By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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Maute, the former president of the Winnetka Heights Neighborhood Association, says the plan will actually redress problems with the city's zoning laws as applied to North Oak Cliff. "What we have are very suburban requirements overlaid on vintage buildings, and they don't work."
Opinion in the area is by no means universally supportive of the breaks for developers championed by Spence and other developers. Darryl Baker, a retired City of Dallas planning official and longtime Oak Cliff resident, worries the new plan for the Bishop/Davis area is somebody's way to make easy money shoehorning more apartments into single-family areas that don't want or need them.
"What Oak Cliff needs is more rich people," he says, "and more homeowners and people with skin in the game."
But Maute says the days of knee-jerk reaction against City Hall and developers are over. "I'm a heck of a whiner," he says, "but, you know, gee whiz, can we move on now?"
Susan Mead, one of the city's best-known zoning attorneys, has been involved in zoning battles in literally all of the city's redeveloping older districts. She says the attitude of neighborhoods in North Oak Cliff probably is less hostile toward commercial developers because of Oak Cliff's more acute need.
"The entire southern sector of Dallas is prime for more retail," Mead says. "It would not surprise me, along with all the historic preservation activities that have occurred in Oak Cliff for decades, that there is also a big dose of realism, because they have gone without basic retail."
She says the Cliffies are tired of driving. "People in Oak Cliff drive to the Kroger on Cedar Springs or the Albertson on McKinney Avenue, so they are in a little bit different position in terms of their level of need."
There could be other reasons, of course, why North Oak Cliff's enclave neighborhoods—the demographic islands that show up on Professor Kemper's maps—may be feeling more soft-hearted than they did a decade ago toward developers who want to do small projects in older buildings. Just before the bottom fell out of the financial markets, huge blocs of low-end apartment buildings near West Davis Street were purchased and bulldozed by speculators. Now the land sits vacant.
District 6 City Council member Steve Salazar, who represented the Davis Street area before district maps were redrawn in 2001, suggests there may be a certain amount of uneasiness over what will happen when all that land comes back into development. "When I represented that area before 2001, the neighborhoods wanted to do away with the tire shops on Davis. Ten years later, those are the same people who are saying, 'Well, maybe those are not so bad.'
"What they don't want are big, multifamily-type communities that could pop up there," he says.
Theresa O'Donnell, the city's planning and development director, sees it more Susan Mead's way: "I think we've seen a sea change in Oak Cliff. People who live there and work there don't want to have to drive to Uptown or Oak Lawn or East Dallas to shop or go to a restaurant or find entertainment any more, so they are certainly willing to be a little more development-friendly."
O'Donnell concedes East Dallas has legitimate historical reasons for its leeriness, especially having to do with what she calls "the alcohol factor."
Oak Cliff, once totally dry by local option, has lots of permitted alcohol sales in restaurants and clubs today, but O'Donnell points to a key difference: "Typically the residents in Oak Cliff are the ones going to the nightclubs and bars there," she says. "But on Greenville, you've got people coming in from the outside that don't share the same values as the people in the neighborhood."
In fact, the saga of the Lower Greenville bar district and its bad relationship with surrounding residential neighbors is a kind of scary bedtime story told by just about everybody in North Oak Cliff as That Which Must Be Avoided at All Costs. And where O'Donnell is diplomatic about whom she means when she talks about "people from the outside," the Oak Cliff people think they know exactly who the scary drinkers are.
"Kids from Highland Park and SMU," says Chris Zielke, a co-owner of Bolsa, a sophisticated eatery and bar just down Davis Avenue from Bishop Arts. "I don't think there is the same demand here for a bar that is only a bar and not a restaurant as there is on Lower Greenville. You don't have the same SMU population."
Oak Cliff has a drinking crowd but not much of a puking crowd, according to Zielke. "It's a little bit of an older, more professional crowd that's moving down here."
And yet the specter of Lower Greenville darkens the brow of almost every Oak Cliff mover and shaker who talks about the future of Oak Cliff. Imagine that Oak Cliff persuades the city to loosen the parking requirements on Davis Street and expand the success of Bishop Arts: What is to stop Davis from turning into Lower Greenville? Zielke of Bolsa, a veteran of liquor license negotiations, concedes there is no reason liquor licenses couldn't be granted to booze-only bars in Oak Cliff.