Our Town - Neighborhood provides gateway to Oak Cliff

The Dallas Morning News - Tuesday, January 16, 2001
Oak Cliff runs across the southern reaches of Dallas much like Brooklyn roams across vast stretches of New York City. Like Brooklyn, Oak Cliff breaks up into different areas: North, South, East and West Oak Cliff. And each of those quadrants has distinct neighborhoods. In fact, 66 neighborhood associations exist across Oak Cliff.

Area residents and city planners often describe verdant North Oak Cliff as the "gateway" into this vibrant but misunderstood section of Dallas, which is graced by gentle hills filled with ample oaks, creeks and parks. North Oak Cliff rests just across the Trinity River from downtown Dallas. The Dallas skyline unfolds for its residents and businesses like a panoramic backdrop.

The gateway concept began in the early 1990s, when Oak Cliff residents sought to bring more Dallasites across the Trinity and into their ethnically, financially and architecturally diverse neighborhoods. Oak Cliff Founders Park, which runs up from the southern tip of the Houston Street viaduct that feeds into Oak Cliff from downtown, was the first "gateway" development approved by a local tax increment financing district.

Development has been slow since then, however. Gateway projects have not blossomed as fast as envisioned. Even Founders Park needs more attention. The city should make parking and entryways to the park more accessible and identifiable.

Still, Oak Cliff leaders hope that an upscale apartment complex planned near Founders Park will attract enough urban professionals to stimulate greater demand for restaurants and supermarkets. More than that, they hope such projects will entice more Dallasites to neighborhoods such as Winnetka Heights, Kessler Park, Ravinia Heights, Kidd Springs, Kings Highway and Stevens Park. "People not familiar with (North Oak Cliff) are in shock with how beautiful it is," Kings Highway developer Rick Garza says.

*Methodist Medical Center continues to serve as the area's economic anchor. It long has been one of North Oak Cliff's largest employers. But the hospital's presence on Colorado Boulevard has increased since its redesign in the middle 1990s. If plans for another office building on the corner of Colorado and Bishop materialize, then the medical corridor could further stimulate growth in this overlooked section of Dallas.

*North Oak Cliff also includes culturally diverse Jefferson Boulevard, where taquerias and mom-and-pop stores serve a large and vital Hispanic community. About 13,000 to 15,000 cars travel that route each day, says Lena Ainley of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce.

To drive or walk along Jefferson Boulevard is to witness the New Texas unfold. A rich mixture of black, brown and white families shop and stroll there, much like they will across the state once Texas becomes a majority-minority state.

But Jefferson Boulevard has not reached its full potential. The completion of two projects, along with more city attention to basic services, could help.

First, renovation of the historic Texas Theater, where Lee Harvey Oswald fled on Nov. 22, 1963, could add a new dimension. The project awaits the completion of paperwork so the city can release federal urban development funds for the burned-out building. Once that happens, Oak Cliff resident David Marquis says, the Texas Theater and Jefferson Boulevard could become an arts and entertainment magnet.

The Dallas Summer Musicals will manage the facility, which should help bring performers and patrons to the theater. Mr. Marquis speaks for other residents when he hopes this project "could add to the number of people coming to Jefferson Boulevard from across the Trinity River."

Jefferson Tower's renovation also could enhance the boulevard, which is the spine of old downtown Oak Cliff. The Southern Dallas Development Corp. plans to move into the Art Deco high-rise. But the project still needs tenants. More than that, it needs donations from foundations or individuals to become an attractive office destination.

*One North Oak Cliff area that now serves as a draw for Dallasites who love Southwestern and ethnic cuisine, ice cream parlors and fresh-cut flowers is the Bishop Arts District, which stands where a city trolley once made a U-turn at the end of Bishop Street. The first of four renovation phases sponsored by the city is nearly finished. The result is more inviting streetscapes, new parking configurations and historic lighting for the collection of specialty shops and restaurants.

The city now must move speedily to put federal dollars into the next renovation phase. Gary Burns, a past president of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League , says that further restoration will attract a greater mix of businesses into the Bishop Arts District, which resembles a smaller version of Deep Ellum.

These projects provide plenty of reason for residents to feel positive about their neighborhood's course. But North Oak Cliff still faces serious tests.

School limitations frustrate many Hispanic, Anglo and African-American families. A few charter and private schools have recently opened or expanded in North Oak Cliff. But overcrowding limits the quality of many North Oak Cliff public schools. New Dallas school superintendent Mike Moses should pay special attention to the area's density issues.

