Heavy clouds gather above the mayor of Plano’s office, but inside, Harry LaRosiliere remains steadfast and cheerful. I meet him in the lobby with his old friend from City Council, David Downs, who came to take his photograph. He shakes our hands and thanks us for coming by as we settle into one of the sleek conference rooms that LaRosiliere likes to use for press interviews. His offices overlook the well-trod lanes of the Dallas North Tollway, the glittering boom of Legacy West on the northwest corner, and on the southwest corner, farmland, where unbothered longhorns lower their heads and graze. Dressed to the nines in a slate gray suit, he cracks easy jokes in his trademark gregarious way. As Downs sets up his lights, LaRosiliere lets on that he’s also a hobby photographer and once took pictures for his high school yearbook, back in New York, joking that it was mostly to impress the cheerleaders.
“It’s gloomy out there,” he says affably, folding his hands and leaning against a high table. It isn’t that he doesn’t sense the tension in the air; he has simply decided that it won’t ruin his mood. LaRosiliere, Plano’s 39th mayor, is known for his positive attitude and seemingly endless enthusiasm for the city he represents. He came to Plano by way of New York in the ‘90s. He and his wife rented an apartment near Preston and Park as young professionals, her for a career with Frito Lay and him as a financial adviser. After three years, they bought their first home and settled in for good to raise their children. From the beginning, LaRosiliere actively looked for ways to volunteer and serve.
In the early ‘90s, before LaRosiliere moved to Plano, David Dinkins was elected the first African-American mayor of New York. LaRosiliere, a young African-American, watched with interest; he saw the potential Dinkins had as “first”. He, like the rest of the city, wanted to know what legacy Dinkins would create.
But then came the accident in Crown Heights. A central part of the borough of Brooklyn, Crown Heights housed an Orthodox Jewish and West Indies population. One day, while a funeral procession trailed through the neighborhood, a Jewish man lost control of his car. He careened into two African-American boys, pinning one between the steel nose of his vehicle and a brick wall. Orthodox Jews had their own EMS in observance of their religious laws about healthcare, and their EMS arrived before the New York City one. They tended to the man in the car before the boys. The African-American community was outraged. What followed was a racially-fueled war, marked by looting and riots. The day after the accident, a man was pulled out of his car and beaten. LaRosiliere watched it unfold on the news and waited for Mayor Dinkins to weigh in.
However, Dinkins was hesitant to send the SWAT team and crack down on the African-American people who were “destroying their own neighborhood”, as LaRosiliere remembers it. In a time of racial crisis, he took a passive position, and LaRosiliere felt let down.
“My disappointment in his lack of action was my call. I decided that day that I was going to be mayor—thinking it would be New York,” he adds with a half-smile.
Instead, it was Plano. A natural team player and problem solver with a heavy dose of personal ambition, LaRosiliere was a popular councilor and then a popular mayor. He has been an inspiring leader for the people of Plano.
“I felt that I belonged,” LaRosiliere says, growing animated. Plano, he’s told me before, is one of his favorite subjects. “I grew up in Harlem and went to school in South Bronx, so I was rarely a true minority. Wherever I was, there were a lot of people of color around me. I came here to Plano—where I was a true minority—but I didn’t feel apart.”
He pauses and the silence resonates with the implication that perhaps it is different now, though LaRosiliere himself will never bow to it. However, a group of citizens have worked tirelessly over the last five years to prove that LaRosiliere is not right for Plano. The 2017 mayoral election felt more like a state senate battle than a sedate city race. Conflict has defined the past few years of his service.
“When I [hear] their rhetoric, I’m disappointed,” he admits. “I know they don’t represent who we are. They’re just louder.”
At the moment, he is one of the most controversial figures in the city. He has his fair share of staunch supporters; however, others work to expel him from office—and from Plano too, if they can manage it. Rumors fly that he isn’t the visionary he claims to be; instead, he will turn Plano into Harlem, conspire with developers, fill unneeded apartments with Section 8 residents, even hack a city councilor’s Facebook. A 2014 lawsuit against the city itself still threatens to undermine everything he’s ever done, and the repercussions could resonate through the entire state.
