It's your store (like it or not)
As Albertson's readies for the biggest zoning battle Dallas has seen in 20 years--a fight prompted by the grocery giant's plan to build a mammoth, suburban-style store in East Dallas despite objections from many who live there--the company's local team is learning how important it is for them to get their stories straight.
Take, for instance, the curious case of a late-October news conference organized on Albertson's behalf by longtime local political consultant Jake Fuller. Alongside Fuller was Hispanic activist Joe May, there to inject ethnic and class politics into what had been until then a straightforward zoning case.
"The issue is the use of affluent homeowner groups as a tool to advancing aggression in minority districts with the intent of denying those district residents a voice on [a] matter of importance to them," May said, according to a written statement that bears Fuller's office address and telephone number.
"The ongoing efforts by affluent residents to defeat a proposed zoning request located in a Hispanic neighborhood and supported by Hispanic residents is nothing short of plutocracy in support of aristocratic colonialism," May continued.
Stockyards Championship Rodeo
TicketsFri., Feb. 24, 8:00pm
University of North Texas Mean Green Mens Basketball vs. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles Mens Basketball
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 2:00pm
Dallas Sidekicks vs. Ontario Fury
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 7:00pm
Texas Legends vs. Sioux Falls Skyforce
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 7:30pm
It was a provocative statement. Albertson's opponents, many of whom are Anglo and affluent, say they fear that plopping a mega-market on five and a half acres within walking distance of East Dallas' historic neighborhoods will lead to a bloom of unwelcome retail development. According to the news conference's spin, they're little more than plutocrats fighting to shield their yuppie, refurbished homes from a store that promises to bring jobs and convenient shopping to a poor Hispanic neighborhood that is ready to support the benevolent grocer from the grass roots.
Welcome to the revolution. galite. Fraternite. Triple coupons.
To Albertson's opponents, the news conference appeared to be the beginning of a new strategy by the company: Since the opposition was mounting a successful resistance to the project, team Albertson's hired a behind-the-scenes consultant and a self-appointed Hispanic "leader" to shame their opponents into silence by calling them bigots or, more subtly, cultural elitists.
Not true, say Fuller and May. But they forgot to clue in Fuller's receptionist, who answered a telephone call earlier this month from a reporter who sought to speak with Fuller about the store.
"You'll want to speak with his client Mike Coker," the receptionist said, her voice routine, Coker's telephone number at her fingertips.
That would be the Mike Coker hired by Albertson's to push its zoning request through the city bureaucracy. Coker is neither poor nor Hispanic, but he is the former director of the city planning department and attended the October news conference.
Fuller confirms that he was hired to arrange the news conference, but won't say who is writing the check. He also says he can't speak on the record. "I've been told that I'm not to be quoted," Fuller says. "I was hired just for about a week. I literally spent a week on it. Basically, it's Joe May's deal."
May, meanwhile, isn't sure just what to say when asked whether he is on Coker's payroll.
"No, yeah," May says. "Jake reports to me. It was just a week to do a press conference. I needed somebody to do a press release because we were getting hit in the Morning News. I needed to get my message out, and that's what Jake was hired in to do, to put this press conference together."
May continued to wade through the muddy situation, struggling to find a way to explain the arrangement among him, Fuller, and Coker. "I'm not paying Jake at all, and I don't work for anybody," he says. "I'm not on anybody's payroll."
Except, perhaps, his own. May owns two pieces of land a block away from the proposed store site, and his property is likely to increase in value if it's built. But if May isn't paying Fuller, then who is?
"Coker would be who's paying him," May offers. "But it was never a full-time [job] or anything like that. It was just for, you know, a one-shot thing."
As it turns out, the receptionist and May have it wrong. Fuller and May are not, after all, working for Coker or anyone else associated with Albertson's.
"I have never hired Joe May," Coker says, "and I have never paid Mr. Fuller a dime."
Got it? Someone--not Albertson's lobbyist Coker and not May--hired Fuller to help May get out the pro-Albertson's message that Hispanics in East Dallas are clamoring to have a 63,000-square-foot store built in their neighborhood, their aristocratic neighbors be damned.
