By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Albertson's representatives say they will help the 350 tenants find new homes, and they dismiss the long-term displacement figures as an exaggeration.
In recent weeks, May and company have fanned out over East Dallas in an effort to educate low-income renters about what an Albertson's store means to them. In return for their signatures on petitions, which will be submitted to the city, residents receive verbal promises of new jobs and cheap groceries. What they aren't told is that they may soon be kicked out of house and home.
Of course, there are no leaked memos, copies of checks, or other documents showing that Albertson's, Coker, May, and Fuller conspired to play the race card in order to make the store a reality. There are only their conflicting statements and the suspicion of a growing number of East Dallas residents who oppose the project.
Only that and Albertson's recent history in New Orleans, where the Idaho-based chain is in the midst of a strikingly similar battle to plant a super-sized store in the middle of a poor, predominantly minority neighborhood along the historic St. Charles Avenue--similar except for the fact that New Orleans tends to be a bit less civil in its municipal politics.
"How divisive is it?" says one New Orleans attorney embroiled in the controversy there. "It's divisive enough to burn...buildings down and sue me, as well as two clients."
His large frame planted behind a table inside an Owens Family Restaurant in Irving, Bob Rissing doesn't bother much with diplomacy as he discusses the challenge he is facing in East Dallas. Rissing is Albertson's Tarrant County-based senior real estate manager and the point man on both the East Dallas and New Orleans projects.
"Each site has its own particular set of problems," says Rissing, easing back into his chair and crossing his thick forearms across his chest. "We're here to overcome those problems."
Rissing says he hopes the residents of Dallas, especially his opponents in East Dallas, will appreciate his position. He's a good, hard-working employee who lives in Irving and has spent the last 15 years helping Albertson's find ways to better serve its customers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Until now, Rissing hasn't had any problems to speak of as Albertson's presence in the metroplex has steadily grown to include 81 stores--almost half of the 195 stores Albertson's has built in Texas.
"Our success is big stores, consistent merchandising with adequate parking. Well-lit lots, so you feel safe when you're shopping. That's what we're here to build," Rissing says. "I've been successful in finding locations in Dallas in the area that we want to serve, which is to cover the metro area."
Much planning goes into building an Albertson's store, Rissing explains. First, a site big enough to locate a store must be identified, one surrounded by enough people to meet the company's projected sales needs.
"To justify a store today and the kind of dollars we put into these things, we have a break-even point. We generally go looking for store sites that will achieve $400,000 a week in sales. This one is close to that," Rissing says of the $8 million East Dallas site, which is located near the corner of Live Oak Street and Fitzhugh Avenue. "It's dead-center in the middle of about 69,000 people."
The site also is between those 69,000 people and Albertson's local competitors a few blocks away: a Fiesta store, two Minyard stores, and a Carnival store (which is owned by Minyard). The site's location on Live Oak, which is a main thoroughfare into downtown, also means that thousands of commuters would drive past the store daily.
Once a site has been located, the next step is to assemble the land, a task that usually entails finding a real estate developer to purchase options for a fee. If the site is located in a suburb, Rissing says, it's easier to assemble the land because it comes in bigger chunks. But in an urban area like East Dallas, securing options on five and a half to six acres can involve numerous people and countless complications.
In this case, Rissing says, some of the property on which Albertson's acquired options was saddled with back taxes, liens, demolition fees, and fines the city levied on the properties' prior owners--who in some cases, according to city records, are slumlords who let their buildings become neighborhood nuisances.
"I would say right now, with not what I would call a bright future, we have probably spent in excess of $100,000," Rissing says.
Bailing out old slumlords was as easy as writing a check, but the real problem with the property was that it was zoned for residential use. Before Albertson's can begin construction, it must convince the Dallas Plan Commission, and ultimately the city council, to approve its request to change the zoning to allow for commercial and retail use.
That sort of back zoning, critics says, is what nearly destroyed neighborhoods such as Swiss Avenue, Mill Creek, and Munger Place in the 1960s and '70s--until residents banded together in a highly publicized campaign to stabilize the zoning laws.
"It was poor zoning that caused the deterioration of East Dallas in the first place, so people are very careful about making any kind of changes to the existing zoning," says Catherine Horsey, the executive director of Preservation Dallas. "Albertson's has been very accommodating to people's concerns about traffic, design, and lighting. They can take care of all those things, but the question is, Should this property be residential or commercial? The answer is, it should be residential."