Over the past six years, Lower Greenville has undergone a transformation. Thanks to a few million in city bond funds, the street itself has gone from a potholed obstacle course (like the typical Dallas street) to a pedestrian-friendly avenue with space to sit and stroll. Dive bars have given way to trendy restaurants. A much-reviled Walmart Neighborhood Market opened and then closed. The Tango Frogs have been restored to their original habitat.
But through it all, the dated, white-and-tan storefront at 2000 Greenville Avenue has sat empty since venerable antique emporium Lula B's vacated in early 2010:
Sidney Lande, whose family has owned the building since the early 1970s, places the blame for its lack of occupancy squarely on the two things widely credited with Lower Greenville's revival: the street overhaul and a set of new zoning rules. Those rules are known as a planned development district that the City Council approved in 2011 to give the city and adjacent neighborhoods greater control over the mix of businesses that could operate on the strip.
"With the rezoning and overlays that have been imposed on the Lowest Greenville Avenue area, this property has effectively been rendered incapable of rental," Lande wrote recently in an application to the city's Board of Adjustment seeking relief from parking requirements. According to Lande, street reconstruction that replaced head-in with parallel parking, halved the number of parking spots in front of the old Lula B's and chased off potential tenants.
"The tenant that was renting the space prior to the Greenville Avenue improvements was paying $12,000/month, but opted to leave the area once it was discovered that parking was being taken away as part of the project," Lande wrote in his application. "Since that time the only occupants that could use the space are only providing $2,000/month witch [sic] does not even cover the expenses of property taxes and insurance for the building."
Lande is engaged in a bit of revisionism here. Parking was a big reason Lula B's traded Lower Greenville for Deep Ellum, but it was an issue well before the street improvements. "We only have five spots out front," Lula B's owner Mary Ann Kaylor complained to the Observer when she announced the pending closure in 2010. "And it's always been a struggle to find parking."
And Kaylor and co-owner Patrick Springer had many other reasons for leaving that had nothing to do with parking. Lula B's West, the second location they opened on Riverfront Boulevard in the fall of 2009, had quickly surpassed the original location in sales. They complained that the building on Lower Greenville was in sorry shape. "We've had all sorts of issues in the old building," Springer said at the time. "The roof had to be repaired, there have been termites in the past, and, every time it rains, we have water that seeps in the back, so that whole area back there is unrentable."
To top it off, their landlord (i.e. Lande) was about to hike their rent. "We were either going to have to close or find a new spot," Springer said in 2010. "We were absolutely not going to sign the new lease."
But if Lande, who could not be reached for comment, downplays his role in Lula B's exit, he's correct that the changes on Lower Greenville made it harder for him to operate his building as he was accustomed to. The lack of drive-up parking has no doubt made the building less attractive for shops and other potential tenants who demand easy access by car. In addition, the rezoning reinforced a rule that stripped Lande's building of its "delta credits," which allow businesses to operate with fewer parking spots than would otherwise be required by city code.
It's hard to wrap one's brain around the nuances of delta credits. The City Council created them as a way to encourage redevelopment and adaptive reuse in struggling areas. In 1987, the City Council decided that Lower Greenville development didn't need that much encouragement and limited the use of delta credits. In 1995, it further limited the use of delta credits and enacted a rule stripping delta credits from properties that have been vacant for a year or more. The 2011 Lower Greenville zoning overhaul, which was primarily aimed at forcing bars to get special permission from the City Council to stay open after midnight, incorporated the restrictions on delta credits.
Suffice to say that residential neighborhoods surrounding Lower Greenville, whose exasperation at being used as a parking lot/outdoor toilet fueled the area's makeover, view delta credits with suspicion, a way for businesses to cut costs while pushing cars onto surrounding streets. Neighborhood leaders refer to them as "fictional parking spaces."
Since Lande's property has been vacant for far more than a year, he forfeited the delta credits. But recently, Lande has been trying to get them back. In April, he filed an application with the city's Board of Adjustment, which adjudicates small-scale zoning disputes, asking to have his delta credits restored. The loss of the delta credits, combined with the removal of three parking spaces in front of the building, "has made it impossible to meet the city's parking requirements and therefore no ability to maintain market rate rental space or the ability to obtain future tenants," he wrote in his application.
City staff concluded that the rest of Lower Greenville seemed to be doing fine and recommended denying Lande's application, but the Board of Adjustment agreed in late June and restored Lande's delta credits/fictional parking spaces.
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Were this most other neighborhoods in the city, things might have ended there, but Lower Greenville is chock-full of accomplished and dedicated neighborhood activists, a not insignificant portion of whom are lawyers. The neighborhood doesn't let these things slip by.
And so, on Monday, the Lower Greenville and Vickery Place neighborhood associations sued Lande and the city's Board of Adjustment, appealing the decision to restore Lande's parking credits. The lawsuit is all technicalities, about how the Board of Adjustment allegedly broke its own rules and ignored the advice of its own attorney to grant Lande's request. But to the neighbors, it's about making sure Lower Greenville doesn't slide back toward the olden days, even just a little.
"The neighborhoods want to enforce the standards, because if they don't enforce the standards, we'll end up with what we had before," says attorney and neighbor Melissa Kingston, who is active in the neighborhood and is representing the neighborhoods in the dispute. Before means quiet residential streets lined until the early morning with the cars of staggering bar patrons. It means property crime and a host of other nuisances.
Besides, Kingston argues that there's "plenty of parking on Greenville." Securing it merely requires Lande to go out and sign a parking agreement with the owner of a nearby lot, as many neighboring businesses have done. It's not fair, Kingston says, "when a business owner basically thumbs his nose" at neighbors and other stakeholders.