The Lowest Greenville rezoning proposal - one bad flashback after another

At his advanced age, BD is prone to many medical issues. Gout one weekend, sinus pain the next, followed by a bad case of flatulence. Throw in living in a house with a bunch of girls of various ages, and hearing loss is a given. But during last week's meeting at Kush between the business owners, managers and property owners on Lowest Greenville and Angela Hunt and her gaggle of City staff and neighborhood leaders, BD found himself suffering another sign of advanced age.

Flashbacks.

It was late 2003 or early 2004, but definitely it was the winter time. BD was eating lunch in the very same place as the meeting - back then it was called Coconuts Grill. His hostess had invited him to lunch so she could learn everything possible about the problems on Lowest Greenville - in 45 minutes or less. BD gave his standard spiel: The bad bars on Lowest Greenville were ruining things for all the good businesses and residential neighborhoods around it. The answer was something so simple, it could be wrapped up in one phrase - A level playing field. If the City and all its different departments - Building Inspection, Code Compliance, DPD - would just get off its collective butt and shut down the bars that claimed to be restaurants, but did not have kitchens, let alone serve food, then we could all sit down and discuss the future of Lowest Greenville.

BD had the Kahuna burger, and his hostess had the salad.

Oh, the hostess? It was not-yet-a-city-council-member Angela Hunt.

Coming back to reality and listening to Hunt and all the City folks say how the proposed rezoning plan is going make Lowest Greenville a wonderful place for restaurants and retail development, without the bad bars, BD had another flashback.

We had to destroy the village in order to save it. It's 1968 in Vietnam all over again.

BD agrees with Ms Hunt on one fact: If this rezoning plan is approved, there will be no more bad bars on Lowest Greenville.

For those who say Lowest Greenville will be the next Deep Ellum, I say to you - If this rezoning is approved, you will grow to envy Deep Ellum.

Ms Hunt repeats ad nauseum this is probably the simplest Planned Development proposal in the whole history of Dallas. One page, one sentence... surrounded by legal mumbo-jumbo and maps.

Except for late-hours establishments operating under a valid specific use permit, all services for the public must be stopped and all customers must be removed from the property between 12 a.m. (midnight) and 6 a.m. An establishment that offers services to the public or that has customers remaining on the property between 12 a.m. (midnight) and 6 a.m. is considered a late-hours establishment.

Let's review the major issues this will cause for nearly 100 legally operated businesses, most of which are not in any way, shape or form the source of the crime and grief that happens every weekend between midnight and 2am.

Consumer warning - This is the longest article BD has ever written, and it's extremely detailed. Get a large cup of coffee handy before you read it.

You say Variances, I say SUPs

There are 11 businesses on the street that have city-approved variances to operate as Bar Lounge Taverns, Alcoholic Beverage Establishments, or Commercial Amusement Indoors. The variances were issued before 1987, when Dallas revised its Development Code (now referenced as 51A). Variances were issued by the Board of Adjustment or other panel to allow non-conforming uses in the Community Retail zoning district called Lowest Greenville.

After 1987, Variances were called Specific Use Permits, issued by the City Plan Commission after hearings. Variances stay with the land, like an SUP, and are included in the City's records and on the Certificate of Occupancy (There are some technical exceptions to this statement, but every expert we spoke to agrees it's accurate for this discussion).

During the business meeting last Wednesday, Ms Hunt stood up and said (in reply to a question from the LLGABA attorney for the bars) -

We don't have any bars, we only have restaurants on Lower Greenville.

If you say a lie enough times, people might just start believing it. LGWNA and LGNA have been singing the same song for years, especially when it comes to protecting their favorite restaurants on Lower Greenville. In reality, there are 11 legally approved bars, taverns, etc on Lowest Greenville. The variances (or SUPs) and the year they were issued are listed below (links are to original Certificate of Occupancy records at Building Inspections Department). Some records prior to 1980 are not online.

Bar Lounge Tavern
  Old Crow (Planned Development District 1289, 1991)
   
Alcoholic Beverage Establishment
  Winedale Tavern (1985)
  Ships Lounge (1980)
  Yucatan (fka Malibu, Tiger Room, Genghis Grill) (Planned Development District 1289, 1991)
  Eight Lounge (fka Royal Rack) (1988)
  The Cavern (fka ??) (1980)
  The Service Bar (1991)
  Bandera's (fka Poor David's Pub) (1983)
  Sugar Shack (fka Harder Bar) (Planned Development District 1289, 1991)
   
Commercial Amusement Indoors
  Billiard Bar (1988
Restaurant w/Alcohol) and (2003)
  Whisky Bar (2009)

If you look at this list of businesses, you see there are only two or three that could maybe fall into the bad bar category, based on what's been posted on this site or on file with the DPD. Eight Lounge was the star of most of BD's videos in 2009. But it was sold in January 2010 and the number of issues (police calls etc) has dropped to almost zero. Yes, they need to install double doors to block noise, but they are not the bad bar they were last year. Malibu became Yucatan this week - new owner, new TABC permit. Whisky Bar has been a nicer place since James Slaughter sold it two years ago, and it's in transition to a new owner again.