Today, Harry LaRosiliere is the mayor of a city throttled with tension, a situation that was perhaps summarized best byThe Dallas Morning News: “In Plano the fear of leaving a suburban past behind to embrace an urban future has created such deep political turmoil that it threatens moving forward in any direction.”
Reasonable discourse has left the building. How did we get here?
The Plano of the early 1900s was a quiet farming town, population 3,500. Life centered on downtown, which was lined with small, single-story buildings where residents could find whatever they needed: clothes, insurance, food, grooming and more. It was a small, personable place where everyone couldn’t help but know everyone.
The ‘60s changed everything. The schools were integrated; Plano ISD was formed and economic growth in Dallas ushered in the start of the massive suburbanization that would transform Plano as families migrated north for the good schools and the small town feel.
Plano city government had anticipated the shift and was ready to accommodate growth with neighborhoods, sparkling shopping centers and new department stores like JCPenney, Dillard’s and Sears. Downtown’s importance shrank as residents and businesses turned instead to these shopping centers that offered everything they needed in one space. It was only a handful of years before east Plano went quiet. The only stores on the streets were hobby businesses; antique malls and gift shops that seldom opened before 10 and usually closed by 5. Plano’s former center of culture began to decay. Downtown is a lesson for the entire area; at that point, a place either dies or is revitalized.
When Frank Turner rediscovered downtown Plano in 1984, it was, as he says “a little bleak.” But he saw potential. Turner, who retired in 2016 from his position as deputy city manager, is often credited as the man who brought downtown Plano back to life, but he doesn’t see it that way; he executed the vision of the City Council and government. However, he has been watching Plano grow and evolve for more than 30 years, both as a resident and a maintenance man, tightening the nuts and bolts at the center of the machine. To this day, if one wants to learn about Plano of the past, he’s one of the best people to ask.
Today, downtown Plano is lined with boutique shops, and a range of restaurants. One corner holds Uni Sushi; on the street, residents dither between the glorious smoked brisket at Lockhart Smokehouse, the quiet environs of Jorg’s Cafe Vienna, and the zany, innovative pizzas found at ZaLat. Young couples and singles want to live in the five-story apartments that form cornerstones along the street. A DART station keeps it relevant and easily accessible. The restored Saigling House, which houses the ArtCentre of Plano, proves that downtown is once again the heart of Plano art and culture. Meanwhile, the Legacy developments on the westside offer polished industry and elegant living. Near the eternally busy DNT, passersby can see the knees of Windrose Tower, Plano’s first luxury high-rise condos. Companies like Toyota Motor North America, Liberty Mutual, Capital One, PepsiCo, Bank of America and Boeing Global Services have planted major headquarters inside city limits.
By the time LaRosiliere transitioned from a popular city councilor to a popular mayor in 2013, Plano was thriving, marketed as a center for business, drawing new residents as it approached buildout. When the longstanding Haggard family decided it was time to sell some of their land in west Plano, roughly 250 acres, the city made plans to turn the land into a mixed-use property with some apartments, green space, businesses and even a performing arts center that would be donated to the community. City Planning and Zoning (P&Z), asked for a possible estimated number of apartments that could be built.
“That was ground zero,” LaRosiliere recalls. “It was like a game of telephone. Somebody caught wind that it was going to P&Z. By the time the email chain reached its max, it turned into a 5,000 apartment plan. It hadn’t even gotten to the company for a vote yet.” It was still too early in the project to bring the community in; no decisions had been made. But the neighborhoods around the property were alarmed. By the time the community sessions started, they showed up in force to vehemently oppose the development, solely on the basis of that number: 5,000 apartments. P&Z scrapped the entire project.
“Collusion [between me and developers] was assumed,” LaRosiliere says. From then on the same people remained on alert, grown and evolved. There have been different groups: Smart Plano, Plano Future, Protect Plano. It has become a political action group and the mayor’s most fervent detractors. Plano Future doesn’t just object to apartments; they object to LaRosiliere as a person. They respond to him with outright suspicion and distrust, starting with the assumption that if they let down their guard, he will take any opportunity to sneak thousands of apartments into their neighborhoods.
