By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"As long as I've been down there, there are thousands of opinions, and I don't need to listen to them all," Blanton says. "I am a businessman, and I buy those buildings and rehab them and turn them into restaurants and clubs. I office there, have a dozen residential properties. People can say whatever they want...[The 18-and-up dance clubs] probably haven't helped anything. Unfortunately, the clubs have to cater to what they can cater to, and if it's under-18, they don't have a choice."
Fact is, if Blanton is to blame, he's not the only one. He's not the only landlord leasing to the problematic clubs, which include such venues as Club Hush and Uropa Club and, to a lesser extent, Club Envy, Level II and Nairobi Room. Robert Merrill, in fact, is the owner of the building that houses Hush, in which the argument began in November that led to the shooting of Jeffrey Nelson. He says he's spoken to the owners twice about their clientele and asked the owners to raise the age of admittance from 18 to 21. He insists the problem isn't with the ownership, though, but with the outside promoters they've hired to attract patrons. Whatever the issue, he knows the place isn't popular with longtime Deep Ellum residents, who more than once have begged him to break the lease with Hush.
"My hands are tied," says Merrill, whose family has owned the building at 2642 Main Street since 1939. "What do I do? I don't like the clientele. I won't even go over myself. Somebody e-mailed me and wanted me to break their lease, and I said, 'How do I do that without getting into trouble, and I will consider it.' They have a five-year lease, and they're just a year into it."
Maybe it won't be an issue should Barry Annino and the Deep Ellum Association get their way: They have before the City Plan Commission a proposal that would force every single club operator in Deep Ellum to get a specific use permit (SUP), which demands that a business be "compatible with adjacent property and consistent with the character of the neighborhood." And they're tough to get: Every year, city council has to approve an applicant's SUP, and a club such as Hush, linked to at least one violent crime in 2005, would likely get its application denied, according to Annino.
"Everybody else in town has SUPs for these things," he says. "We don't. Lower Greenville, Uptown, they all have them. So, basically, we get everything nobody else wants. They come right in here and talk to one of these owners who doesn't care and put their stuff in. Now, a lot of these guys who own the clubs are nice guys, but the mentality is not neighborhood-friendly. If you have four, five dance clubs serving 18 and up, you're going to have problems. And if you have residential in your neighborhood, it's gonna be bad. The live-music venues are not really causing any problems...but the dance clubs are bringing the place down."
The police who patrol Deep Ellum feel exactly the same way; one sergeant who patrols downtown at night says that had Nairobi and Hush closed down instead of Dada and Trees, "we'd have a party." Fact is, he says, "the city has let [Trees and Dada] down because they haven't done anything. The city hadn't met their needs."
The clubs are a problem "because they attract thugs who don't spend money," says this officer. "Maybe they will pay the cover charge, but most of them don't even have enough money to pay the five dollars to park. They're walking into Deep Ellum at midnight looking for trouble. If you knew how many guns we took off people, it's happening way too often."
Ask Blanton. The week before Christmas, he sent out a widely circulated e-mail complaining about two bullet holes in his garage door at his residence at 2622 Main Street. He swears this isn't the reason he's put his home on the market for $2 million.
"We've been here before, so I know what's going down," he says. "This is the time to buy, when everyone is crying and wringing their hands. This trough doesn't bother me. We're going to come back."
Maybe so, but there are folks who'd just as soon Blanton go away--and not because he's bringing in bad business, but because he's standing in the way of what could be real progress. In July, the council gave the OK to turn Deep Ellum into a tax increment financing district (TIF), which means that investors who sink money into the area and make substantial improvements to the infrastructure would get some of their tax money back--a rebate, if you will, for making something out of nothing.
At the moment, though, much of that investment looks like it will take place on the outskirts of Deep Ellum in the form of new residential construction, with perhaps some retail as well. But the core of Deep Ellum--the buildings lining Commerce, Elm and Main--were not included in the TIF, partially because Blanton and some other landlords are suing the city over the replacement of old sewage lines beneath their property (see "Up the Creek," by Paul Kix, June 24, 2004).