Recently when I spent time over in North Oak Cliff talking to people for a story about what North Oak Cliff wants, the most consistent theme was, "Not Lower Greenville."
They want cool entertainment venues in North Oak Cliff, but they don't want drunks, public urination and an atmosphere of rampant crime.
Like we do? Lower Greenville happens to be my part of town. So what are we? Urinetown? I guess I missed the chapter when we became the second circle of Dante's Inferno reserved for carnal malefactors.
Of course I am aware of stubborn issues in the small bar and restaurant district where Greenville Avenue meets Ross Avenue, two miles east of downtown in Old East Dallas. And especially in the last year I have heard people bitching about a general decline there.
Recently I found myself wondering if the part of town on the east side of Central Expressway where I live is really more crime-ridden than the one on the west side, where I work.
So I did some checking. I was able to come up with a rough apples-to-apples comparison of the area five blocks deep on both sides of Lower Greenville compared with a similar area in both size and population along the Lemmon Avenue/McKinney axis (taking in West Village and Uptown, along with some of Turtle Creek Drive and Oak Lawn Avenue).
The apple I came up with—crimes per acre—offers at least a crude benchmark with which to make a comparison. In a four-year period ending January 1, my Excel spreadsheet counted 8.62 crimes per acre in the East Dallas area around Lower Greenville and 12.90 crimes per acre in the Oak Lawn/McKinney axis.
Quite a dramatic difference—a crime rate west of Central 50 percent higher than on the east side of Central.
I will allow for my own considerable lack of expertise as a statistician by backing off from tightly drawn conclusions. Except for this one: If there is a perception out there that the general Lower Greenville Avenue area is notably more crime-prone than any other mixed commercial and residential area in the inner city, that perception is not based on reality.
In the next breath, it must be said there is trouble on Lower Greenville. By two and two, the civilized venues like Ibero Latin Cuisine and Gezellig Jazz Club on Lower Greenville have shut their doors to be replaced by gang-banger clubs or college puke bars where the bouncers carry out the alcohol-poisoned SMU students and stack them on the curb like cordwood.
When I talk to the people who have tried to operate cool places on Lower Greenville, they tend to tick down the same laundry list of reasons why civilized places have more trouble surviving, but basically it comes to this: It's all about the ability of the community to control the type of businesses that take over rental spaces.
As it stands, that ability is not much. Straight-up police enforcement on the street quickly becomes a trap—something the city should have learned in the West End and then again in Deep Ellum.
Certain young male idiot-types—absolutely without reference to ethnicity or class, just maleness—actually like it when you crack down on them. It draws them in instead of pushing them away. What you wind up with is a playground for aggressive young males who like to fight. Aggressive young gang-bangers. Aggressive young fraternity boys. Aggressive young cops.
State liquor laws are even more useless, full of loopholes and Catch-22s put there by the booze lobby. State law says a business is a bar if 75 percent or more of its gross receipts come from liquor. But bars can dodge that formula in a number of ways.
They can lie about it, but they can game the system even without lying. They can charge fat cover charges, slash the price of drinks and then count all of the cover charge money as non-liquor sales. They can do that legally.
Bobby Hood, who operated Gezellig, told me his place was driven out of business by a law enforcement and code enforcement climate that only works against you if you have some intention of obeying the law.
"I'm a lawyer. I have a law license. I'm not going to deliberately violate the law," he said. But he said plenty of other operators on the street seem to have business plans based on intentional violations that local and state law are impotent to correct.
It's a theme echoed by Bruce Richardson of the Lowest Greenville Neighborhood Association. He said illegal operations—bars masquerading as restaurants in violation of their zoning—know exactly how long they have to rake in the cash before a city or state audit can nail them.
"They have three months before that audit is completed, and then they just shut their doors."
Avi Adelman, another neighborhood activist, said the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. "The bad stuff scares the good stuff."
Only the bad remain.
It's not that bad yet. Plenty of nice places still operate on Lower Greenville, and there are responsible landlords who don't intend to give up. Some of them, like Andres Properties, owned by brothers Marc and Roger, chafe at the portrayal of Lower Greenville as a high-crime zone. The Andreses also resent the portrayal of Lower Greenville as an area where there is no safe parking and you have to risk your neck.
The parking question has been especially contentious.
Marc Andres said to me, "I believe there are more parking spaces than there are cars looking for parking spaces on Lower Greenville on any day of the year with the exception of St. Patrick's Day. The idea that there is not is an untruth."
So what is wrong, and how can it be fixed? Here we come to an even deeper-running bone of contention. Two Dallas City Council members—Angela Hunt and Pauline Medrano—are strong defenders of neighborhoods who know a lot about entertainment district problems because of their districts. Hunt, whose district includes Lower Greenville, is convinced that trying to solve things with police patrols and liquor laws will never work. She says the cops, who do their very best to deal with the realities, tell her the same thing. "It's very simple," she told me. "If you ask the police, they will tell you it's a zoning problem that has created this monster, because the solution is a zoning solution."
She has a specific formulation in mind, based in part on a successful campaign to clean up Deep Ellum, which is in Medrano's district. Basically it involves a "planned development district"—the same thing the people in North Oak Cliff want for the Bishop/Davis corridor.
Planned development districts are funny little zoning law creatures used mainly by developers in the past to carve out legal islands not subject to citywide zoning laws. Now neighborhoods are using them as a way to have a say in exactly what kind of business can and cannot exist within the district.
In Lower Greenville, Hunt told me, "the solution is to create a planned development district that is extremely simple. It simply requires businesses that plan to stay open past a certain hour to get a permit from the city and go through a public process."
Not everybody agrees. Those permits, called "special-use permits," are anathema to many property-owners, including the legitimate ones. Marc Andres told me the last thing he wants is to have to go before some City Hall hearing every year in order to hang on to property rights and uses that are his by right under the law now.
I attend a lot of City Hall hearings. But I get paid. If I didn't, I would want to stay away too.
It's more than a hassle factor, Andres told me. In order to get a good business tenant, a landlord must be able to attract an investor willing to sink a good piece of cash into a location. Andres said no serious investor will do that if he thinks the city might yank his permit to operate the business at the end of a year.
I talked to Barry Annino, who is on the board of the Deep Ellum Public Improvement District (sort of like a planned development district). Annino said the special-use permit process works. He said Deep Ellum has been able to run off bad operators and allay the fears of trusted investors by helping them get extended permits from the city.
"You can get more than one year," he said. "The people we don't know that are new and have no track record, it is one or two years. But there are some that are five years."
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Adelman, the Lower Greenville activist, thinks it's the only way to go, because the only viable solution is a clean sweep. "If they don't make the decision to really improve this area the way they say they want to, together, it's not going to happen. The patchwork approach doesn't work."
There is a reason not to dismiss the Andreses too quickly as landowners who just don't want to be pinned down. If you look right around the corner from Lower Greenville on Henderson Avenue, you will see an entire street where Andres Properties has created a vital, booming and congenial entertainment district. So maybe they know what they're talking about.
But so does Angela Hunt. I doubt anybody has a better grip on what good neighborhoods expect and demand of adjacent commercial districts than she does. That's one thing the landlords must grasp. Hunt does not speak for herself. She speaks for the neighborhoods, with a lot of knowledge.
Pretty good cage fight, though. Out of that match-up alone—Hunt and the landlords—we ought to see a solution born that will serve the entire city well. Comes from my mantra as a young man. "Let's you and him fight." Easier on my knuckles.