By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Chief Golbeck has a long history with Lowest Greenville, dating back to the late '90s when he was a lieutenant working evenings with Central Patrol Division. Back then, the majority of the problems, he says, were "loud music calls" coming from the neighbors. Though he was transferred from the area, he returned in 2007, serving as commander of Central Patrol, and soon noticed things had changed. Police started seeing a younger, brasher crowd establishing themselves on Lowest Greenville. "Lots of cocky 18-and 19-year olds," he says.
Some of these new bar patrons were Hispanic gang members—Eastside Homeboys, Oak Cliff Thugs (OCT) and Tango Blast. "It isn't against the law for them to be going to these bars," Golbeck says, but when "members of opposing gangs," some of whom are drinking underage and getting over-served, mix together, that's a "recipe for violence."
"Lowest Greenville has always been a very challenging area to police," Golbeck says. "This has been going on for 20 years." But, what has changed is the types of bars down there and the demographics of Dallas itself—and, well, the guns.
He cites the confiscation of AK-47s, banana clips and other weapons from gang members and felons after the bars close. Even if they are not threatening a particular person, Golbeck says, it's not uncommon for patrons to pop off a few rounds to celebrate as they leave bars—especially on holiday weekends.
"It's a problem when you have families with young children repeatedly getting woken up by gunfire at 2 a.m.," Golbeck says. "This is an area that is zoned for commercial retail and when you have single-family homes backed up to these clubs, you have a problem."
Golbeck says that it's difficult to attach blame to certain bars because there is a good amount of barhopping and pre-drinking. "We do the best we can to connect the dots," he says. "If officers witness a fight spill out of a club, or see people stumbling out the door, or they have receipts from a certain bar, then we can link it to that bar."
So when the police do connect the dots, why doesn't the city just shut down the bad bars? "If only it were that simple," responds Assistant City Attorney Melissa Miles, who often addresses this question at public meetings. "They aren't supposed to be bars." While the city can regulate the location of bars, state law defines bars as establishments that derive more than 75 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales. The city conducts 75-percent audits, which Miles says are "easy to pass." That's why Lowest Greenville has so many bars that operate as "restaurants." And even if these bars fail their audits, then "like magic," Miles says, they'll sell more T-shirts, charge a steeper cover or raise valet rates so they can pass the next audit. Or they'll get a change of occupancy and "presto-change-o": Establishments formerly categorized as "bar lounge taverns" then hold themselves out as "commercial amusement."
The "bad bars" also can get cited for not having a dance-hall permit, over-serving or over-crowding. The city refers certain bars to state agencies such as the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission or the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. But the bars just pay their fines and keep plugging along—business as usual.
Says Golbeck, "Nothing has ever worked to get it in check—not [neighborhood] initiatives. Not bar-adopted dress codes. Not city attorney audits." Frustrated, Hunt and Medrano began working with Golbeck, Miles and other city staff, to find what they term "a loophole-free solution," a planned development district—"with teeth."
"We're here to discuss the future of Lower Greenville," Hunt said in late July while kicking off the first public meeting on the PD held at Vickery Towers, a gated retirement community that sits at the northwest corner of Greenville and Belmont. More than a hundred folks turned out—most of them neighborhood residents and business owners. During the meeting Hunt and other city officials made their case for rezoning.
Hunt detailed the proposed PD, and presented a PowerPoint that included a vision of Lower Greenville in the not-too-distant future: Narrow resurfaced streets, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and crosswalks, shade trees, antique lighting and park benches.
The estimated cost of these improvements would run approximately $3.2 million, about $800,000 of which had already been earmarked from the 2006 bond election. Hunt and Medrano said the balance could come from a 2012 bond election.
Chris Cook was at the meeting. For him, the PowerPoint was a "wet dream." With streets repaired and sidewalks widened, he could put a patio in front of his pizzeria—he could serve lunch again. But to him, those plans seemed like a carrot on a stick that stretched years into the future. "The next year is make or break for us. We can't just sit here and lose money," he says.
Hunt and Medrano would later maintain that the city has no interest in creating another West Village. Instead, Hunt regularly insists that their goal is to keep the area "real and local" while promoting a mix of daytime and nighttime retail. She has lived in the Greenville area since 2001, and says she is "familiar with the area's chronic problems." After her election in 2005, she began searching for ways to assist the area.