If you're confused now, just wait. Turns out that some of the poor and working-class Hispanics who live in the neighborhood aren't exactly happy to have Albertson's (motto: It's your store) build its market, especially since the company plans to knock down some of their homes to do it.
As part of Albertson's project, four apartment buildings will be razed, and an estimated 350 low-income, mostly non-English-speaking Asian and Hispanic tenants will be displaced at a time when affordable housing is scarce in their diverse East Dallas neighborhood. Project opponents say the number of displaced tenants could ultimately swell into the thousands if other developers follow Albertson's lead and seek zoning changes that would allow them to replace neighboring low-income apartment buildings with commercial development.
Albertson's representatives say they will help the 350 tenants find new homes, and they dismiss the long-term displacement figures as an exaggeration.
In recent weeks, May and company have fanned out over East Dallas in an effort to educate low-income renters about what an Albertson's store means to them. In return for their signatures on petitions, which will be submitted to the city, residents receive verbal promises of new jobs and cheap groceries. What they aren't told is that they may soon be kicked out of house and home.
Of course, there are no leaked memos, copies of checks, or other documents showing that Albertson's, Coker, May, and Fuller conspired to play the race card in order to make the store a reality. There are only their conflicting statements and the suspicion of a growing number of East Dallas residents who oppose the project.
Only that and Albertson's recent history in New Orleans, where the Idaho-based chain is in the midst of a strikingly similar battle to plant a super-sized store in the middle of a poor, predominantly minority neighborhood along the historic St. Charles Avenue--similar except for the fact that New Orleans tends to be a bit less civil in its municipal politics.
"How divisive is it?" says one New Orleans attorney embroiled in the controversy there. "It's divisive enough to burn...buildings down and sue me, as well as two clients."
His large frame planted behind a table inside an Owens Family Restaurant in Irving, Bob Rissing doesn't bother much with diplomacy as he discusses the challenge he is facing in East Dallas. Rissing is Albertson's Tarrant County-based senior real estate manager and the point man on both the East Dallas and New Orleans projects.
"Each site has its own particular set of problems," says Rissing, easing back into his chair and crossing his thick forearms across his chest. "We're here to overcome those problems."
Rissing says he hopes the residents of Dallas, especially his opponents in East Dallas, will appreciate his position. He's a good, hard-working employee who lives in Irving and has spent the last 15 years helping Albertson's find ways to better serve its customers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Until now, Rissing hasn't had any problems to speak of as Albertson's presence in the metroplex has steadily grown to include 81 stores--almost half of the 195 stores Albertson's has built in Texas.
"Our success is big stores, consistent merchandising with adequate parking. Well-lit lots, so you feel safe when you're shopping. That's what we're here to build," Rissing says. "I've been successful in finding locations in Dallas in the area that we want to serve, which is to cover the metro area."
Much planning goes into building an Albertson's store, Rissing explains. First, a site big enough to locate a store must be identified, one surrounded by enough people to meet the company's projected sales needs.
"To justify a store today and the kind of dollars we put into these things, we have a break-even point. We generally go looking for store sites that will achieve $400,000 a week in sales. This one is close to that," Rissing says of the $8 million East Dallas site, which is located near the corner of Live Oak Street and Fitzhugh Avenue. "It's dead-center in the middle of about 69,000 people."
The site also is between those 69,000 people and Albertson's local competitors a few blocks away: a Fiesta store, two Minyard stores, and a Carnival store (which is owned by Minyard). The site's location on Live Oak, which is a main thoroughfare into downtown, also means that thousands of commuters would drive past the store daily.
Once a site has been located, the next step is to assemble the land, a task that usually entails finding a real estate developer to purchase options for a fee. If the site is located in a suburb, Rissing says, it's easier to assemble the land because it comes in bigger chunks. But in an urban area like East Dallas, securing options on five and a half to six acres can involve numerous people and countless complications.
In this case, Rissing says, some of the property on which Albertson's acquired options was saddled with back taxes, liens, demolition fees, and fines the city levied on the properties' prior owners--who in some cases, according to city records, are slumlords who let their buildings become neighborhood nuisances.