Can anyone tell me (without Googling) where Ships is located?? Bueller?? Bueller?? Until last week, BD thought it was some mythical place, until the owner showed up at the meeting. It still has shag carpeting!

There's a defense being offered by the bars and property owners in this list, but until the original records are brought out of archives, this point is only speculation. Ms Hunt claims that her PD will not cancel the existing rights of these businesses to sell alcoholic beverages, just require them to have a permit to operate after midnight. According to zoning attorneys not representing these properties, most if not all variances written before 1987 for bars, taverns, etc included a statement of hours of operation. For example, Winedale was given permission (again, this is not yet confirmed) to operate from 9am to 2am. If that statement is included in the variances, the new PD cannot be applied to them unless they agree to give up the variance. Barring surrender, someone would have to file a motion to revoke the variance at whatever panel approved it (eg Board of Adjustment). A city council member or plan commissioner can file this request at no cost, but for everyone else it's about $1,400. There is a hearing with evidence presented by both sides on why the variance should or should not be revoked. If the property owners are correct, Ms Hunt and Ms Medrano (and/or their respective plan commissioner appointees) depending on which side of Greenville you are looking at would have to take the next step to revoke the variances. That's gonna be messy and involve lots of lawyers on the City dime.

Let's assume for a moment they don't have the magic bullet. If only one or two of these establishments are problematic, as compared to the nearly half-dozen illegally operating bars that claim to be restaurants, why is Ms Hunt including them? She claims the City cannot discriminate between businesses that sell alcohol and ones that don't. But every zoning expert BD spoke to said the same thing: Yes it can, but Ms Hunt won't do what's needed to make this happen.

A PD has three kinds of uses (businesses) listed in detail - uses allowed by rights (of the PD), uses not allowed, and those allowed only with an SUP. The infamous Cityville PD (#691) is an extreme example of lists. Mad Maxine and LGNA made sure that any business in this space would close its doors by certain hours and restricted the uses to a specific list. The restrictions imposed on these uses (hours, square footage, etc) make it impossible to rent that 1,500 sf space nearly ten years later. See Page 2 of the PDF for the complete list of approved uses.

Why not state in the PD that any business with a variance or SUP issued before January 1, 2010 is exempt from the new permitting requirements? Because Ms Hunt and her supporters in LGNA and LGNWA do not want any bars or restaurants on Lowest Greenville to be able to stay in business after this rezoning takes effect, and they have no intention of letting any of them get an SUP.

In an email to neighborhood leaders, Hunt declares that the bad bars will do anything they can to sell alcoholic beverages anywhere they can find a foothold -

The reason that all businesses – including retail – is subject to this proposal is that for years, bars have been notorious for pretending to be something other than a bar. They have used loopholes to operate without having to seek an SUP for a bar. They have gotten CO’s as restaurants or commercial amusements, when in reality, they are what most people would call a bar and they bring bar-like problems to LG.

The concern with excluding certain types of businesses from the ordinance is that bars might once again find a clever way to circumvent the rules. And since our motive is to re-balance day/night businesses – not just bars – that are open past midnight, we need to ensure our ordinance does not target just one type of business. Most importantly, with the exception of 24-hour drug- or grocery stores, most retailers close well before midnight and will not be affected by this ordinance.

BD's absolutely convinced US Cleaners and Stainless Tattoos are not thinking of ways they can sell beer and wine in great volume. And he does not see the CVS as the next big gangbanger hangout very soon either. Retail locations can't get a TABC permit unless the City Secretary tells them the business has the right Certificate of Occupancy first. Considering the way the City issues Building Permits and Certificates of Occupancy, we might be on shaky ground after all.

Oh don't worry, you'll get an SUP - it will just cost you an arm, a leg, all your money, and most of your dignity. And it's not guaranteed either.

If Big Wong does not have a gangbanger problem, and it's not a source of neighborhood angst, then would someone please tell me why they must go through the SUP process?

Over the weekend, Ms Hunt's crew passed out a few thousand flyers to announce her meeting this coming Thursday evening. One paragraph stands out, especially after the business meeting.