When the City of Plano made public a new, long term plan meant to guide Plano through the next stage of its life, it confirmed their worst fears. The complex plan, which was put forward in 2015, is called Plano Tomorrow, and, among many other things, it estimated a grand total of 40,000 apartments in Plano.
As told on Plano Future’s website, when Plano Tomorrow was “jammed through in 2015 it had little popular support and Mayor LaRosiliere convinced some reporters it had popular support … it did not, and was opposed by a petition for referendum of 4,050 citizen signatures.” It took the group less than two weeks to gather signatures from concerned citizens, solely protesting the plans for high-density pockets and asking for a referendum on the comprehensive plan that would allow the community a vote on it.
However, in accordance with state law that prohibits public referendums on zoning matters, the city secretary didn’t forward the petition to the council for ratification. Six petitioners fired back with a lawsuit against the city, demanding that their petition be submitted to City Council, that to do otherwise stepped on their free speech, and that Plano Tomorrow should be put to a public vote.
A founding member of Plano Future, interviewed by D Magazine in December 2018, explained that she was alarmed by the sheer number of high-density areas. “We have a mayor who is extremely in favor of high density, maybe because he grew up in New York,” she told the publication. “When people move to Plano, that is not what they are looking for.”
LaRosiliere’s energetic, forge-ahead spirit, which had first gotten him elected, was not charming to Plano Future. One of their largest complaints is that they don’t feel heard by him; and if they are heard, their objections don’t matter.
The 2017 mayoral election became an organized attempt to drive out LaRosiliere and his supporters. Plano Future’s slate of candidates focused on curbing the high-density apartments planned for the city. LaRosiliere’s fiercest opponent was Lily Bao, a residential real estate agent. In her campaign, she promised to be a “voice for all of Plano and not for out-of-town developers,” to keep Plano suburban and repeal at least part of the Plano Tomorrow plan.
LaRosiliere, meanwhile, focused on the positive economic development environment he had helped create, and how, in the past five years, Plano had transformed into a regional employment center in North Texas while retaining its nationally acclaimed Police and Fire Departments, and excellent schools. It didn’t hurt that around election time, Plano had the lowest tax rate in the Metroplex. The 2017 election turned out more Plano voters than ever before, over 27,000. Though Bao won 42 percent of the votes, LaRosiliere swept the election, winning 52 percent of votes, a majority even against three opponents.
“What the voters told us is that the politics of hope and vision is better than divisiveness and despair,” he said in the wake of the 2017 election. “I’m always ready to listen and do what’s best for our city. But I’m going to do it in a manner that’s going to unite the city, not divide us.”
It’s now 2019; another general election sits on the horizon, and the schism is no less apparent. For five years, Plano Future has upheld the same banner: “Keep Plano Suburban.” Everyone, from LaRosiliere toThe Dallas Morning News has been accused of obscuring the facts and underselling the opposition to the plan to the rest of Plano’s 286,143 citizens. Cities like Arlington, Dallas and Amarillo have thrown their support in with the city of Plano; changing the public referendum procedure would complicate city planning for the entire state, muddying the waters of expert planning with popular input. As D Magazine succinctly explained in the previously quoted December article, victory for Plano Future “would set a precedent that could disrupt the ability of Texas cities to create long-range development plans.”
Meanwhile, the bulk of the Plano Tomorrow plan is still being ignored. It has never even entered the debate. There’s only one thing that Plano Future cares about: keeping the Plano they love exactly the same. No more growth, no more business, no more new people and especially, no more “apartment people.” Plano Future is no longer a movement for democracy and freedom of speech; it’s become a platform for prejudice.
