The fix is in

By the most superficial look at the site, one wouldn't think the idea is so bad. Certainly a 63,000-square-foot Albertsons would be more vital than four aging apartment houses and a large stretch of empty ground near the corner of Live Oak Street and Fitzhugh Avenue.

But there's a hitch. A big hitch that has one neighborhood group calling the idea "the worst threat our district has faced in the last 15 years."

The land is zoned for apartments, not for a supermarket surrounded by five acres of parking lots. Beyond that, the proposed site is bounded on 85 percent of its perimeter by residential zoning and the typical Old East Dallas mix of apartments and single-family houses.

To put a massive store in the middle of a residential area such as this flies in the face of 25 years of land-use planning in Old East Dallas, neighborhood groups say. It was that sort of "upzoning" in the 1960s and '70s that nearly destroyed neighborhoods such as Munger Place, Mill Creek, and the Swiss Avenue Historic District.

Stabilized zoning, the neighborhood groups say, is one of the big reasons Old East Dallas is now thriving as people rehabilitate historic houses and redo apartments--which in turn is why Albertsons wants to do business there.

The Dallas city planner on the project knows that. According to sources at Dallas City Hall, Leo Sims, the planner assigned to evaluate the Albertsons project for the city, wanted the staff to recommend that the city reject the developer's August 19 application to rezone the land. But he was overruled by his boss, Cherryl Peterman, the planning and development director, sources say.

"Quite honestly, these questions should be directed to the planning director. That's what I've been told," Sims said, declining further comment. Peterman did not return several phone calls from the Dallas Observer.

One City Hall planning source said the Albertsons proposal doesn't make sense in the city's Old East Dallas traffic plan, which proposes to spend tens of millions of dollars making Haskell Avenue the big cross street, not 40-foot-wide Fitzhugh, the street adjacent to the proposed market.

There's also a very real chance that the Albertsons development would spark "creeping retail." Neighboring landowners are all but certain to clamor to have their land rezoned as commercial too.

"It would be difficult to oppose more rezoning," said one city official in the planning sphere, pointing out that more commercial development almost always surrounds a store that attracts 22,000 customers a week.

In fact, developers have already been trying to make deals with adjacent property owners, including at least one on the south side of Live Oak, across the street and a block up from the proposed market.

Elizabeth Blessing, who manages the Vienna Apartments at the corner of Munger Boulevard and Live Oak, says that at least six developers have called making inquiries to buy the place in the past six months. Before those calls, nobody had the slightest interest in the 20-unit complex, which is owned by the East Dallas Community Parish and provides affordable housing to moderate- and low-income people. (For the record, Blessing says her group has no interest in selling.)

The kind of suburban "big box" store Albertsons wants to put in is out of character with the neighborhood, opponents say. "It's out of scale," one city official said.

For other reasons, though, City Hall has opened its arms to Albertsons and set off what promises to be the biggest zoning row since the Old East Dallas neighborhoods killed a plan to run an expressway through them nearly 20 years ago.

The City Plan Commission, working quickly on the developer's wishes, had been set to consider the rezoning case on September 24. But commissioner Rick Leggio requested a delay because, he says, of some initial confusion about whether the project was located in his district or chairman Hector Garcia's.

The commission is scheduled to make its choice October 15, with the final decision to be made by the city council.

In the meantime, former city planning director Mike Coker, who has been hired by the project's backers to hawk the deal downtown; Jeff Brand, the developer who put the site together; and Bob Rissing, Albertsons' Tarrant County-based senior real estate manager, have been trying to deal with the neighborhood's many complaints.

First off, residents wonder why Albertsons doesn't locate its store along one of the many under-developed commercial streets in the area.

"We're certainly not against development," says Janis Adams, president of the Swiss Avenue Historic District Association. "We've fought very hard to hold onto the zoning we have. There is so much commercial already in place that surely there must be someplace where it would be a benefit."

Virginia McAlester, one of the pioneers of the Old East Dallas housing renaissance, said that in a typical grocery store development in the suburbs, the developer goes out and assembles about 15 acres and sells six to the supermarket.

"It's enough to activate the other 10 acres with Blockbusters and the cleaners. That's why they call them anchor stores," she says. "By putting development pressure on what's around this project, they're going to subject the neighborhood for the next 20 or 30 years to zoning fights. Anybody can apply to have their land rezoned year after year.

"If that store were located in one of these vacant commercial areas, it would exert a powerful, positive effect, from an economic-development perspective. That powerful positive effect could be utilized, not fought over. That's why we want it on Ross or any of these other streets."

Jeff Brand, vice president of United Commercial Realty, says three other sites most often mentioned by residents are either not of the proper dimensions or cannot be acquired from their current owners.

Seizing on information from Albertsons that a site on Ross would have cost about $1 million more than the roughly $3 million the company says it expects to spend on the Live Oak site, the homeowners say Albertsons is really just looking for cheap land.

Not true, Brand says. A potential site near the corner of Live Oak and Peak is actually about 10 percent cheaper per foot, but the site doesn't fit the company's ideas of what a store should be.

Indeed, Albertsons' idea of what a supermarket must be is as inflexible as anything in the debate. The store must be a big 'un.

"Today, nobody builds 31,000-footers," says Rissing, who says the company has been looking for an Old East Dallas site for 14 years.

Beyond that, he said sites closer to downtown don't make as much marketing sense as the proposed location, which can draw from downtown and as far out as Lakewood. Asked why the retail areas along nearby Columbia Avenue and Main Street weren't suitable, Rissing replied, "It's too close to the freeway. That cuts our target market area."

In concessions to the neighborhood groups, Albertsons has proposed to take local architectural styles into account, limit the bleed-off of parking-lot lights, and put deed restrictions on the property so it doesn't turn into a giant swap-meet-bingo-parlor-pawn-shop if the grocery business doesn't pan out.

But the sheer size of the store has the locals reeling.
"The scale is stunning," says McAlester. "The Kroger [at Mockingbird and Greenville Avenue] they want to compare themselves to is so big, they have letters on the lamp poles to tell you where you left your car, like at Texas Stadium."

The Albertsons camp is suggesting that the area's less fortunate--those who might take some of the 150 jobs created--are for the proposal, but not as well organized as the homeowners. "It's not just the single-family property owners we're considering. There is support for this from people who live in apartments in the area. It's important to take a balanced look at the comments," says Coker.

But Gary Ahr, a Swiss Avenue homeowner who opposes the zoning change, says East Dallas has "waited 25, 30 years for things to happen. Why rush in and screw up the zoning. We've waited this long [for development such as a new grocery]. We can wait longer for it to be put in the right spot."

Steven Block, whose renovated house sits catty-corner across Live Oak from the proposed site, has no faith that the upcoming discussion will thwart the company's plans.

"It sounds to me like they already have general approval of this thing at the city," says Block, who has a letter dated March 6, 1998, from the Public Works Department saying it already was planning to widen the intersection of Live Oak and Fitzhugh, which is directly in front of his house.

The way Albertsons is currently planning the store, "I'll be looking at the loading dock and the dumpsters," he says.

Emboldened by redevelopment and more vitality in the area, Block says he started fixing up his house last December. It had been vacant for 11 years, but with "things looking up in the neighborhood," he set about making renovations.

Now, with the prospect of a huge supermarket across the street, Block expects he'll be "fishing shopping carts out of my yard...I'll probably need my own traffic light to get out of my driveway."

The guy Block bought his house from moved to Plano, and Block sounds like he's not far behind.

"If I get retail all around me," he says, "the only thing my house will be good for is to sell it for a parking lot.


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