Are you trying to shut down Lower Greenville at midnight and close all the bars?

No! The goal is simply to bring some balance back to Lower Greenville and reduce the impact of businesses that operate late at night, not close down all bars or eliminate all nightlife.

There are a number of businesses – The Libertine, Winedale Tavern, and Taco Cabana to name a few – that are open past midnight that don’t pose any problem at all and have proven themselves to be good neighbors. These businesses are assets to the surrounding neighborhoods and they won't have any problems obtaining long-term permits to operate after midnight.

At the business meeting, Ms Hunt and City Staff explained how the SUP process is not a matter of simply asking for permission to stay open and getting it. If the $1,100 application fee does not kill you, there are legal and/or consulting fees (the process is not meant for mere mortals). Then there's the research process conducted by staff before the SUP is presented to the City Plan Commission. Then there's the hearing before the Commission.

Ms Hunt kept saying that an $1,100 SUP application fee (aka crapshoot) is a small price to pay to stay open after midnight?? Can someone explain the logic of why legitimate businesses that don't cause any problems are being forced to apply for an SUP, and BD will give you a dollar if you can answer it without using the phrase bad neighbors in the sentence. In the military, this is called BOHICA - Bend Over, Here It Comes Again.

For those who have never been through a Plan Commission hearing, it's the perfect opportunity to find out who your enemies really are. Even if you do not have any police or code or safety issues, your neighbors - people you may have never even met - get to stand up and rip you a new asshole for things that you may or may not be responsible for. If there are no neighbors willing to go downtown on a weekday to rip you, you will likely encounter the leaders of neighborhood associations like Lower Greenville West or Lower Greenville. They probably don't care if you have neighbors and customers who love your business to death. They are going to fight you tooth and nail because they don't want to see any alcoholic beverage sold on Lowest Greenville. Forget about all the years you spent building a business, or that your business has absolutely nothing to do with the bad bars that started this fight years ago, or all the friends you have ready to stand up and defend you. You have 20 minutes to make your case while the blood is coming out of your ears because you thought these people were your friends.

Still feeling good about the SUP process now???

For the last two weeks, members of Lowest Greenville West NA, notably Cheryl Kellis and Bruce Richardson, have been going to the businesses that will need an SUP in order to operate. Don't listen to BD, they whisper as the business owner gives them a drink, we are not going to oppose your SUP. Oh, no. We will stand there and say how good you are for the community and need you here.

The same group of people who publicly state they would prefer tumbleweeds to business on Lowest Greenville (any kind of business) are going to stand up and say they want bars on Lowest Greenville?? After spending ten years fighting - albeit from their bedrooms hiding from the bad people out on the street - any kind of change or improvements in the area, do you really believe this?? One property owner made a point of calling BD with this comment...

I do not trust Bruce Richardson as far as I can throw any of my buildings. That man will lie to you with a straight face and then turn around and stab you in the back. My tenants are already calling me because he is telling them to not worry about their SUPs. I told them to get Bruce out of their business, or I will charge him with trespassing. He's going to screw every single business down here using this new law as his drill bit. (not sic)

Let's look at this debate from a neighborhood perspective. LGNA claims the east side of Greenville Avenue, and LGWNA the west side (south of Belmont). Neither one recognizes BelmontNA's territory (east side, south of Belmont); Ms Hunt (east side) recognizes the association but not the boundaries.

Pretend it's 2011, and the Winedale Tavern is up for an SUP hearing. The owner of Winedale is an old friend of LGNA's Pat Carr, almost 40 years. Don't worry, Carr says, you are gonna be fine because we love you so much. BelmontNA's president stands up and says the Winedale has been a great neighbor for nearly 30 years, has not been a source of any trouble, and should get an SUP.

Pat Carr stands up, the horns come flaring out of her head, and she snorts in voice that can only come from the depths of hell, Screw Belmont! We speak for this area, even though we can't find it on a map. Winedale Tavern violates the new PD because they allow people from downtown to drink in their bar and they open up too early for safe drinking. They've been a blight on this street for 30 years and they need to close their doors. I have spoken, do as I command.

The District 14 Plan Commissioner says he will listen to BelmontNA's opinion, but he's no dummy. He knows if he approves any SUPs in the area, after all it took to get the rezoning proposal passed, he's gonna be out of his non-paying gig really fast. And since the other 14 commissioners will defer to his opinion, Winedale is denied an SUP to stay open between Midnight and 2am.

