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Lowering the Bars

Chris Gash

Property owners on Lower Greenville got snookered. They agreed last year to new regulations governing late-night hours for bars. They didn't agree to get put out of business.

They were snookered by the neighborhoods. I should love that, because I love neighborhoods. But, you know, snookered is snookered. In the long run this particular snooker may even be a good thing, but that still doesn't make it right.

I have been talking to people for two weeks about this. They're all scared to death of City Hall and lawsuits, so they all wanted to talk on a no-names basis — even the neighborhood people.

The story they tell is pretty consistent. The difference is that the neighborhood people are proud of themselves for it and the property owners are monumentally pissed off.

It happened like this: The neighborhoods went to the property owners originally and asked them to go along with a rezoning effort aimed at getting rid of the "bad operators." Only the bad operators.

That meant the plastic-cup buck-a-drink puke bars wreaking havoc on surrounding neighborhoods. City council member Angela Hunt promised to release millions of dollars in street improvement money for the area if the property owners lined up behind a major rezoning aimed only at the puke people.

So the good guys agreed. In spite of grave misgivings, the principal property owners endorsed a plan by which every business on Lower Greenville that wanted to stay open after midnight would be required to go before a city board to get something called a "special use permit," or SUP.

The SUP process says this to a bar owner: "Yeah, you have a proper lease. Yeah, you have the right liquor license. Sure, you pay your taxes and your fees. And, yes, the law allows you to stay open until 2 a.m. But we say now that you also have to have an SUP to stay open until 2."

To get an SUP, you have to go before the city plan commission and maybe also the city council. If they don't like you, you don't get the SUP. If you don't get the SUP, the city can fine you $2,000 every single time they catch you doing business after midnight.

But Hunt and fellow council member Pauline Medrano, a coauthor of the new regs for Lower Greenville, promised the property owners that only the bad guys would have trouble with the city. That way the good guys would get the benefit of all that money Hunt would release to fix up the street, and the process would cleanse the neighborhood of puke, which should be a good thing.

So here comes the snooker. The property owners vow to me that this was a complete snooker, as far as they were concerned. They did not see it coming. The neighborhoods agree it may have been sort of a snooker, but they tell me it was a snooker for the good. Hunt wouldn't talk to me about it on the record, but I am convinced she was not in on the snooker.

You're a tenant. You have a bar. You get your special use permit. You are ready to rock and roll, right? Oh, wrong! Because the minute you get your SUP, along comes the city to say, "You now have new zoning."

You say, "Nah, not really. Same old zoning, just a little old SUP saying I can keep using the old zoning I already had."

City says: "An SUP is new zoning."

You say: "OK, if you say so. It's new zoning. So what?"

City says: "With new zoning, you have to get a new certificate of occupancy" ("CO" in City Hall parlance).

Listen. If you are a business in a building more than 20 years old, the words "new CO" uttered by a Dallas city official are equivalent to "I hate you, and I'm carrying your baby."

Here comes the man in the white car with his ticket book. Electrical outlets four inches too low? Ticket. Old-style breaker box? Ticket. Square-footage of bathrooms, ceiling height in bathrooms, flooring material in bathrooms, ticket, ticket, ticket. Now, show me your grease trap.

Property owners told me last week that when their tenants began to scream, the city said, "All right, we'll back off on the CO if you back off on the SUP."

In other words, give up the SUP, agree to close at midnight, and we'll forget about the new CO. You can keep your old grease trap. Oh, that was the lady's room? Well, whatever. You're cool. Just shut 'er down at the witching hour.

One of the few people with enough nerve to discuss this with me on the record was Theresa O'Donnell, director of the Dallas Department of Sustainable Development and Construction (a department whose name I have always thought should be lengthened to "Sustainable Development, Construction and Green Transit-Oriented Walkability").

 

O'Donnell said the version I got from the property owners was not wrong. "I think it's easy to see why they would understand that," she said.

But she sort of suggested they might want to keep their heads down instead of whining to reporters about it. All of a sudden, I understood why everybody had been so terribly off the record with me. I'd be scared, too.

"We are kind of a live-and-let-live department," O'Donnell said in a tone of totally scary equanimity. "We know that there are hundreds if not thousands of businesses around Dallas that are not up to code. The only time there's a reckoning of that is when they do come in and apply for a new CO.

"We're not proactive," she said. "We don't go around knocking on doors saying you haven't obeyed your CO in four years and now we're going to do a very thorough inspection to see where you're deficient. We just kind of wait for you to come in."

Applying for an SUP, according to these terms, is coming in. In response to additional questions, O'Donnell made an additional admission to me. She said the property owners had been telling me the truth when they said their tenants had been offered clemency from the new CO requirement if they were willing to give up the new SUPs.

That, she suggested, could be looked at as a pretty good deal. Here you are. You're in violation. You know you're in violation. You went in. You're the one who got the ball rolling. Now here's the inspector with his ticket book in his hand, and somehow at the last minute you're being offered a get-out-of-jail card.

And you're going to bitch to Schutze about it?

O'Donnell made it clear that a violation is a violation, and the city has the right to inspect you and require you to bring your property up to code whenever the city wants to. The fact that they haven't done it yet does not mean you are somehow grandfathered or in any way within your rights or in compliance. It just means you're lucky.

Such luck. This is a piano that falls first on the head of the tenant, then the head of the landlord. If the tenant can't afford the cost of coming up to code and can't make money closing early, eventually he's gone. Then the landlord has to get it up to code. The neighborhood people put it to me in their own way. They say, so what? Should people be allowed to break the law? Should the code not be enforced? What's wrong with making people come up to code?

A land-use consultant gave me yet another view. He said sure. The neighborhoods want somebody — landlords or tenants — to make very substantial reinvestments in very old buildings. There's only one way that pays off. Instead of merely squeezing down on everybody, the neighborhoods should also have loosened the leash a little by expanding the zoning to allow new vertical development.

That way the owner could have gone to the bank and said, "Hey, man, this new expanded zoning is going to allow me to get three times the rent off that dirt. I can rent to three tenants now where I had one, or to one big tenant. Lend me some moolah fast, willya?"

Here's what it all comes down to. The neighborhoods don't want that. They do not want fancy. They do not want "destination" bars and restaurants that draw people from far away. People from far away, they tell me, are just more noise, less parking.

In short, they're glad the property owners and their tenants got snookered. If somebody can't raise the money to make the changes required for a new CO, has to give up the SUP, can't stay open late, and the landlord winds up with plywood in the windows, cool. Plywood in the windows is better than noise and parking.

I get their point. I do. I live near there. East Dallas has been a battle zone in the past. Bad bars are cancer. If you look at successful commercial districts and successful communities, tight regulation is often an important part of what got them where they are.

But the last point is this. Look at the amount of discretion O'Donnell has when it comes to requiring or not requiring the new COs. The property owners tell me technical code issues, like whether you can put a table and an umbrella out on the sidewalk, always have been pretty discretionary, in fact more like nudge-nudge wink-wink. They say the neighborhoods are putting the arm on the city to crack down with the new CO requirement and that none of it would be happening otherwise.

 

What do the neighborhoods say? They say nudge-nudge wink-wink you bet. They're behind the new CO thing 100 percent and proud to be.

I smell snooker in that. Nobody told the good operators that the game was to put them out of business, or they would never have gone along with this process in the first place. That just can't be right.


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