The Three Horsemen
An acquaintance from a local rotary club came to LaRosiliere’s office one day during the madness of the 2017 election specifically to donate to his campaign. The man explained that a member of Bao’s campaign had come to his door and asked for his vote. They were running specifically to fight the low income housing LaRosiliere was bringing to Plano. When he pointed out that he had grandchildren in Plano who were having trouble finding apartments they could afford, the candidate told him that there was a proliferation of apartments and they couldn’t fill them up fast enough, so LaRosiliere was filling them with low income Section 8 residents.
“My opponent and those who supported her went door-to-door and said they were running because I was bringing low income housing to Plano. Talk about dog-whistle politics,” LaRosiliere says. “‘Low income means someone not like us, someone who doesn’t have our means. This man supported me because he was so disgusted by that rhetoric, combined with the ‘Keep Plano Suburban’ motto.”
Simply put, Plano Future argues against affordable housing because the people who need it cause traffic, perform poorly in school and commit crimes.
The thesis of Plano Tomorrow is simple: “By strategically introducing pockets of density that complement existing suburban neighborhoods, the Plano Tomorrow plan offers a road map to shoring up long-term prosperity.” The Plano Tomorrow plan garnered national praise and awards for its “highly accessible and inclusive” ways of encouraging public engagement into its creation.
To hear Plano Future tell it, however, Plano Tomorrow is a high density plan and one that will ruin the city forever with apartments that lead to overcrowded schools and increases in crime and traffic, what LaRosiliere calls the three horsemen.
Because so many people come to Plano for the excellent schools, education has always been a high priority. Plano Future’s website says, “When apartments are built densely, they may end up being a dominant proportion of the students in a school. More importantly, the performance of the students living in apartments is much lower than those living in traditional single family homes. Too many of these students can significantly drive down the performance of the school and lead the school into decline.”
Plano Future points out two Plano schools, Jackson and Huffman Elementary, arguing that they are likely overcrowded with students from nearby apartments, and that these schools are floundering. They conclude that we must limit how many students from apartments have the privilege of attending Plano schools, lest they ruin them.
Economic diversity certainly affects the way students learn. Not all students come from equal circumstances; a student of affluent means will have access to books, tutors and other resources. The student in the desk behind them might be concerned about where their next meal is coming from. However, acknowledging that students have different advantages is very different from making a blanket claim that students from apartments will perform poorly, will ruin the reputation of Plano schools, and will eventually lead to the downfall of the district, thus we must restrict them. Why couldn’t we implement an ACE program as Richardson recently did? As The Dallas Morning News reports, ACE ensures that “low-income students in the apartment-dense attendance zones will be served breakfast, lunch and dinner and also will get extra tutoring.” Before narrowing the paths to quality education, we can chose to take other steps.
Furthermore, a PISD spokesperson reports that contrary to Plano Future’s claims, Jackson and Huffman Elementary Schools aren’t experiencing overcrowding at all. In reality, enrollment at both schools reflects the slight enrollment decline PISD is experiencing districtwide, which reflects that overall, the population boom in Plano is currently slowing. They seemed confused about why I was even asking.
As for transportation, much of the crowding on our roads is indeed due to population growth. Except that growth isn’t happening in Plano, but rather beyond it. Because most of Collin and Denton Counties have traditionally driven down to Dallas to work, the lion’s share of the traffic in Plano comes from Frisco, Prosper, Celina and McKinney residents passing through Plano on the way to Dallas. It’s why it’s important to the City of Plano that it becomes its own business center, separate from Dallas, and that there are all kinds of housing available in Plano for residents with new local jobs. In fact, the housing imbalance—not enough affordable housing in Plano’s borders—is the source of much of the congestion. The closer people can live to their jobs, the easier the roads become for all of us.
The same logic applies to issues like crime and poverty; these are regional issues, not Plano’s alone. According to Turner, “They do not recognize municipal borders.” As much as we benefit from our proximity to Dallas, Frisco and McKinney, we also share their struggles. Even if Plano does not grow, the rest of the region around it will.
“Our zoning has been very thoughtful to maintain and preserve neighborhoods; 67 percent of residents in Plano live in single-family homes,” LaRosiliere will say if asked. “Advocates against it are saying they’re going to stick apartments in your neighborhood. Well, an apartment is a more gentle transition to your neighborhood than a failing strip mall that has an old gym, a donut shop and nothing else.”
