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As Downtown Struggles Back To Life, It’s Survival Of The Fittest For Urban Pioneers

Hal Samples

Just a few feet from his hot dog cart, "Uncle Vinny" takes a man's neck into the bend of his arm and twists him to the ground. Uncle Vinny is breathing heavily, and his teeth are clenched. The man kicks at the ground and taps at the arm tightening around his neck.

"You're taking me. You're taking me, man," he wheezes hoarsely, but Vincent Navarro, who prefers to be called Uncle Vinny, doesn't let go.

It looks like the guy might croak, right here, in downtown Dallas on an early spring evening at the corner of Main and Ervay streets, except for the man's girlfriend. She had appeared moments earlier looking distraught and needing a cell phone. Navarro lent her his, and then her angry boyfriend showed up, jealous of whomever she might be talking to. He grabbed the phone and threw it to the ground, but as he took another step toward the woman, Navarro grabbed him.

Love—or whatever is going on between the couple—is a fickle thing, though, and as soon as Navarro seizes the boyfriend in the chokehold, the woman starts pounding on Navarro and screaming for him to lay off.

Navarro frees the man, and he takes a step toward his girlfriend, so Navarro shoves him and the two head off in different directions.

Navarro walks stiffly back to his cart, his ribs hurting.

That's it. All over. Just another day in business downtown.

Then the waiter from Porta di Roma, an Italian restaurant on the corner, pushes open the door, stands on the eatery's stoop and lights a Marlboro. He asks Navarro what just happened.

"I asked him to stop several times. I was just holding the man, that's all," Navarro says, keeping his back to the waiter, reluctant to talk.

Navarro's just stepped away from one fight and doesn't need another. There's already plenty of bad blood between him and the restaurant. Porta di Roma's owner, understandably unhappy with having a food cart plunked right outside his restaurant's door, has threatened to forcibly remove Navarro and has sicced the city bureaucracy on him. Treating the restaurant's customers to the sight of a wrestling match outside the restaurant's windows isn't likely to help matters.

Navarro can't wrap his head around what the restaurant's problem is. He's just trying to make a living, trying to sell his $3 hot dogs. The office workers in the Comerica Bank tower have no problem with that, peering down to the street level from their high offices to see if Navarro's arrived so they can grab some lunch. Downtown's ever-growing numbers of new residents want him to stick around later at night because he brings a new element of street life.

Unfortunately, he also draws an unwelcomed element of Dallas' downtown milieu. Not all of Navarro's customers are office workers. His stand sits like a rest stop on the path that the down-and-out trek daily, from The Bridge, Dallas' new homeless center, to the central business district. Panhandlers hustling for change on the streets might go for a cheap dog, but they're not going to be sitting down to a plate of Porta di Roma's ziti. They're the reason the Downtown Improvement District, supported by the urban pioneers trying to bring retail and dining back to the center of the city, hires a safety patrol that hikes and bikes the streets, hustling away the homeless. It looks like one convenience store close to where Navarro sets up may soon be forced out of business because the store sells almost exclusively to the homeless, who go there to buy cheap food and drink.

The friction between Navarro and Porta di Roma and between a small shop catering to the homeless and its neighbors are facets of the growing pains afflicting downtown streets as city leaders grasp for ways to breathe life back into Dallas' moribund heart. Dallas dreams of a vibrant city center, where residents, shops and restaurants mingle. But this is not a report on what city officials envision. This is a look at downtown from the street-level. Restaurants are still struggling. Homelessness is still an issue. People still perceive the area as dead, although that perception is beginning to change. Navarro is the first street vendor on Main Street for as long as anybody can remember. He's a tangible sign that life in downtown exists.

But is Navarro the sort of street life Dallas can get behind? Consider Victory Park, for example: a high-end, antiseptic, faux Times Square developed with city support on downtown's northern fringe that in recent months has seen a slew of tony retailers high-tailing away for want of customers. How does Dallas reach that just-right stage and cook up a porridge of city life that includes guys like Navarro, restaurants like Porta di Roma, and a mix of retailers and residents not averse to rubbing elbows with the homeless, perhaps the only demographic group that didn't abandon downtown over the past few decades?

