Barry Annino has seen the future of Deep Ellum, and it is the West End--with the addition of lots and lots of apartments filled with lots and lots of upwardly mobile people with deep pockets.
For a year and a half, Annino has acted as the president of the 130-member Deep Ellum Merchants Association, working diligently to protect the investment of Deep Ellum-area property owners. He has helped lure an enormous apartment complex into the area--the self-proclaimed "480-unit luxury-apartment community" called Jefferson at Gaston Yards on Gaston and Good Latimer, which is being built by the locally based JPI construction company and opens this month. He has helped lure other real-estate owners to the area, convincing them to restore run-down buildings and turn them into high-priced apartments.
As far as Annino is concerned, there is gold in them thar warehouses, enough to go around for everyone. That is why he's surprised to find dozens of Deep Ellum residents and tenants--including a powerful real-estate owner and DEMA board member--turning against him. A fight over the direction of Deep Ellum is nothing new--the area has, for a decade, struggled with its image as both a bohemian safe haven and a large frat mixer--but never before has the fight reached the steps of City Hall.
Annino, a real-estate broker for Delphi Group Inc. (which has about 30 properties for lease or sale in Deep Ellum), thought he was doing God's work when he and 12 other area property owners went before the city council and convinced the city to stop granting licenses, building permits, and certificates of occupancy to the likes of tattoo and body-piercing parlors, sexually oriented businesses, teen clubs, pawn shops, bail-bonding services, homeless shelters, and gun shops. He thought he and other Deep Ellum property owners were helping to clean up the area, making it safe for upper-middle-class exploitation.
"The owners got together and had a vision," Annino says. "What they saw was a residential-entertainment community, and they were protecting the future."
Annino and other property owners' future will demolish Deep Ellum's past and present, contend area tenants and residents who are fighting a proposed zoning change before the city council.
On May 8, the council will vote whether to formally outlaw the types of businesses Annino would like to see banished forever from Elm, Commerce, Main, and Canton streets, and a growing number of Deep Ellumites are intent on putting a stop to the zoning change. The May 8 meeting is likely to be a vicious one.
Surprisingly, Txon Real Estate head Don Blanton, who owns a good chunk of property in Deep Ellum (including several parking lots) and is also a longtime DEMA board member, stands firmly against the resolution. A resident of the neighborhood for more than 15 years, he has been allied with the association since its inception four years ago. (Indeed, recently departed DEMA executive director DeeAnna Mercer was an employee of Blanton's.)
"Deep Ellum is an eclectic neighborhood, and the people who want to change it live in Highland Park, and we have a different perception of what's right," Blanton says. "Tattoo parlors on Main Street are OK with me, and tattoo parlors on Bordeaux would be a no-no. Deep Ellum used to be an eclectic atmosphere. Deep Ellum is not Snider Plaza, and the people who want to change Deep Ellum want to sanitize Deep Ellum. We don't want to become another strip mall."
Annino is open about DEMA's intentions to clean up Deep Ellum and turn it into a safe, upwardly mobile community filled with white-collar folks who'll walk to work in the morning then come home to Deep Ellum--and its restaurants and furniture stores and such--at night. He also does not hide the fact that JPI--which was listed last year by the National Association of Home Builders as the second-largest developer of apartments in the country--is footing the bill for four attorneys from Fulbright and Jaworski to help maneuver the proposed rezoning through the City Plan Commission.
As Annino tells it, when the Las Colinas-based JPI decided to build its new Jefferson at Gaston Yard apartments just outside Deep Ellum, the real-estate developers came to DEMA and asked--"in good faith," Annino stresses--if there was anything the company could do to make Deep Ellum a "better place." Annino says the association's members met for a month and finally agreed upon the list of recommendations that now sits before the city.
Late last year, 13 property owners and real-estate brokers in Deep Ellum--including developer Don Cass (who owns considerable amounts of property on Elm Street) and JPI senior partner Guy Brignon--sent a petition to the city council asking the city to impose a moratorium on accepting "applications for certain licenses, building permits, and certificates of occupancy" for the businesses the owners and brokers were trying to keep out of Deep Ellum. They had fired the first shot in a battle they never saw coming.
On December 13, 1995, the council passed a resolution imposing that moratorium until May 10, 1996, by which time the City Plan Commission and the city council would have already voted on the proposed zoning changes--meaning the zoning change has actually been in effect since last December.
Oddly, most of this fight is over a list of moot points: Although Deep Ellum was once littered with dozens of pawn shops, the most famous being Honest Joe's and Dave's on Elm, there hasn't been a pawn shop in Deep Ellum in decades. (Same goes for bail-bonding businesses.) Besides, state legislation was passed in 1992 barring pawn shops from operating within a mile of each other unless granted a special permit.
Local ordinances also don't allow sexually oriented businesses to operate within 1,000 feet of a residential area, and teen clubs can't exist within 1,000 feet of a business that sells alcohol.
This means most of the proposed zoning changes already exist in other forms, leaving tattoo and body-piercing parlors as the remaining target of DEMA and JPI. The new zoning ostensibly wouldn't affect the existing tattoo parlors, places like Tigger's and Skin & Bones, but it would make it almost impossible for new parlors to open in Deep Ellum--and, some residents fear, the zoning could also make it difficult for the existing parlors to renew their leases or move to new locations.
The way the proposal stands now, if a new tattoo or piercing parlor wanted to open a shop in Deep Ellum, its owner would have to apply to the city for a specific-use permit, which runs $600. Then, the city would send a notice to tenants and residents within 200 feet of the proposed site, and the city would hold two public hearings, one before the City Plan Commission and another before the city council. The city council would then have the final vote on whether the new parlor could move in, but the owners of the properties also cast ballots--"and the council and Plan Commission keep those opinions in mind when they make their recommendations," says one city official.
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Right now, anyone can open a tattoo or piercing parlor at a moment's notice--without anyone's approval.
The Deep Ellum residents opposed to the zoning changes insist the property owners are trying to run out the parlors because they're perceived to attract the wrong element--though, on any given night, there are as many upscale Southern Methodist University students getting a tattoo as there are bikers and punks.
"The tattoo parlors can stay in the buildings they're in if the landlords renew their leases," insists A.J. Crowell, publisher of the adult-entertainment industry tabloid Sundown and a 10-year Deep Ellum resident who's leading the campaign against the new zoning measure. "The tattoo parlors move around all the time, like when bigger tenants come along and the landlords move them out. Or they expand, whatever. With the new proposed zoning, they would not be able to move into a new place. Only one person can reject the permit to kill them."
Theoretically, says one city planner, that could happen. "But that is not usually the case.