"I would say right now, with not what I would call a bright future, we have probably spent in excess of $100,000," Rissing says.
Bailing out old slumlords was as easy as writing a check, but the real problem with the property was that it was zoned for residential use. Before Albertson's can begin construction, it must convince the Dallas Plan Commission, and ultimately the city council, to approve its request to change the zoning to allow for commercial and retail use.
That sort of back zoning, critics says, is what nearly destroyed neighborhoods such as Swiss Avenue, Mill Creek, and Munger Place in the 1960s and '70s--until residents banded together in a highly publicized campaign to stabilize the zoning laws.
"It was poor zoning that caused the deterioration of East Dallas in the first place, so people are very careful about making any kind of changes to the existing zoning," says Catherine Horsey, the executive director of Preservation Dallas. "Albertson's has been very accommodating to people's concerns about traffic, design, and lighting. They can take care of all those things, but the question is, Should this property be residential or commercial? The answer is, it should be residential."
The store would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood, critics agree, if only it were built a few blocks away--on vacant land that's already zoned for retail development. But if Albertson's moves into a residential area, 25 years of land-use planning in the neighborhood may be for naught. Like a crack in a dike, a zoning change could cause a river of additional commercial development to flow into the area and flood homes with light, traffic, and noise pollution, opponents say.
"It's a very large store, and historically very large stores have been retail anchors for commercial areas," Horsey says. "It is expected that if an Albertson's went in there, that there would be corollary retail going in around it."
Coker, Albertson's hired zoning gun, dismisses those concerns.
"I don't think there is any statistical evidence that that occurs at all. I don't think anybody has brought any credible evidence to the table that that does happen," says Coker, who adds that the Albertson's project is fully consistent with neighborhood preservation plans.
"The things that make up neighborhoods are not just homes of single and multifamily varieties," Coker says. "It's everything that makes up a neighborhood: convenient shopping, churches, recreational opportunities. A grocery store is clearly one of the things that should be included as part of the residential mix."
There is no evidence that other businesses are waiting in the shadows, eager to follow Albertson's massive footsteps into East Dallas. There are only casual observations that other Albertson's stores often tend to be surrounded by a sea of video stores, dry cleaners, and other shops.
Nevertheless, Albertson's anticipated that it would face neighborhood resistance, but Rissing figured he could overcome the opposition.
"We probably did not anticipate that they would, across the board, come out against it--group after group after group--and that's unfortunate," he says.
It's not the first time Albertson's calculations have come up short.
The Times-Picayune, New Orleans' daily newspaper, described a May 12 news conference in that city as a "preemptive strike" designed to build momentum for a proposed Albertson's store before the city's planning officials could even review the project for consideration.
New Orleans is a predominantly black city, led by a black mayor and several powerful black council members. So the news conference was something of a savvy public relations effort to ward off criticism of the proposed store--a 62,000-square-foot box that would be located just off of lower St. Charles Avenue in a part of town known as Central City.
St. Charles Avenue is a National Landmark Historic District known for its mansions and as the home of the nation's oldest running streetcar line. The Central City neighborhood that it borders is predominantly black, and very poor.
On May 12, the city's mayor, two city council members, and a group of Central City activists gathered in front of the First Emanuel Baptist Church to announce their support for the store. The event featured "rousing hymns and snatches of preaching" by the Rev. Charles Southall and Bishop Robert Blakes, pastors, respectively, of First Emanuel and the New Home Missionary Baptist Church, according to the Times-Picayune.
The pastors were there to support the store because they believe it will bring sorely needed jobs and economic growth to their blighted neighborhood, but their presence wasn't purely an act of good will carried out on behalf of their low-income neighbors. In exchange for helping build support for Albertson's, each church had been given a 5 percent share in St. Charles Ventures, L.L.C., the group of developers attempting to lure a grocery store onto the property.
The pastors dismissed accusations that their support was for sale. "Thirty thousand dollars can't buy me," Southall told the local paper.
David Richardson, a New Orleans attorney representing the ministers, says that how you see the deal is a matter of interpretation.