Don't worry, he tells the owner, taking that stick up your ass is gonna make the neighborhood a much better place for the people who really wish you would just close your doors forever. This will make everyone happy. And hopefully, in a few years, you will be gone. The nearly 30 years of perfect behavior was a fact, but we ignored it anyways. It's nothing personal, mind you.

LGNA's Board is up to its blowhole sucking up to many of the restaurants north of Vickery Avenue. Every year, LGNA gets paid to put in St. Patrick's Day yardsigns, even though people from other associations do the work. Blue Goose and Aw Shucks have contributed food to LGNA events for years.

When BelmontNA was created in 2003, LGNA's officers just looked down their noses and said, Hey come back to the flock, we still love you. When BD and others tried to join in 2010, they rejected their memberships because they would not submit to thought control, and lied to the Dallas Observer about kicking them out of a meeting.

After BelmontNA was able to RPO nearly a dozen streets in less than two years, only then did LGNA realize they had a problem: The drunks were parking in their neighborhood, and that just could not be allowed anymore (and don't even think about RPO in LGNALand - the Borg has spoken!)

Under the proposed rezoning, even good restaurants are in trouble because it creates a mechanism to legalize unfair financial and/or operations disadvantages between restaurants in different areas of Dallas. Restaurants south of Belmont Avenue would be forced to have less operating hours than restaurants north of Vickery Avenue, a distance of less than one-half mile. For example, a restaurant on Lower Greenville, such as Snuffer's, will be able to serve customers until 2am without a permit, while Mextopia on Lowest Greenville, operating without an SUP, will be forced to stop taking orders at 1115pm so that customers are not rushed through their meal in order to close the doors by Midnight. The only difference between the two businesses? One is being punished for the activities of the bad neighbors that the City does not have the will to close down legally, while the other is not.

Is it any wonder - or surprise - LGNA voted to support the rezoning proposalnearly two weeks before any other association in the area had seen the document, including the (now-removed) requirement of having non-compliant (no SUP) businesses turn out their sign lights at midnight? LGNA and LGWNA will say or do anything they can to fulfill their dream of a Lowest Greenville devoid of any business, let alone restaurants south of Belmont that would dare compete with their favorite restaurants north of Belmont for customers.

You say SUP, I say License

During the business meeting the lawyer for LLGABA brought up the idea of issuing permits instead of the SUP for late-hours operation. You can listen to his very detailed explanation of the differences in the process in video up higher in the article. The process is less onerous, still requires Dallas Police and community input, and is less (we hope) expensive. Instead of requiring you to suck up to 30 different people (City Plan Commission and City Council) plus staff, you make your presentation to a smaller panel (also appointed by Council) in an atmosphere that could be described as almost congenial.

But there's a big difference between the two procedures: An SUP stays with the land, while the permit would expire when the business closed down. An SUP takes an act of god to revoke, while a permit can be temporarily suspended in case of violations (but violations are both covered by citations).

In the case of the SUP, let's take the extreme example of Taco Cabana. It should - per Ms Hunt's plan - have no problem getting an SUP for five years. Let's jump ahead to 2012, and Taco Cabana decides to shut down its Lowest Greenville location due to lack of business caused by the PD. There's still four years left on the SUP, so it's a hot property. A few weeks later, Taco Cabana is now Taco Baby and it's got a DJ spinning records out of the drive-thru window. Absolutely legal, and it's gonna be four more years of Show me your hot hot sauce, baby, before the SUP expires.

Under the permit process, the permit would have expired the day Taco Cabana turned in its Certificate of Occupancy. End of story.

Trees and park benches and birds chirping in the Lowest Greenville neighborhood

There's a carrot and stick approach to this issue, and Ms Hunt's not afraid to use it. There are a few million dollars in bond funds already approved by voters to fix Lowest Greenville - curbs, lighting, street surfacing. Some has been spent on the planning for those fixes. When asked to clarify how bond money is created and spent, Ms Hunt wrote...

We’ve been discussing this proposal to improve Lower Greenville for quite a while, and the estimated cost to do the streetscape improvements is about $3.2 million. We’ve got roughly $800k that Pauline (Medrano) and I put in the 2006 bond for streetscape improvements, but that will not get us far. We’ve spent about $80k on engineering (where they analyze current conditions so they can design plans). We would put the balance of the $3.2 million on the 2012 bond. The bond proposals [for future work like narrowing Lowest Greenville to two lanes south of Belmont, put the electric power lines underground] has not been approved. But these are exactly the types of economic development projects that staff and council will support, particularly when the property owners, business owners, and neighbors have indicated a willingness to improve the area via the PD.

