. Who can blame the Stagners for wanting to know what the Lakewood Bank plans to do? And who can blame the Lakewood Bank officers for not wanting to tell them?

Two weeks after the meeting, the Stag-ners get an answer – of sorts – to their question. They don’t get it directly from Don Wright; they read it in the Dallas Morning News: Lakewood Bank is going to build a new bank building, “less than ten stories high,” on a tract next to the existing building. The bank will not reveal which tract, but it probably includes the Stagners’ store.

“This sort of thing wouldn’t happen if Doc Harrell were still alive,” Joan Stag-ner says. The Stagners aren’t the only Lakewood residents who date the decline of Lakewood shopping center from the day the corner druggist’s widow sold the store to Skillern’s. As they see it, the day of the small businessman is over and the days of Lakewood as a small town are numbered.

Willie Cothrum has the meeting under control again when another man speaks up: “I’m here because, like everybody else, I love Lakewood. And Mr. Coth-rum, the longer you stay here tonight, the more uncomfortable you’re gonna be, because there’s a lot of questions about this. None of us wants to wake up next to a parking lot some day.” Applause. “Or a high rise.” More applause.

It is clear that the one fait accompli – short of construction – of the Lakewood master plan is the Abrams bypass. The city has bought the property – the block from Mr. Cat’s Eat Spot down to Mickey Finn’s Billiard Parlor – and the county has passed the bond issue for construction. Token opposition had been flung up by the proprietor of Le Cabotin, an odd little cafe in the middle of the block, but he has capitulated and moved out. More effective opposition came from home-owners at the southern end of the project, who managed to get the plan modified to take less of their lawns.

But still the question of the bypass is raised. Is the Abrams-Columbia route really used enough to make the bypass necessary, a man asks. Another man responds to the question: He uses the route every day and thinks other people would use it more if they didn’t get stuck in the middle of Lakewood shopping center. “There’s only one lane of traffic there; the bypass will provide six lanes.” His defense awakens loud applause, much of it from people who haven’t been applauding before. The people who support the plan are beginning to show their colors.

“Is it possible to stop the projects that are under way at this time?” a man asks. Laughter and applause from the other camp.

Rick Douglas, head of city planning, replies, “From the standpoint that the projects have been developed over a significant period of time with public input, funded with dollars that have been approved by a vote of the people, I think it would be difficult and the staff would rule against it.” The applause is louder and longer than ever.

Yet another questioner finds ammunition in the plan itself. “I’m a little concerned that many of the people who were on this committee are actively – in an organization and some as individuals – pursuing property that is residential for purposes of commercial use. The Lake-wood master plan on pages 27 through 33 spends a great length of time talking about the negative effects of horizontal expansion of the shopping center – the encroachment into the neighborhoods. I find it very much a conflict of interest for these people to be purchasing – actively, in the last year – blocks of residential property for the sole purpose of creating that as commercial property. I just don’t understand it.”

Last January, Lakewood Bank went to the plan commission with a request for a zoning change on the property at Swiss and Oram. The bank wanted to put a parking lot where a single-family house, which it owns, now stands. The city attorney’s office ruled the request invalid because the city code calls for parking lots to be adjacent to the buildings they serve. The lot at Swiss and Oram is separated from the bank’s current parking lot by the Bethany Christian Church.

The bank says it will keep pressing for the zoning change. Meanwhile, it is preparing to tear down two apartment houses, the Oram Terrace and the Mai-Kai, across the street from the bank, to build parking space. The bank has given the residents of the apartments, most of them elderly, three months’ notice.

It shocks a lot of Lakewood residents that the bank should be “invading” the residential areas it has received so much publicity for helping revitalize. And that it should be displacing elderly tenants who find the proximity of the shopping center’s services convenient.

Banks have sold themselves to us as benevolent institutions. They all claim to provide personal service, helping hands, warm hearts and friendly smiles. It’s no wonder that people are shocked when they realize that banks exist to make money, and can, in fact, be quite stingy. Lakewood Bank has had its share of good publicity because it was active in making loans for the revitalization of Swiss Avenue and Munger Place. But it’s worth pointing out that in reviving East Dallas it had its own interests at heart – you can’t have a successful bank in a slum.

Much the same thinking – what’s good for East Dallas is good for the bank – must have gone into the bank’s enthusiastic support of the Lakewood master plan. With such solid support from the public sector, it was only natural for the bank to try to make money by investing in the shopping center property.