"You can think of it as buying them off or making them partners," Richardson says. "The developers and Albertson's tried to be inclusive by bringing members of the communities into the partnership. This is one of the few significant capital ventures in New Orleans that's voluntarily joined in by the black and white communities."
The argument doesn't fly with Albertson's opponents. The decision to cut the ministers in on the deal and lasso political support as a preemptive strike is just the kind of dirty politics New Orleans is known for, says William Borah, a New Orleans attorney who is representing a group of neighborhood preservationists opposed to the store.
"The system is chaotic, and it's corrupt, and special interests dominate it, and whoever gets the ear of a councilman or a mayor, that's the project," Borah says.
To Borah and his clients, the big-box building style will turn back the clock on preservation efforts by ushering in a new era of suburban-style sprawl that's inappropriate for a historic district--an argument virtually identical to that made by the neighborhood organizations opposed to the proposed East Dallas Albertson's.
"We say New Orleans has planning by surprise. You want to know what the plan for New Orleans is, you read the daily Times-Picayune. That's the plan," Borah says. "This has had disastrous impact over the years. If you're in a preservation community here, you battle one project after the other, historically."
Instead of waiting for the project to wind its way through the system, its opponents adopted their own hardball plan: They teamed up with Albertson's competitor Sav-A-Center (a subsidiary of A&P) and purchased three 19th-century houses situated in the center of the proposed site. As part of the deal, the buyers agreed not to sell the properties to Albertson's and promised to donate the homes to preservationists with a mind toward renovation.
The purchase brought the project to a grinding halt and escalated the battle to a new level. New Orleans Councilman Oliver Thomas, a proponent of the store, said the two sides needed to find common ground before the situation spiraled out of control.
"Black vs. white, rich vs. poor, St. Charles vs. Central City, we don't need those kinds of fights," Thomas told The Times-Picayune.
Weeks later, St. Charles Ventures retaliated with a lawsuit.
Earlier that summer, before Albertson's had committed to the project, Sav-A-Center had been negotiating with the developers to build its own store at the site, but the negotiations fell through. As part of the suit, the developers argued that the preservationists did not have proper legal title to the properties, but on July 28 a New Orleans judge rejected their argument.
Five days later, the homes caught fire three times in the span of 48 hours. The fires have been ruled arson, though no arrests have been made. Richardson says that as far as he knows, none of his clients is considered a suspect in the case.
Richardson is now representing the developers in a second lawsuit that names A&P and the preservationists as defendants. In that case, the developers argue that A&P engaged in unfair trade practices and violated the Louisiana Uniform Trade Secrets Act by using information it gained in the confidential negotiations with the developers in the purchase of the three 19th-century homes.
"They [A&P] are not at liberty to take the information when the negotiations go bad and use the information against you," says Richardson, who concedes that if the preservationists retain control of the homes, "it's gonna wreck the development as planned."
(A&P's attorney Peter Title declined to comment on the matter.)
Albertson's Bob Rissing calls the arson attacks in New Orleans a "tragedy," but he's not prepared to let the increasingly volatile situation get in the way of Albertson's plan of securing its first foothold in the New Orleans market. For now, he can only wait for the developers' lawsuit to wind its way through the court system and hope either to regain control of the houses or to find another way around the obstacle.
"Our resolve remains to find a location," Rissing says. "While it [the opponents' strategy] may have stopped us momentarily, it has not stopped our resolve to locate there. It's a problem. It's a roadblock. Now, it's what we can do to overcome it."
On a dreary Friday afternoon, two days after capturing her third election in District 107, state Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt is out knocking on doors inside the run-down apartment buildings along Live Oak Street directly across from the proposed Albertson's site.
Team Albertson's has already been to this building, asking tenants to sign petitions in support of the store by telling them it will bring them cheaper groceries and new jobs. Ehrhardt is here to fill them in on the rest of the story.
"I trust the system. I think if the majority of them don't want it, they'll listen," Ehrhardt says, her voice brimming with optimism. "Especially if there's some clout behind 'em."
Accompanied by two assistants, both high school students fluent in Spanish, Ehrhardt goes from door to door, telling the few residents who are at home during this weekday afternoon that if the Albertson's store is built, 350 renters will have to move immediately and others may eventually have to move.
