Out of the Frying Pan
Few entrepreneurial journeys in Dallas have been as unusual as Monica Greene's. Working in many of Dallas' finest and most popular restaurants through the 1980s and early '90s as Eduardo Greene, she personified the quintessential host: gracious, savvy and acutely tuned to the social complexion of the dining room. As Eduardo, she operated a successful Deep Ellum restaurant before suddenly disappearing from view. Months later Eduardo returned as Monica to reclaim Eduardo's Aca Y Alla, rechristening it Monica's. It foundered until she shrewdly exploited public curiosity over her gender transition to market the restaurant.
A decade later Greene is in the throes of another dramatic transition: from entrepreneur to politician. Always infected with civic boosterism, Greene took a gamble on Dallas' slow and rickety downtown rejuvenation last June, opening the Mexican cafe Pegaso on Main Street. She shut it down this March after just nine months. "I personally hope that in the coming years the planned central district improvement efforts will extend beyond marketing and 'good news' articles," she says in an open letter to her customers. "And that perhaps the community of Dallas and the surrounding cities will start supporting this part [the heart] of our great city."
Greene maintains that Dallas' downtown corridor is largely an urban husk hollowed out by crime, panhandling, vacant buildings, parking shortages and a lack of forward thinking and visionary energy among the city's leaders. Downtown is essentially thought of as "south Dallas," she says, a place where a large chunk of the populace dares not tread. "Nobody crosses Jackson Street," she says. "You may as well have a mountain or a wall. No one cares to go...Have you ever gone downtown to buy furniture? Have you ever gone there to rent a movie...or go to a movie down there? No."
But Greene is going. She's yanking up her Oak Cliff stakes, putting her house on the market and moving into a renovated loft in Deep Ellum to position herself for a run for city council in District 2, the slot that has been occupied by John Loza for the past seven years. Citing a paucity of small-business people on a council dominated by politicians, Greene says the cornerstone of her platform is to rouse City Hall to the critical importance of small businesses and make the governing body more responsive to their concerns. "There's got to be somebody working for the small-business person," she says. "If I'm Mr. [Tom] Hicks, I can walk into City Hall, and I can get a tax break on something because I can promise jobs; I can promise development. They attract people like myself to their big developments, and they charge you high-priced rents, and most of us struggle. And there's no help for any of us."
Though they concur with her up to a point, some city shakers argue that Greene's assessment of the city is overly simplistic. "The efforts have been kind of scattershot," agrees Loza, who will be term-limited out of his city council post next May. "I don't know if [development has] been as fast as any of us would have wanted, quite frankly." Loza says the snail pace of downtown development is a question of tax incentives, which in Dallas have amounted to $100 million to $150 million for downtown. He compares this with Houston, which has funneled billions into its downtown over the years.
Still, Loza believes the city has been vigorous in its efforts to rejuvenate the downtown corridor, aggressively courting retailers to build critical urban mass. The city council is tentatively poised to consider a retailer recruitment initiative in late May. Put forward by the City Center Tax Increment Financing District, the measure would unleash a $2.25 million incentive package, offering up to $25 per square foot in tenant improvements and up to $18 per square foot in rent abatements for two years if retailers agree to five-year leases.
"Everyone expects the city to do everything for them," says Nancy Hormann, who as interim president of the Central Dallas Association and executive director of the Downtown Partnership played a critical role in crafting the initiative. "The city is not set up to deal with small businesses and their problems...What [Greene] did was she went to the city for help. She didn't tell any of us that she was having a problem [with Pegaso]."
What good would that have done? Hormann says she could have approached Greene's landlord to negotiate short-term rent reductions, especially since she points out that some of the issues Greene is rankled over will be remedied over the next several months. Iron Cactus Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar, a 14,000-square-foot Austin import, is set to open this month on Main Street just down the street from where Pegaso resided. Cool Designs, a furniture store, is slated to open across the street this summer in the Davis building with a 400-car public parking garage to follow near the building several months after that.
"It's a slow progression," Hormann says. "Even if we wanted to put a gazillion retailers in right now, it's going to take a little bit of time because the buildings aren't ready...it's not something that's going to happen overnight."
But Greene says it is precisely these incessant pleas for patience spanning over years that are driving her to seek office. If she is elected to the city council, Greene says, she will make accessibility, especially to her small-business constituents, a top priority. She plans to launch regular semi-monthly "breakfast club" meetings in her restaurant so that business owners and other constituents can bring their issues directly to her. She also plans to push for tax increment financing funds in Deep Ellum, which hasn't needed them in the past but is currently racked with a crime problem that is unnerving businesses and their customers.
Yet downtown is only a small splinter of District 2, whose boundaries cover an area from West Love Field and Arlington Park to Cadillac Heights and Mount Auburn. In some of these areas, Greene says, she sees pressing needs for parks and after-school activities. "I will be visible," Greene says. "And I won't be visible for the sake of it. I don't need any more attention."
In a district that could draw as many as eight candidates, Greene says she's bracing for that oft-derided but well-utilized tactic of political scrimmage: personal attacks. She believes politics provides the perfect venue for those uncomfortable with her sexual transition to vent. Loza thinks her fears may be unfounded. "I think the voters in District 2 are sophisticated enough to not be concerned about her status as a transsexual," he says. "They certainly haven't been concerned about my status as an openly gay man."
With the skill of a veteran hostess, Greene quickly shifts the conversation from her personal fears and civic disappointments to urban optimism. "This is not Chicken Little talking to you," she insists. "I want to try to enhance this area for the future in the way that it is no longer an aberration, but an integral and viable part of our community...This is a hopeful person who believes strongly in a viable downtown."
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