In 1974, the bank helped create the East Dallas Development Corporation. Lake-wood Bank vice-president Artie Barnett is president of the corporation; until recently, the bank owned 15 percent of its stock. Among other things, the corporation bought one of the center’s landmarks, the old Lakewood Library, which was in danger of being turned into a fast-food restaurant, and leased part of the building to the city. The corporation owns several other large chunks of the center. Bob Burns and Jim Toler, a director of the bank, own other property in the center, including most of the “redevelopment” block between Prospect and Oram.

There is nothing at all nefarious about this on the surface (though the surface is all one can see), and Artie Barnett insists that loans made by the bank to the corporation and to other bank officers have never been questioned by the bank examiners. But given the rumor-filled climate of Lakewood, suspicion was bound to breed. And in the process, the master plan for Lakewood shopping center was bound to attract part of that suspicion.

“I think there’s a question in a lot of people’s minds,” another speaker at the meeting says, “why the city would enter into an agreement with these people that they now feel bound by.”

Cothrum comments that when the plan was adopted, the people had their say, and whenever any part of it comes up in the future – in the form of a bond issue or a zoning case – they can have their say again. In committing, themselves to the plan, the city was looking for people willing to make a financial commitment to the shopping center, Cothrum says.

Khan Husain was looking for more than that. He was looking for people – and he thought he had found them – willing to make a commitment, almost a moral commitment, to city planning, to the process by which the public and private sectors can work together for the common good. In talking about the hostility of the meeting, Husain claims he’s not being idealistic, but he thinks the bank and the East Dallas Development Corporation would be willing to tell people what they have in mind if people would stop thinking of them as enemies. “Be a good follower of Christ,” he says, “and you’ll find the solution to these problems. If everybody would adopt the attitude of ’We’ – instead of ’Us’ and ’Them’ – you’ll find the solution. You’ll never find the solution if you mistrust. . . People are saying ’They’re going to take over. They’re going to build a new down-town.’ If people believe this, they should get organized, approach them directly, courteously, ’We’d like to know.’ Organization is power.”

Husain’s philosophy is so alien to the spirit of the Lakewood Library meeting that one wonders for a moment if he’s talking about the same group of people. John Tilton, after all, in trying to dispel “cynicism” and fear in his community, was doing exactly what Husain prescribes.

Tilton believes that perhaps no plan at all is the answer, that the plan of four years ago failed to anticipate the spirit of rebirth that has swept across East Dallas, the endeavors of homeowners and small merchants to revitalize their own community. It didn’t foresee the energy crisis and soaring gasoline prices that have brought people back to the inner city. Now, Tilton thinks, the aims of the plan might be accomplished by market forces – the bullish East Dallas real estate market and the eagerness of merchants to make money by serving young professionals moving into the area. Even the bypass, Tilton thinks, may be deleterious to the neighborhood, drawing heavy traffic from the apartment complexes north of Lakewood through the area and making it more congested. Tilton’s own pleasant bookstore has doubled in size in the past two years. Some new merchants say they were attracted to the shopping center because of the plan; Tilton points out that they’re doing quite well without it.

It is true that the Lakewood master plan has turned out to be a partnership of giants – the City and the Bank – and some Lakewood merchants and residents are afraid that these giants are not benevolent. But the development of the plan was virtually a model of how the city ought to approach urban design. Now, how do we prevent a well-made plan from producing cynicism and fear?

Khan Husain wanted the plan constantly reviewed, and its section on implementation specifically calls for a review committee to deal with “unforeseen circumstances.” But the politics of committee work are subtle at best; committees are tedious when nothing seems to be happening, and they are easily manipulated by strong leadership.

“These new residents,” Husain says, “have a very convincing point. It’s only logical that as new people move into the area, they want to be a part of it. They’re asking ’where are we going, where do we fit in?’ ” The problem, as Husain sees it, is that the ongoing review committee has become too small, too wedded to four-year-old ideas that may be outmoded now. The procedural part of the plan hasn’t worked because neither the city nor the established review committee has been aware that new residents, new merchants, and new city officials might have needs, desires, and ideas that would alter the original agreement. “I don’t blame them,” Husain says of the review committee. “You have to seek out the people. That’s hard to keep in mind.”

“I have one thing that troubles me,” Willie Cothrum says to the crowd at Lakewood Library. “You say let’s get the people together. You know, I have a hard time in this, and many other matters when we’re called upon to make a decision, determining who the people are. I guess for all practical purposes The People are all the people who live in the entire city of Dallas because we represent all of them. But obviously all the people in the city of Dallas are not concerned about this project. Where do you stop? Who are the people? Are they the ones who just happen to show up at a meeting? Whoever I talk to last seems to think that they are the people.”

Applause, applause.