Ordinarily, Ehrhardt says, she doesn't get involved in city zoning issues, but the longtime housing advocate entered this battle because she is against any proposal that would eliminate a large number of affordable homes. Ehrhardt is also troubled by Albertson's failure to fully inform these tenants about the impact the project will have on them.
"These people, nobody had told them anything," Ehrhardt says. "Albertson's apparently thought that no one would care if they tore down the houses that poor people live in."
From the outside, the Live Oak Crossing apartments at 4916 Live Oak aren't much to look at. Stairs are cracked, and railings are loose. A middle-aged Hispanic woman dumps a bucket of soapy water in the middle of a muddy courtyard, where the outlines of a buried swimming pool are still visible, a reminder of the complex's heyday in the 1970s, when these buildings were the heart of the East Dallas swinging-singles scene.
The apartments aren't much to look at from the inside, either, but they are home to the families that live here. After hearing Ehrhardt and her assistants talk, a young Spanish-speaking woman happily signs a petition in opposition to the store. In the background, the woman's mother, or perhaps her grandmother, places an infant in a crib lined with powder-blue blankets. A television blurts Spanish in the living room. A portrait of Jesus hangs on a wall, its frame balancing a line of plastic flowers.
This Friday afternoon is the third day Ehrhardt has spent walking the neighborhood, and she has heard enough to confirm her suspicions: The tenants in the four buildings that would be destroyed were largely unaware that they might soon be evicted. And the tenants in neighboring buildings who had heard about the store were told only that it would bring the possibility of new jobs.
Francisca Guerrero, a native of Mexico, lives in the Port au Prince apartments at 4906 Live Oak and manages them and numerous complexes in the neighborhood. Until Ehrhardt knocked on her door, Guerrero didn't realize some of the apartment buildings she manages are in danger of being razed.
"They only told me it's on this lot over here," Guerrero says, pointing to a vacant piece of land across the street. The empty lot represents only a portion of the future store site, but Guerrero says petitioners who had already been here led her to believe that the entire store would fit into the vacant parcel.
Like many of her tenants, Guerrero is staunchly against the project.
"I live here," says Guerrero, who adds that she has worked to make the units a safe place for families. "I don't want anybody drinking. I don't want children outside with no adult. I keep it clean. It's quiet here now, [and] I don't want all the families to move out."
But not all of the tenants here are siding with Ehrhardt's position. Jaime Lagunas Gonzalez, also a native of Mexico, says he's supporting the store because he's been told it will bring 500 and maybe as many as 1,000 new jobs.
"I can't get work," says Gonzalez, who sometimes earns a few dollars selling tamales outside a nearby convenience store. "Maybe a store is better. Maybe we can get work."
Gonzalez exhales the unmistakable scent of alcohol as he explains the other reason he supports the store.
"If I am drinking, like I am now, I don't need to use my car. I can walk across the street," says Gonzalez, who at three in the afternoon offers his opinion about why some of his neighbors might be against the store. "All of the people here, they're no good. They're lazy. They don't want to work."
Ehrhardt politely smiles at Gonzalez and moves on to another apartment. Who in the world, she wonders aloud, could have told that man that the 140 to 150 jobs the new store would create had mushroomed into 1,000 new jobs?
Joe May has been a hard guy to track down since the controversial late-October news conference that he and Jake Fuller threw together. A business opportunities specialist for the Small Business Administration, May says he's been busy collecting signatures on behalf of Albertson's.
Like Ehrhardt, May confirms that many of the tenants he's spoken with were unfamiliar with the Albertson's project. "It's an educational process is what it is," May says. "Nobody knew about this project."
Anybody who pays attention to East Dallas politics has heard of May at some time or another. A longtime East Dallas resident, May has worked on numerous campaigns, including those of Dallas City Councilman John Loza and, more recently, DISD school board member Se-Gwen Tyler. If there is anyone who knows how to gather the Hispanic vote for office-seekers--or, in this case, commercial developers--it's May.