 

That Navarro is having trouble getting along with his neighbor doesn't surprise developer Larry Hamilton. He came to Dallas 12 years ago to invest in downtown and wait for the trend sweeping other cities—the return to the urban lifestyle—to hit Dallas. Hamilton's a history buff who knows that in the '40s, '50s and '60s downtown Dallas was a happening place, before everybody fled to the suburbs.

"The flight to suburbia happened, and everybody left town, and the last guy out was supposed to turn out the lights and just forgot to do it," Hamilton says. "Now it's reversing itself."

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The drive to revitalize downtown began in the late '90s with the redevelopment of vacant buildings into modern apartments and lofts. Hamilton, a thin, energetic man showed up in Dallas in 1997 and bought one of the most forsaken buildings in town, the Davis Building.

The founder and CEO of Hamilton Properties Corp. lives in a third-floor apartment inside the DP&L Building on Commerce Street, which he opened in 2005. His balcony overlooks the bamboo-shrouded pool deck on top of a mostly underground five-story parking garage. Instead of a regular lobby, he created Fuse restaurant, which extends to the pool area.

The Dallas Power & Light building, now DP&L Flats, is Hamilton's second baby; his first was the Davis, a gorgeous limestone-skinned beauty with a rotten core that he bought for a dirt-cheap $2 million, or just $7.50 a square foot. At the time, he was a developer in Denver who earned his reputation in the '80s when he was instrumental in planning that city's now successful downtown rebirth.

One measure of Hamilton's success as an urban pioneer is that by the mid-'90s, the remaining older buildings in Denver were too expensive for him to buy and convert, so he turned his eyes to Dallas. Although others thought to demolish the city's abandoned buildings, Hamilton saw trophies with classic and irreplaceable architecture. "What's happening is there's this psychographic shift that a lot of people haven't caught onto," Hamilton says. "If the city is going to make this comeback, and these buildings are nearly worthless now, then wouldn't that be a smart investment to make?"

But a good investment didn't translate into quick, easy money. Not in downtown Dallas, anyway. Hamilton is the most visible developer of multiple projects. Most everybody else has done one project and moved quietly on.

In 1998, after Hamilton snatched the Davis, during one of his many back and forth flights between Denver and Dallas, his conversation with another passenger struck him as representative of the attitude toward downtown then. He had plans opened on the tray table, and a woman asked his profession. He told her. "Oh my goodness," she told him, "I don't know how to break this to you, but downtown Dallas is no place to be."

She was right, then. About 200 people lived downtown. Today 6,000 residents call the central business district home. The Downtown Improvement District's goal is to reach 10,000 residents in the next two to five years—the pivotal number that will convince new retailers to take downtown to the next level of development.

Hamilton knows many people haven't traveled to downtown in years, under the impression it's still "no place to be," and he's working diligently to change the perception. For residents like Steve Shepherd, a 60-year-old who moved to downtown four years ago, hearing others refer to downtown as dead is frustrating. "We can function like a neighborhood. You can walk to the post office. You can walk to CVS. You can walk to the grocery store. Four years ago, there were very few restaurants, but that's changed. I can honestly say if I didn't have to leave downtown for business purposes, very seldom would I leave."

In Hamilton's DP&L apartment building, the mean household income is $58,000; the median age is 34; and 88 percent of residents are single. In total, Hamilton has opened 800 units in downtown, 440 of them inside the Mosaic on North Akard Street, which is about 85 percent leased. His other properties are about 90 percent occupied.

Still, nothing will change the outsiders' view of a dead downtown unless the streets are filled with life—other than the homeless. Street lights and repaved sidewalks help. But, says Hamilton, if you want to make downtown look alive you've got to take advantage of the biggest resource you have: the streets themselves.

"What's our biggest amenity?" he asks. "The No. 1 amenity that downtown has is its streets."