Some neighborhoods also face serious challenges to their architectural integrity. Dignified prairie homes line several streets in the picturesque Winnetka Heights Historic District. But recent additions to some homes, often historically inappropriate, have angered residents. The city and neighborhood groups must resolve this problem in a way that allows Winnetka Heights to maintain its unique texture.

The city must better enforce city codes, too. La Calle Diez Community Development Corp., Dallas-area Habitat for Humanity and for-profit developers have sponsored new homes near Adamson High School. But absentee homeowners and inattentive residents have allowed too many other sections of North Oak Cliff to deteriorate. "Codes are a chronic complaint," says City Council member Laura Miller, who represents much of North Oak Cliff.

The city, school district officials and neighborhood groups have important roles to play in sustaining North Oak Cliff's progress. Residents are rightfully proud that their neighborhood stands as a gateway to a dynamic, picture-book section of Dallas. The rest of Dallas should take the time to better understand Oak Cliff's rich dimensions.

Seventh in a series focusing on Dallas neighborhoods

COLOR BIND - Backers of Hispanic council districts want no part of Kessler Park

The Dallas Morning News - Monday, July 9, 2001
Author: Dave Michaels, Staff Writer
One of the primary rules, when drawing political boundaries, is to respect "communities of interest."

But what does that judicial jargon, often invoked in lawsuits that challenge redistricting plans, mean? What knits a community together?

The question is at the heart of a debate over whether Kessler Park - white and affluent - should remain a part of Dallas' City Council District 3 - generally Hispanic and poor.

By history and geography, Kessler Park is linked to nearby neighborhoods such as Kidd Springs and Winnetka Heights. But when it comes to the cares and conflicts of daily life, its residents may have little in common with their working-class neighbors.

One difference is quite clear: People who live in Kessler Park and East Kessler are more likely to vote. And that, some say, means that for District 3 to elect a Hispanic, those neighborhoods must be drawn out of District 3.

"Whatever Hispanics are thrown into that district, they are ignored completely," said Joe May, the redistricting commissioner who is leading the push for more majority-Hispanic districts.

Last week Mr. May submitted maps to the commission, the council-appointed panel charged with redrawing the boundaries. His maps remove Kessler Park from the district.

Corky Sherman, the commissioner appointed by District 3 council member Laura Miller - who lives in Kessler Park - called Mr. May's proposal "a silly notion." Mr. Sherman joked that he was "going to have a fund-raiser at my house for a lawsuit."

"To create a district where your last name would have to be Spanish to win, I don't think you could do that in District 3 without disenfranchising a bunch of Anglos, and is that really a goal?" he said.

Ms. Miller said last week that she did not intend to run for the District 3 seat again. Nevertheless, she said she would fight to keep Kessler Park with its neighbors.

"If anybody thinks they are going to pull Kessler Park out of a north Oak Cliff district, then they have another thing coming," Ms. Miller said. "If 5,000 rabid north Oak Cliff residents need to come down to City Hall to tell somebody that, then that is what will happen."

Already, Kessler residents have mobilized. At a May meeting, hundreds showed up and asked commissioners to keep their neighborhood in District 3.

"There is certainly a great deal of cohesiveness within the north Oak Cliff community," said Darwin Gaines, a past president of Kessler Neighbors Unlimited, a neighborhood organization.

"People in north Oak Cliff don't care what race a candidate is. We vote for the person who we think is going to support our community the best."

In 1991, District 3 was 43 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic and 24 percent black. Today, 54 percent of residents are Hispanic, 23 percent are white and 21 percent are black, according to the 2000 census.

Yet, Mr. May said, because voters in Kessler Park and other white enclaves turn out in force, the district has continued to elect white candidates to the council.

"There are very few Anglos left in Oak Cliff," Mr. May said. "They want to keep what they have left."

His goal, he said, is to counteract Hispanics' traditionally low voter turnout by drawing a district that is between 70 and 80 percent Hispanic.

Oddly, Mr. May has focused on a recent DISD election in which a Hispanic candidate won as evidence that a Kessler voting block controls District 3 politics.

In that race, Rafael Anchia, a Kessler Park lawyer, defeated two other Hispanic candidates and two whites. Mr. Anchia won 93 percent of the vote in Kessler Park.

Even if another candidate had won the remainder of the district, "that completely wipes you out," Mr. May said.

Several redistricting commissioners said last week that they did not believe the panel would adopt Mr. May's maps.