"On election day we were at the polls, out collecting signatures," May says. "Basically, what we tell them is that Albertson's wants to build a store in the neighborhood, and we're trying to get support for it."
To his credit, May freely admits that he doesn't tell the tenants that their apartments, or those of their neighbors, might be torn down, but that's not because May doesn't want to let them in on the secret.
"Do I tell them that some of the buildings are gonna be torn down? No I don't," May says. "I don't have any problems with letting them know. I just never thought of telling them."
May acknowledges that the value of his property near the proposed site will increase if the store is built, but he thinks that's destined to happen anyway.
"At some point something is going to get developed. There's just too much vacant land there, and it's too close to downtown," May says. "So whether you end up with in-fill housing, apartments, or commercial, it's going to go up in value."
As far as May is concerned, the advantages the store will bring are far more noteworthy than his own personal stake in the project or the problems caused by the displacement of tenants.
"The area needs jobs," May says. "A lot of the people that live there don't have transportation. It [the store] has been placed right in the heart of a pocket of poverty, which would provide amenities that would be convenient to people."
The store's potential for spurring economic growth in the area is an argument not lost on Dallas Plan Commissioner Rick Leggio, who says he's not sure how he'll vote on Albertson's request when it comes before the commission in December.
"When you get to the question of economic development, putting in a new place that will create jobs and may perhaps spur economic development in an area that has a lot of substandard uses on it or around it, I think economic development becomes a real bonus to consider," Leggio says. "When's the last time someone wanted to put $8 million in District 2? Right now, I'm leaning against the project, but my mind is still open."
Although May says he's been communicating with Mike Coker as his work in the effort continues, Coker stresses that he did not hire May to do the news conference or to collect petitions. Instead, Coker says, project developer Jeff Brand and his wife are out petitioning, as well as "a couple of Spanish-speaking people" he hired to help with the job.
Coker also denies that he paid Fuller any money to drum up support for the cause, though he does admit that he has joined forces with the duo on at least two occasions.
"I had been requested by Jake and Mr. May to show up at the press conference...and to go with them to the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News to answer questions about the zoning case, which I can do," Coker says. "But I can't answer questions about where Mr. May's group is going or what Mr. Fuller is doing."
Coker says he can't explain why his, May's, and Fuller's statements about their working relationship seem to conflict.
"You need to take that up with Mr. Fuller," Coker says.
Fuller, of course, declined to discuss the issue for the record.
There is a possible explanation for why Fuller, a man usually quick to give a reporter a quote, is staying in the background on this assignment. Fuller could spend up to 18 months in jail if he is found guilty on a misdemeanor charge that he assaulted his wife, Alicia Jimenez Fuller, according to Dallas County Court records.
In July 1997, Richardson police officers answered a disturbance at Fuller's home, during which Fuller allegedly pinned his wife to her bed, choked her, and said he would "kill her if she left" and "find her if she ran away," according to a police officer's sworn affidavit.
At the time of the disturbance, Alicia Fuller told police she was in bed recovering from a surgery that repaired a ruptured ovary. "The ruptured ovary was a result of another assault performed by [Fuller] that went unreported," the affidavit states.
The case is the third time Fuller has faced misdemeanor charges for allegedly assaulting his wife. In the prior cases, prosecutors dropped the charges after Alicia Fuller declined to testify. The third case is set to go to trial in February.
Although it was Fuller and May who in October breathed allegations of bigotry and cultural elitism into the Albertson's plans to build in East Dallas, May now says playing race politics was never his intention.
"Somehow this thing has gotten into racism. I never mentioned racism. I think the strongest word I might have used was colonialism in trying to describe opponents, and even then that might have not been an appropriate choice of words," May says. "At any rate, I said it, so it's too late."
Bob Rissing says his company isn't paying Joe May, Jake Fuller, or anyone else to advance its project by injecting race into the debate. Albertson's wouldn't do that, but then again, Rissing isn't doing much to put an end to it, either.
"I'm not gonna say I'm against what he's [May] doing," Rissing says. "He's marshaling support for our project, and for that I'm thankful."