Think about the best part of visiting a European city—walking an interesting streetscape. But could Dallas actually resemble such a city, even a little?

 

For 30 years, development planning has focused on separating people from the street. Fortress office towers, monumental apartment buildings, underground tunnels, all brand-new structures to keep people separated from the grit, pavement and traffic (not to mention the hot dog vendors). But that is the old way of thinking.

Providing better transportation between the islands of residents and activity downtown could go a long way toward re-establishing downtown's streetscape. Take the convention center hotel, recently approved by voters, for instance. It's planned for an area of downtown that has little life, except it's close to the West End district. So the focus of planners and developers should be on connecting these two areas by a free trolley, encouraging new retail to open up along the route between the two areas instead of the current no man's land, dotted by a Greyhound building and the towering Bank of America building and empty plaza.

Perhaps Victory Park could have done better had the retail opened on the development's main drag, Houston Street, instead of in the back of the buildings, suggests Hamilton. "Start engaging the street. It's a whole different mentality."

The call for connecting one area of town to the other rather than building anew is catching on. City council member Angela Hunt has proposed a free streetcar system to run throughout downtown. Portland revitalized its downtown with streetcars and transformed a rundown area where crime and drugs reigned into a cool, mixed-use center, Hunt says. "We have all of these islands of activity that are great investments," including the Arts District, the planned Woodall Rodgers park, the farmers market, a future law school, the Main Street Gardens opening in October, West End, Dealey Plaza, the convention center and Victory Park. "All of these things are terrific, but they are not connected in any way," Hunt says. "You've got to connect the dots, and a streetcar's the smartest way to do that."

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Downtown's heart is the Main Street district between Lamar Street and Central Expressway. Drive through it on a Friday or Saturday night and it's jammed with traffic; rides letting off their dates at a club's entrance; valets double parking. During the work week, people in business suits enjoy lunch on outdoor tables along a pedestrian-only street connecting Main to Elm Street. But on weekday nights, the streets feel empty again; same on weekend mornings.

Navarro had set up his hot dog stand at the eastern tip of the Main Street district and was taking some of the business away from Porta di Roma partly because his food was something new to try. His sister, Maria Williams, is the brains behind what they hope will be a growing operation.

Navarro and Williams started selling dogs and polish sausage on December 6 during a holiday parade down Main Street. The spot at Main and Ervay chose him, Navarro says, and that's where he stayed.

The restaurant's owners and staff became increasingly agitated at the hot dog vendor for setting up shop—the first of that kind—right in front of their door when there is still not enough foot traffic to support two food options on the same corner. The restaurant's owners had no idea a vendor was even allowed on the sidewalk when Navarro showed up, and called the city. Officials explained that the only thing a licensed vendor couldn't do was set up within 50 feet of a bus or train stop, park or fire hydrant, or vend past 8 p.m. without a special permit.

Michael Tillman, a trim, red-faced waiter, was especially ticked off because his boss, Demi Beshiri, had been good to him since hiring him seven years ago. Tillman called the health department to complain about Navarro. He watched out for when the vendor smoked near the open food and condiment pots, dumped refuse ice into a nearby flowerbed or when Tillman thought Navarro's cart didn't have enough steam floating up, a signal that the dogs weren't hot enough.

For 20 years, the Beshiri brothers, Demi and Vini, originally from Sicily, have run businesses in downtown. They opened Porta di Roma in 2001. In the mid-'90s, Demi recalls, a newscaster asked him what downtown Dallas was like. "I say, 'Oh it's great, looks like a pack of cigarettes with no cigarettes in it. Like you have buildings but no people.'"

Vini, standing behind the restaurant bar, chimes in that there still aren't enough people downtown to justify plunking a street cart outside an established restaurant. "This is not New York, this is Texas. If this New York, is different story. People do it, there are a lot of people walking, busy, eating. But here, they don't come in restaurant. They're going to get food from him."