Even commissioners from black districts in southern Dallas, who seemed to support Mr. May in principle, worried that Kessler Park would dominate any black district it might be united with.

"Do you think a majority-black district could outvote Kessler Park?" commissioner Illona Sheffey-Rawlings asked.

Tom Lazo Sr., the commission's chairman, who is Hispanic, said he did not support radically changing District 3 to make it a safe district for Hispanic candidates. City staff members, he pointed out, have drawn council maps that include three majority-Hispanic districts while keeping Kessler Park in District 3.

"To just split up a district because of its voting patterns, I have a problem with that," Mr. Lazo said.

One of the staff-generated maps would put the residence of Ed Oakley - now the council member for District 6 - in District 3.

Mr. Oakley has responded enthusiastically, and Ms. Miller said this week that she would either run for mayor in 2003 or retire, leaving his way clear in District 3.

"I don't plan to run for the council from my seat," Ms. Miller said. "It would be fine to pull Ed in. I think he would represent north Oak Cliff very well."

A 4-way sprint for vacant seat - In short race to replace Miller, hopefuls tout civic involvement

The Dallas Morning News - Saturday, December 29, 2001
Author: COLLEEN McCAIN NELSON, Staff Writer
Would-be candidates in District 3 had little warning that their chance to serve on the City Council was coming.

The chain reaction that was set off when former Mayor Ron Kirk resigned to run for the U.S. Senate, prompting Laura Miller to resign and launch her bid for mayor, forced the politically inclined in the district to make some quick decisions.

Still, the compressed, two-month campaign has drawn four candidates, each with a record of community involvement.

The four people who are seeking to serve out Ms. Miller's unexpired term are Gary Burns, a senior network administrator; Julia Cabrera, a community volunteer; Mark Housewright, publisher of the Oak Cliff Tribune; and Joe Whitney, a home builder.

The candidates say they've spent the last few weeks getting the word out about their candidacies and quickly raising money. They say the campaign will come down to the last couple of weeks before the Jan. 19 election.

"It's going to be a two-week sprint to the finish," Mr. Housewright said.

The candidates said the race will focus on which person could best ensure that the district, which stretches from north Oak Cliff to southwest Dallas, isn't overlooked at City Hall.

"Most of the southern sector has not been receiving its fair share when it comes to city services," Mr. Housewright said. "It's been a constant battle."

Mr. Housewright, who has served on the city's Plan Commission and on the library board, said his familiarity with the city's inner workings would serve the district well. He said improving streets, code enforcement, and other basic city services are at the top of his to-do list for the district.

"I've actually been down at City Hall working with city staff," he said. "This is a short term. I don't think we can afford to take the time for introductions."

The new District 3 council representative will serve about 15 months, until the next scheduled election, in May 2003.

Mr. Whitney points to his record of volunteer service in Oak Cliff as evidence that he would work hard on behalf of the district. Mr. Whitney has served as chairman of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce's board of directors, and he was appointed to the city of Dallas Urban Rehabilitation and Standards Board.

"I did these things really never thinking that I would run for a position," Mr. Whitney said. "I just really have a passion for my neighborhood."

Mr. Whitney said he would support "sweeps" by the code enforcement department in an effort to help clean up neighborhoods. And he said he would work with the Dallas Independent School District to ensure that the land around schools is zoned appropriately.

"There are a lot of things we can do as a city that affect our youth," he said.

Mr. Burns said he would be a voice for District 3 neighborhoods if he's elected.

"I feel like these neighborhoods are the heart and soul of the city," he said. "And the city has ignored our neighborhoods too long."

His experience as president of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League and his work to obtain financing for improvements in the Bishop Arts District are two examples of the time and energy he has devoted to helping neighborhoods, Mr. Burns said.

He also lists improving code enforcement in the district as a priority.

"In District 3, there are people who don't even know there is a code compliance department," Mr. Burns said. "And we have ignored our streets for too long."

Ms. Cabrera said she thinks she could help build bridges between City Hall and District 3 and could address the language barrier that precludes many in her neighborhood from getting the help they need from the city.

"Representation for Hispanics is important to me," she said. "Hispanics are not adequately represented on the council."

Ms. Cabrera has volunteered on several boards, including Preservation Dallas, the Dallas Housing Finance Corp., and the Metropolitan YWCA.

Now she wants to help bring new businesses to District 3.

"You have to go far out of your way to find stores here," she said. "I would like to see more economic development in this area."