Some bonds are sold in Year 6 (after the bond is approved by voters) but bonds also get sold in Year 1, and we would push to get this project in the first or second tranche. Again, because it’s economic development, we will likely see it funded in the early years. Moreover, we would use the current funds to begin planning and design – that is what often takes time. We could get moving on that immediately when the PD passes, and determine how to implement an initial phase of the project with remaining funds from the 2006 bond. Note that when you combine bond money from multi-year bond propositions, as here, the city is more likely to support funding in the earlier years.

Let's do the math using the most optimistic goals of a bond package. The next bond election will be held in 2012. Assuming the City Council included $30 million for Lowest Greenville renovations, the first bonds will be sold in 2014. Construction might start taking place by 2015 or 2016.

That's all well and good, but if the rezoning proposal passes Council by the end of this year, Lowest Greenville will be a ghost town with very few retail operations (like today) and almost no restaurants or (legal) bars open. Even if a few of the bars with the variances manage to stay in business after losing their SUP fight, how can they survive with 14 less operation hours. You and I may not agree with their business model, but they are legal now and will be legal tomorrow under Ms Hunt's plan, even though they close at Midnight.

So how cool do those park benches look now?

In conclusion (thank god, he's almost done writing!)...

BD could go on about how the proposed rezoning will impact restaurant investments on the street. Ms Hunt has her experts saying we will see more restaurants opening (and closing at Midnight?), BD's restaurant experts saying they are taking their money elsewhere if they can't be guaranteed a five year SUP from the day they open their doors in order to get a proper return on their investment.

He could comment that Ms Hunt's proposal in 2010 is not the same concept she presented to the Greenville Avenue Restaurant Association late last year. She delicately forgot to say her PD would affect every single business on the street [and in the Fiesta Shopping Center], not just the bad bars.

And finally, he could lay the blame for all the ills on the different City departments that approved every single Building Permit placed in front of them (remember, these are the same folks who approved excavating parking spaces to make new patios last year).

Rather, he has a very simple suggestion. We need to stop the madness that is this rezoning proposal. The proposal still has to go to the Plan Commission in a few months, so there's not much time.

Go to the neighborhood meeting on Thursday night and hear all the details they can offer in two hours. Then, if you still have questions, call or write Ms Hunt's office and get answers. If you live on the west side of Lowest Greenville south of Belmont, call Pauline Medrano's office - hey, that last sentence made me laugh!

If your neighborhood association voted to support the proposal, go to the next board meeting or email your officers and ask them to reconsider. If you live in LGNALand, don't hold your breath, but count on getting rejected as a member very soon. If you live in LGWNA, don't make me laugh again, you are not a member because they don't have meetings - it's just five white guys and a few girls, and no Hispanics. As of this writing BelmontNA has not made a decision on this proposal (and the lobbying pressure is on them to suppor it). If you live within VPNA, you have a good board that will listen to their members (and everyone who lives in their boundaries is a member by rights).

If you don't live in the Lowest Greenville area, go to one of the businesses listed on this page and sign the petitions they have waiting for you. The list of participating businesses grows each day. Get on their mailing list too.

And finally, if this proposal does somehow make it to the City Council for a vote (December??), call your City Council Member and ask them to vote it down.

What are BD's suggestions to fix Lowest Greenville?? The same as they were at that lunch date in 2004: Level the playing field -

  • Adopt a ‘back to basics’ approach in how businesses are issued Building Permits and Certificates of Occupancy for restaurants, and insist on a follow-up review of their actual business activities versus the type of permit requested. [This has already started - It took nearly two months for Mextopia to get a new Certificate of Occupancy. They were also required to install new firewalls in the attic in order to prevent a fire from spreading across roofs as happened at the Terilli's / Greenville Avenue Bar & Grill fire]

  • Prosecute to the fullest extent of the law any person or corporation signing a City of Dallas government document claiming to be operating a ‘restaurant’ when in fact they are operating as a ‘bar’ (under the most common definition of same) for submitting false documents to a government agency.

  • Any business determined to be operating as a ‘Bar’ when it should be a ‘Restaurant’ should immediately be closed by the City of Dallas, have its Certificate of Occupancy revoked, and its electric and/or water meter removed until such time as it comes into compliance.

It's not going to take rocket science to fix Lowest Greenville. It will take the enforcement of laws already on the books, not new ones that screw legitimate businesses to the wall for the misdeeds of a few.

And for the record: BD is still gung-ho for closing the bad bars. You want names? Try Lost Society and Pussycat Lounge for starters.

By Avi S. Adelman under Neighborhoods , Dallas City Hall