The Beshiris aren't alone in their fight with Navarro. Tillman put together a petition to amend the city code and forbid all vendors from setting up in front of an established restaurant. He spent the better part of two mornings walking from one restaurant to the next until he had 11 signatures from nearly all Main Street district restaurants. Then he faxed it to Hunt, who represents the district.

 

Hunt is not sure she got the petition, but really doesn't want to do anything to discourage street vendors. Hunt is an advocate for anything that adds to the appearance of life on downtown's streets. "I understand where these restaurants are coming from," Hunt says. "But at the same time, we really have to balance our desire for a vibrant downtown with this concept of protectionism."

Right now, the issue isn't protectionism as much as it's survival of the fittest. "Here, everybody's just trying to grab what they can get, because it's pretty scarce," says Tom McGill, the manager at Sol Irlander Mexican restaurant down Main Street from Porta di Roma.

Nobody has to tell Larry Hamilton that there still aren't enough residents to encourage more retail. To some extent, he has financially helped each of the businesses in the lobbies of his building get started, such as Swirll, a wine and cheese restaurant in the Davis Building. He also had to create the street-level tenant for the DP&L building, Fuse restaurant. He's also investing in the AM PM restaurant that is opening soon in the Mosaic, his most recent residential project, which opened last year.

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Whatever can help downtown grow needs to be done quickly, say business owners on the streets, who have become focused increasingly on a problem in front of their eyes: homelessness. They see it as the strongest inhibitor to growth.

Porta di Roma's Tillman says that since The Bridge opened, Ervay Street has become a homeless super highway.

And Navarro sits like a pit stop on the trail, further infuriating Porta di Roma.

It might be possible that the city's new homeless center has actually created more of a headache for downtown businesses by drawing more needy individuals.

The Bridge's managing director Jay Dunn is an advocate with impressive credentials—a seminary degree from SMU and eight years serving the homeless at The Stewpot, the First Presbyterian Church's former mission to provide meals for the needy. By providing shelter and services, The Bridge has saved the city more than $1 million by cutting the number of vagrants carted off to the county jail, but the homeless service center is still figuring out how to deal with the complaints from downtown businesses. The Bridge serves about 750 "productive" individuals a month, meaning those who get help and begin a path toward getting off the streets. But The Bridge feeds about 1,000 people, leaving about 250 who don't stay to meet with an advisor and begin the rehabilitation process.

"That is the crowd that is mingling in downtown," Dunn says. "The businesses are complaining about the people who don't want services, who don't want help from The Bridge." The Bridge has compiled a list of clients property owners regularly complain about. "So, we do targeted outreach and try and hook some of these people in."

For the restaurants, such improvements couldn't come soon enough. The restaurants on Ervay blame Cost One Food Mart for being a "homeless hangout," as one city official called it, and drawing crowds to the intersection.

The small, dusty convenience store on the north corner is managed by a friendly 43-year-old man named Aziz Punjiani. Yes, of course he sells to the homeless, he says. There's no where else for them to go. What is he supposed to do? As he talks, a number of customers walk in and out, asking for 24-ounce Bud Ices from the back refrigerator. That's $1.50. One man wants a Bud Ice and a pack of menthols but can't afford the total. So Punjiani offers him a generic brand of smokes. He also sells $1 burgers and chips.

Down the block a ways on Elm, Tara Watson, a blue-eyed woman who has been homeless for three years, sells the homeless newspaper Streetwise to anybody walking by. Cost One has been a safe haven to her more than once. "Once you get to know these people and they know who you are and what you're about, they really do have respect for you and they watch out. If you don't have nothing to eat and you're a little short on cash, they look out for you, as long as you pay back."

Press Box general manager Rich Goza says it's not the cheap burgers and helping hands that draw the homeless to Cost One. It's alcohol, and a lot of it. Cost One is the closest alcohol shop to The Bridge, he notes.