He points out that some people simply don’t like the look of giant apartment buildings and concedes that apartments certainly don’t make sense everywhere. Yet some places, especially noisy major highways, make perfect nesting grounds for apartment buildings. He’ll tell you that Plano has property standards to make sure certain areas look and feel consistent, and maintenance programs that ensure apartment buildings over a certain age are regularly inspected to maintain quality.
“Plano Tomorrow is about creating a sense of neighborhood that adds residential that gradually transitions to neighborhood. Everything is intentional,” he has said, over and over and over again: in speeches, to reporters, in meetings, in private. He’ll tell you that Plano isn’t trying to become Dallas, but is trying to learn from Dallas, and do better.
Most of the misunderstanding comes from an assumption that at build out—when all available land has been developed—city growth stops, and an early prediction put out by the city that at Plano’s build out, it may have a population of 250,000. But as Turner explains, the concept of build out is misleading. “Cities don’t really build out. There’s no end state where it’s all complete but there’s nothing to be fearful of. Cities can decay and die, but that’s an unlikely path for Plano. It will become more diverse and its quality of life with improve. We stand everything to gain.”
LaRosiliere stresses over and over, that if Plano is going to survive, much less thrive in the future, then it must be prepared for the workforce. “All the data shows us that the best and brightest, the young millennials, have a lot of school debt, they’re getting their career started and they aren’t ready to buy a single family home, an SUV and take the kids to soccer. They’re getting married later, having kids later and purchasing homes later. To remain viable, there’s a degree of amenities we have to provide for them. The best and brightest go through our schools and leave. Those Plano students that went to college may come back looking for an apartment in their hometown. If a city isn’t willing to invest in the housing stock that attracts young families, that city will become irrelevant.”
But is anyone listening?
As Turner sees it, the Plano Future effort is one driven by misinformation and fear. “Many of the things they fear aren’t taking place and are very unlikely to take place,” he explains calmly. “The core of Plano is still very much low density, single-family neighborhoods. It is one-square mile areas centered around schools and parks with shopping centers, churches, and, yes, some apartments. That fabric is unlikely to change for the next 30-to-40 years.”
LaRosiliere remembers a particularly heated hearing on Plano Tomorrow that dragged on past midnight. Plano Future filibustered, one after another arguing that apartments are bad for schools, that traffic is already bad enough, that “those people cause crime.” He asked how many people in that room had ever lived in an apartment. Almost three quarters of the room raised their hands.
“You’re actually discriminating against a younger version of yourself,” LaRosiliere told them. “When I first came here I lived in an apartment. I didn’t commit crime. My children—if I’d had them then—wouldn’t have been any less productive in school. Empirical data shows that people in apartments own fewer cars than those who live in single-family homes. So there must be another reason why you’re against it.”
Plano Future was concerned with the nostalgia of Plano in the ‘90s, a quiet, predominantly white suburb, far from the hubbub of Dallas. They mourned the loss of green space as founding Plano families sold their land. While they enjoyed the profits of their restored downtown, and though the prosperity that came with new businesses and new social hubs like the Legacy district, they felt their home changing. But at some point, Plano Future hatched a fringe group with a mob-mentality and racially-charged rhetoric that spread fear faster than the nightly news.
“In my 56 years, there have been only five or six times that it has been undeniably obvious that my race was why a certain incident occurred,” LaRosiliere tells to me grimly. Behind him, rain has started to fall. “This is one of them.”
Plano and Prejudice
To clear the air, let me offer one large, very important disclaimer: no one believes that everyone who is against Plano Tomorrow is actively racist. Individuals, sit in judgement of your own hearts. But Plano Future has a problematic sect of extremists who are speaking up loudly enough, in enough ugly ways, that the movement has been painted with the same brush. In lieu of honest discourse, we now have racist rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and base lies.
No one has to look further than Tom Harrison’s Facebook, and a series of inappropriate posts that became intrinsically tied to the apartment debate.
