At this point, Deep Ellum could easily star in its own Rocky-style franchise, given how many times it's been knocked down and still managed to stagger back to its feet. As we've mentioned, the latest worry for business owners in the area comes in the form of some 900 schoolchildren: Uplift Education, is, in the words of CEO Yasmin Bhatia, "all systems go" to launch a new charter middle and high school, Laureate Prep, at 2625 Elm Street on August 2.
Which is why the Deep Ellum Foundation's HQ on Commerce was packed last night, with people spilling out onto the sidewalk and sitting on the floor as DEF president Barry Annino and a couple of reps from the city tried to field questions about what a school could mean for the 'hood. Nobody in the room seemed very optimistic, except for the two brokers in charge of selling the building.
To refresh: The worry is that city laws that prevent the sale of alcohol 300 feet from a school could prevent new businesses from opening, or existing ones from renewing their SUPs. As Theresa O'Donnell, head of the city's department of Sustainable Development and Construction, and Assistant City Attorney John Rogers explained, existing businesses with alcohol permits won't be affected. Businesses that sell or transfer to a new owner will also be "grandfathered in," and some grocery stores, convenience stores and restaurants can also apply for variances. The real issue would be for any brand-new bar or restaurant coming in: The front door of any new booze-having establishment can't have a front door directly facing the school.
Annino had one immediate question for the city reps: "How can we waive that 300-foot rule?"
"Only the city council has the right to waive that rule," Rogers replied.
"So, basically," Annino said, "no more live music on Elm Street and no more new venues?"
The city reps said live music won't be a problem on its own; dance-hall permits don't have school zone restrictions. But yes, they acknowledged, new venues who want liquor licenses could face some problems.
"That doesn't seem right," an audience member said with dismay. "Why don't they have to have an SUP to get that school open?"
"They have a right to buy the building and to have a school," O'Donnell replied.
Longtime Deep Ellum real estate developer Don Cass worried aloud that the project could lead to another wave of closures in the neighborhood. Thirty years ago, he said, "Deep Ellum was something that was a bunch of boarded-up buildings that weren't good for anything but to tear down. We've worked hard to build something we can be proud of."
Cass, who said he's opened two drug rehab centers for teens, added that he "doesn't have anything against schools or kids. ... But there are places they shouldn't learn and grow. This is no place, I repeat, no place to put these kids in the afternoon after they get outta school."
As he spoke, he looked out at the crowded room. "Are y'all gonna stand up?" he asked. "Are we gonna hear from ya?" He got a wave of applause in response.
Another developer asked what it would take for Deep Ellum to amend their PD to specifically exclude schools.
"That's a possibility," Rogers said. But it would take a least a year, he added, with public hearings and City Plan Commission appearances. By which point the school would have been long open.
"Basically, they could outrun us," someone else added, sounding deflated.
"Does the city agree this is an appropriate place for a school?" someone else asked O'Donnell.
"Schools are a permitted use under the zoning laws," O'Donnell replied, after a moment's pause. "That's not our role. I don't mean to sidestep your question, but it's allowed by right." She said, though, that when the original PD 20 years ago allowed schools in the area, "they were probably thinking more of an art institute or a community college."
"It's a growing neighborhood now," she said, "and it's a painful transformation."
For the moment, Deep Ellum business owners plan to focus on fighting the parking variance that Uplift's asking for from the Board of Adjustment, which, if granted, would allow them to shed 49 of more than 200 spaces that come with the building. Annino also encouraged the audience to let city council member Pauline Medrano, whose district includes Deep Ellum, know how they feel about the project. "I think you guys know we mean business," he told the city reps. "This neighborhood cares."
Brokers for Hudson Peters also attended the meeting. They represent the current owner of the building, Nashville-based HRT Properties of Texas, and had a much sunnier view of the project.
"We think the school's gonna add a lot of jobs to the area," Cincha Kostman told us afterwards (though she and her partner both declined to provide their names, adding five minutes on to my work day finding them). HRT bought the building as part of a portfolio from Baylor, she said, "and they do want to sell it. It's not a medical building."
"A school could be a great addition to the neighborhood," added the other broker, Sanober Syed. "Everybody just needs to find out more information."
Cass had a different view. "Kids are important," he told us. "And the point is to put them in an area away from drugs and alcohol. You put these kids down here, they're not going home when school's over. They're gonna get into bars, the bar's gonna get busted, and they're gonna lose their liquor license."
A school on that block, he said, "is just wrong. It's wrong on every basis."
"We're not against education and we're not against schools," added artist Frank Campagna. "But it's almost like we're being bullied. It's really better to work with people, especially when you're talking about so many people's livelihoods."