 

His restaurant across the street, along with 54 residents, businesses, the downtown business improvement district and council member Hunt, have written to protest the store's alcohol license to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission: "Cost One caters almost solely to the homeless population of Dallas," the form letter reads. "This has led to constant panhandling, drunkenness, fighting, and even assaults upon our own employees and customers."

The food mart is one known well by members of the safety patrol hired by Downtown Dallas, the downtown improvement district. The 76-member patrol was created in 2004 to provide security for residents and visitors. The safety patrol is also in charge of security at The Bridge. But 41 safety patrol members are specifically assigned to bike and walk around downtown everyday.

C. Marshall, a 26-year-old student at El Centro, has been with safety patrol for a year. Each morning, just after 6:30, he leaves the patrol's headquarters on Commerce Street and heads out in the dawn light to do "wake-ups" of sleeping homeless.

A typical day for Marshall includes about 15 to 20 calls from different property managers and store owners to move somebody loitering outside their property. Marshall says that his job includes getting help to the homeless, but mostly he feels as though he's just moving them around all day in circles. "But where do you move them to?" he asks, exasperated. All of downtown is private, except for the library, a dog park close to Deep Ellum, Dealey Plaza, the sidewalks and a few other places. "As I tell people, stay for 10, 15 minutes, ask a business for a glass of water, but move on."

Downtown Dallas President John Crawford denies that the priority of safety patrol is dealing with homelessness, but the improvement district doesn't deny the problem, only says that it's improved. Plans to open low-cost "workforce housing" in downtown buildings will integrate the homeless into the future of downtown, he says. One such project is 511 Akard St., scheduled to open by this fall. Out of the 205 residences, 50 will be reserved for formerly homeless and most of the others will be for low-income residents. "There's a lot of discussion right now about how much affordable or workforce housing we need and where would the location be for those," Crawford says. "Most people philosophically are in agreement that as we continue to grow, that there are various forms of housing that are going to be needed downtown."

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As of May, Navarro no longer works at the corner of Main and Ervay, but down toward the other end of the Main Street district, at Main and Akard. Despite the residents' clamor for more such vendors and developers like Larry Hamilton praising the importance of an active street life, Navarro lost his corner.

At the beginning of May, city health department officials told his sister that she couldn't renew her license at that spot. She was allowed however to renew the license at a spot just down Main Street at Akard in Pegasus Plaza. Williams' plan was to grow the business to dominate Main Street, first at Ervay, then Akard and finally St. Paul. But the city got tired of repeated complaints from businesses in the area.

At the health department, a receptionist told Williams that if she wanted anything further she'd have to talk to the department supervisor. Williams did. He said he was sorry, but there had just been too many problems, recalling the complaints about Navarro smoking near the food and the water not being hot enough, among others. So instead of having two carts in downtown, now the brother and sister have just one but plan for more.

Now Navarro stands at Akard. He has a new set of customers, but wishes he could move to get his old ones back. There was this one sunny April weekday morning, back at his old spot, where his reputation seemed to be cementing among the nearby office workers just by word of mouth.

It had been a good day. He had resolved to never talk again about the situation with the restaurant, and just push forward. He kept going back and forth to the front and back of the cart, turning up a song on the radio, straightening a sign, turning the umbrella.

Three men in their late 20s approached his cart, and Navarro started his show. "Let me put on the honorary gloves," he said. He opened the bin for the hot dogs and talked about the onions and spices he puts in his water. Then he dumped plenty of the neon green relish—a Chicago classic—on the hot dog. The guys had been looking for him this week, after a buddy from their office recommended the vendor's food.

 

Navarro handed one a hot dog and said, "If you don't like it, give it back and Uncle Vinny will eat it, but you won't get your money back. This is not McDonald's!" The guys laughed and stayed standing on the street corner, eating dripping hot dogs and talking.

You know—street life.

After they left, Navarro looked proud. "Why not make the street corner more interesting?" he said. "People walking by, they hear my little radio, and say, 'Oh, I remember that song.' Or big news or something important comes on and they want to hear it, then everybody stands around listening. That's the way it is in other big cities."


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