On February 14, 2018, City Councilor Tom Harrison posted, then rapidly deleted, the following statement on his Facebook: “I want to sincerely apologize to the Plano Muslim Community for the unintentional hurt I caused by reposting something on my personal Facebook page that wrongfully implied I am anti-Muslim. … My action was personal in nature, but I should have remembered this past Monday night’s Council discussion …. none of us are ever truly off duty.”
Harrison is a good ol’ boy from Missouri. He came to Texas by way of a small telecom company, but after the bubble burst in 2001, he retired, turning to volunteer groups. He was elected to the Plano City Council, Place 7, in May 2015 and his next election would have been in May 2019.
On Valentine’s Day 2018, a post he’d made several days earlier began to go viral for all the wrong reasons. The post in question is a video from Joined Hands Across America For Trump, which read “Share if you think Trump should ban Islam in American Schools.” It wasn’t an isolated incident, but the beginning of a pattern; it took mere hours for Facebook sleuths to dig up 2016 posts, from a politicized statement about black fatherhood, to an erroneous implication that all present-day slave-owners are Muslim.
In a press conference with the other city councilors, LaRosiliere called on Harrison to resign immediately, and out of the woodwork, came seemingly all of Plano, taking up arms. During the press conference, wheelchair-bound Harrison said only that he was not a bigot, xenophobe or racist. He didn’t apologize, and by then, even the apology on Facebook had been taken down. To a sea of mixed boos and cheers, he asserted that he would not resign.
The Protect Plano group posted that LaRosiliere had created a “lynch mob mentality for political gain.” It also pointed out that Harrison required a police escort for his safety following the events. He, like many Muslims, feared for his safety among his own neighbors. No matter what side of the Plano Tomorrow debate you fall on, it’s sobering to know how many people went to sleep afraid in those weeks, including Harrison.
“This is disgusting behavior from an elected official,” one Planoite posted.
“Are you just another lemming bent on lynching anyone you don’t like. Third how do you know what was posted and who wrote them?” Another Facebooker replied in the days following the post. “It is very possible this mysterious second grip of posts were never actually posted by Tom.”
“In 20 years like everywhere else where there is a high density of apt complexes they will become ghettos,” someone else wrote.
This kind of internet trolling, everyone could agree, was not the Plano they loved. The problem seems to be that not everyone can agree on what that Plano is.
Overnight Harrison became Plano Future’s posterboy, standing in for national, political injustices, angers and overall, a sense of helplessness, in equal parts a symbol of what was right and wrong with Plano, depending on who you ask. Harrison, who had first apologized, was soon instead saying that he had simply misread the post. Then he began to say he had pressed “post” on accident. As hatred and support rolled in in equal measure, he was uplifted by his supporters. When a recall election was scheduled for Harrison for November 2018, he ditched any effort at reconciliation and fought back.
For a while, Harrison maintained a GoFundMe page for legal assistance, which read: “Tom Harrison is … the victim of malicious distortions, character assassination and outright lies. Democrats, special interests and fanatics have conspired to break the law in an attempt to force him off the City Council to make way for Harry LaRosiliere [sic] political and social agenda.”
In a twist that would have fit into a Dallas drama-of-the-week, he went on the radio and publicly accused LaRosiliere of hacking his Facebook and publishing the incriminating posts himself because Harrison openly opposed adding more apartments to Plano.
It’s the brutal glory and privilege of democracy: we all have the right to speak our minds and social media gives us a worldwide platform. As Harrison himself pointed out in his original apology, a public servant is never off duty and his constituents have the right to remove him from office if they feel he does not represent them. By the time his November 2018 recall election would have happened, he would only have had six more months to serve, so the recall was canceled. Harrison eventually announced that he would not seek reelection. The GoFundMe, the radio interviews, the frenzied attacks all stopped.
His fight wasn’t about his desire to serve. It wasn’t about free speech, or the citizens who had been personally attacked by his statement. By the end, Harrison was a martyr persecuted because he dared to oppose LaRosiliere and his pack of out-of-town “i.e. not like us” developers coming to build apartments.