Former Dallas police officer Ron Cowart has spent the better part of the last 18 years assisting refugees from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia by helping them settle into the apartments that now stand in Albertson's way. At the beginning, those apartments were an ideal destination for thousands of refugees precisely because they were cheap and neglected.
"Where in Dallas do you think you could put up to 12 and 13, maybe 15 people in an apartment without risking a code violation? That would be inner-city East Dallas," Cowart says. "What you had was literally thousands of these refugees placed in a quarter of a square mile in East Dallas."
Today, the neighborhood still operates as a landing pad for immigrants, many of whom now arrive from Mexico and Central America. "Dallas represents itself as an international city, a world-class city," Cowart says, "but nowhere is that image reflected better than inner-city East Dallas."
Cowart takes offense at the suggestion that those opposing the store's zoning request are bigoted or elitist. He believes that Albertson's officials selected the East Dallas location because they didn't believe the predominantly non-English-speaking tenants would object and, perhaps more important, they gambled that the area's more affluent neighborhood organizations would love to have a new grocery store replace apartment buildings that have long been an eyesore.
"The reason they chose this particular community is because they sense that the people are defenseless. They're going to demolish those apartments and relocate people because they don't believe anybody is going to give a damn about it," Cowart says.
By the time he heard of the proposed store, Cowart says the neighborhood organizations had "already squared off" with Albertson's and hadn't bothered to consult the Asian and Hispanic tenants who are most affected by the project.
Janis Adams, the president of the Swiss Avenue Historic District, agrees. The October news conference, she says, struck a nerve that hit a lot closer to home than many folks would like to admit.
"It has definitely opened our eyes. We realize the [racial and economic] mix is part of the reason why we live here, but we need to talk to each other," says Adams, who adds that the historic district's efforts to involve tenants in their meetings about Albertson's are still on rocky terrain. "It's still not going well. At [a recent] meeting, renters were invited, and we didn't have anybody show up."
But Adams says there may be a silver lining to the cloud hanging over East Dallas. As the controversy over the store intensifies, a growing number of new people are stepping forward and taking an active role in uniting the interests of tenants and homeowners alike.
Among them is Marcia Martinez, a pediatrician who moved to Swiss Avenue two years ago and recently took a job with Dallas County so she could serve the indigent residents who live in East Dallas. Martinez found herself in the middle of the Albertson's debate after she attended a series of community meetings on the project and wound up translating for the Spanish-speaking people in attendance.
"I'm not a political person. I went to those meetings one after another after another, and I just became more involved because I realized how uninformed the people who live in this neighborhood are," Martinez says. "They don't have a say-so, not really. They rent; they don't own any of this property. They're going to be pushed out without fighting because they don't feel they can fight."
A native of Colombia who moved to the United States when she was 15, Martinez says she's dismayed by how a company like Albertson's would go so far as to promote, or at least tolerate, the use of race politics to disrupt a community in the name of serving it.
"They keep claiming it's the community we have in mind. It's the community we want to do the best for," Martinez says. "I just don't believe that is their ultimate, No. 1 goal, or they would have gone around the community and seen what the community really needed."
With the Dallas Plan Commission set to vote on Albertson's zoning change request in mid-December, one thing in this controversy has become clear: Albertson's fully intends to serve the East Dallas community, and it's not about to let future customers get in its way.
Bob Rissing, for one, isn't particularly bothered by the chance that his opponents could ultimately stop the corporation from rolling into East Dallas. A loss at the plan commission and even the city council, he says, is something he could live with.
"I guess what I can't live with would be losing [the store] with the knowledge that I didn't do everything in my power to try to make what I think is a good project happen," Rissing says. "That would bother me."
And if there is the appearance that Albertson's is willing to let people like Joe May and Jake Fuller play race politics on Albertson's behalf, well, that's something Rissing can live with too.
"The human mind blocks out as quickly as possible all the distasteful aspects of a prior project," Rissing says. "You remember things like ribbon cutting. You remember getting that last needed piece of the puzzle."
And what happens in the end, once the low-income tenants move out, the new East Dallas store is built, and new revenues are flowing in?
"It," Rissing says of the store, "becomes a dot on the map.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.