Harrison positioned himself as Plano’s white knight. It was a battle between those who embrace change and those who want life as they know it to remain the same. It wasn’t the first time that racial politics and prejudice had been whispered about in Plano; it was only the most overt. In fact, proponents of Plano Tomorrow have long pointed out that fear of apartments comes from fear that newcomers will destroy the idyllic Plano where we all live.
“Racism doesn’t make us bad. It’s a part of our lives,” LaRosiliere says. “I don’t focus on it. I don’t wake up thinking about it. I’ve learned to let those things bounce off me. Racism is born of fear and ignorance. I feel sorry for a person that lives with so much fear of something they don’t understand or is different. Our difference is our strength.”
While the argument against affordable housing is not relegated to simple prejudice, the treatment of LaRosiliere, as a black man and a black mayor speaks to a deeper racial divide.
When LaRosiliere was first elected, everyone asked him some version of the same question: How did he want to be remembered, since he was the first African-American mayor? “I said, ‘I just want to be known as the next great mayor,’” LaRosiliere confesses. “I have a lot of predecessors who did wonderful things. They served the community. That’s all that matters to me. I don’t need the footnote, ‘oh, by the way he’s African-American.’ I want my legacy to be that I served with honor, I served with dignity and intent, integrity and knowledge …” he trails off.
However, his race, at least for the time being, is a key marker of his term. It has shaped the way he is treated, how he is distrusted. It formed a basis for tearing him down. Even though he has spent the last 25 years in Plano, his roots have never been forgotten. He has become the lightning rod at the center of the conflict.
“I can’t believe you, a black man, would support this public lynching,” one man said at the meeting when LaRosiliere called on Harrison to resign. That’s not to say that people oppose apartments because of LaRosiliere’s race, only to suggest that the argument has been colored by utter disrespect, focused on LaRosiliere himself as an African-American man. But I doubt anyone would say that the mayor is turning Plano into Harlem, and neighborhoods into projects if the mayor was not a black man.
“In my life, I’ve never used race as a crutch. I chose not to see it through that lens. It becomes easy to attribute the things that don’t go your way to that, to racism. I don’t say any of this lightly,” he says. “But who are apartment dwellers? People who don’t look or sound like them.”
The Harrison scandal shows how disrespectful the debate has gotten. LaRosiliere has always gotten emails about apartments, about the black people and Muslims that live in them and all the things that are associated with them. But the emails had always been anonymous, in the shadows. These days, LaRosiliere gets the same emails—proudly signed.
He firmly believes that something has been let loose in Plano, beginning with a city council member—part of what he calls the privileged 8—who is comfortable enough to be the hero to LaRosiliere’s villain. He calls the falsehood systematic and purposeful.
“To say that [racism] exists doesn’t mean I’m beating the drums,” LaRosiliere says. “It’s no different than acknowledging who we are and what goes on here. Our difference is our strength. On one soccer team you have kids from six different native countries all playing together for one reason: to kick that ball. We are all living together to get the American Dream.”
Frank Turner recalls the ‘60s, when a serene farming town stood on the brink of the suburban boom. They knew that it would change life forever. The farms would shrink and eventually sell, to be developed into schools, churches, parks, houses, shopping malls. It was before New York elected Mayor Dinkins, before LaRosiliere had heard or cared about Plano.
“It’s human nature somewhat to want to be around people like you,” Turner says. “For some, there is a degree of discomfort because they don’t know what the future will look like. Most people fear change until they better understand it and can favorably place themselves into the future. Community leaders in the ‘60s realized that growth was inevitable. The transportation we have now, arterial streams, loop highways—it was all planned in the ‘60s because people knew growth was coming. Even in its infancy, the city knew change was coming.”
He even offers up the leaders at the time: David Griffin, Wayne Hendrick, Alex Schell, David McCall Jr., and Norman Whitsett. “Plano’s growth was somewhat inevitable, but the city’s leadership in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s propelled Plano’s dominance as the growth center of the northern metropolitan area.”
By 2050, Collin County will be larger than Dallas County. However, it isn’t Plano that’s growing at such an exponential rate. Ironically, while LaRosiliere has been mayor, Plano’s growth rate has slowed to one percent a year, the lowest it been since the ‘90s brought the boom of McMansions. For all the worry over high density living inside Plano’s borders, Frisco, Prosper and Celina are all poised for population explosion. Frisco will surpass 400,000 easily. Celina and Prosper are expected to blow past half a million. Plano isn’t alone on its path. For better or worse, it’s the course that has been charted for the entire region.
And yet, when the issue of high-density living comes up, blame falls on LaRosiliere. He acknowledges it, but doesn’t protest it. To his credit, LaRosiliere never once dodges responsibility, or speaks about his citizens with anything but politeness, or, at most, polite but firm disagreement.
“That rhetoric does not deter me from doing the work that we are here to do, which is to prepare our city for who we are today and who we’ll be in the next ten to 20 years. I’m optimistic about the future,” he says. “Those voices are getting drowned out. The more we vote, the more we show who we are as a community.”
In the 2017 city election, 27,000 citizens voted, which is two and a half times more voters than usual. In preparation for the 2019 city general elections, by January over 20 people had submitted intent to run for council, at least three candidates running per seat.
Inside Harry LaRosiliere’s office, our conversation returns to the young man from Harlem who saw an opportunity missed when a first black mayor didn’t take a stand. It’s not hard to imagine that this is his moment of tension, when he has the privilege and hardship of defining his time as mayor.
“The role of the mayor is to be the soul of your city. Someone everyone can look at and say this is who represents me,” he says. “I’ve grown as mayor. I’m a better mayor now than I was six years ago. I’ve learned to represent our city better and remember that everything I do is a reflection of our city. The moment someone tries to tear our community apart, that’s when it’s my time to step in,” he explains. “It’s time for our city to expose who we are. We are a globally diverse, inclusive city that offers education and entertainment for all and everyone is entitled to the Plano promise: our city will protect you, schools educate you and community nurture you.”
But he is a black man from Harlem, who represents all of those unnamed fears. He’s, frankly, an easy target. No, not everyone is racist for not supporting LaRosiliere. But the anti-apartment mentality comes from the seeds of xenophobia, fear of that which is other.
David Downs speaks from behind his camera to point out that in the ‘80s, the plan for Collin Creek Mall called for tall apartment towers, and a total of 60,000 units across the city. Plano Tomorrow calls for 40,000.
LaRosiliere grins, shaking his head. “That’s part of my conspiracy. I was six years old when I hatched that plan. That was my master plan at six years old to come here and build apartments.”
Harry LaRosiliere is a controversial figure, but he is just one player in a 60-year-old game. Plano has been on this path since before The Beatles broke up, after all. But while it’s not fair to position LaRosiliere as both scapegoat and sole visionary, that’s the burden of the mayoral office, and he is willing to carry it.
In the end, these aren’t uniquely Plano problems. As time goes on, the needs of the community change. Younger generations are choosing different ways of living, abandoning their parents’ suburbs for newer, cheaper ones in Prosper and Anna, or high-density urban lifestyles offered in Deep Ellum and Uptown. It’s sad, but bitterly apparent that the very suburbs which attracted young families in the ‘80s and ‘90s simply aren’t attracting young families any more. According to the 2018 City of Plano Annual Report, residents who believe Plano is going in the right direction outnumber the protesters five to one.
The people of Plano are just people. Wait a couple of years; when Frisco, McKinney, then Celina and Prosper reach build out, when the metroplex touches the Red River, there will still be people who are furious that the homes they picked, once quiet and country, are now being threatened by the outer reaches of urban sprawl. Those who moved here for the spring will complain about the heat of summer. These are formative days for Plano. What started as a farm town changed into a suburb. What was a suburb is becoming a mid-sized city with a thriving business community. It’s too late to go back to who we were without destroying ourselves in the process. But there’s still time to decide what kind of community we will become.
Originally published in the March 2019 issue under the title “The Elephant in the Room”