Stephen Ketner has heard this talk before. On Monday morning, Steve Brown at the Dallas Morning News reported plans that Westdale Properties and StreetLights Residential are teaming up to bring a 17-story high-rise to the outskirts of Deep Ellum, and the hand-wringing was almost immediate. This could be the death knell for Deep Ellum, the latest sign of gentrification and greedy developers creeping in to sap the neighborhood of its soul — and right when things were looking up.
But Ketner, a musician with the Stevie James Trio and the Free Loaders who has lived in Deep Ellum since 2008, doesn't share those concerns. “When I first moved in it was pretty dead; there was like one bar open,” he says of Deep Ellum. “I like what’s happened since, and the apartment complex is far enough away; they’re not tearing down Trees." He's not worried about the Uptown crowd moving in and ruining things, either. "Those guys will ride over on their bikes, get a beer and put a dollar in my tip jar,” he insists.
Deep Ellum has changed rapidly this year, with the return of The Bomb Factory in March being followed by the arrival of Braindead Brewing in the spring and a slew of other new businesses, particularly bars and restaurants that have opened along Elm Street in the past month. Places like Brick and Bones, Armoury D.E. and On Premise have helped attract much bigger crowds to the area each week, and while many if not most of those new visitors don't match the tattooed artist archetype, they are almost certainly necessary for the neighborhood's continued growth.
It hasn’t helped that the language of StreetLights CEO Doug Chestnut, as quoted by the DMN, is so patronizingly wary of this kind of backlash. Empty phrases like “neighborhood-friendly urban development” and assurances that the towers — set to be located on Main Street near Baylor Medical Center and called The Case Building — will be “inspired by the architecture and style of Deep Ellum” ring fairly hollow to anyone who’s seen this sort of development before. Trust doesn’t come easily, especially for the corporate types bringing sizable developments to our neighborhoods.
Then again, it’s always a matter of perspective, because the most staunchly anti-gentrification folk among us will be right there in line for shows at the Westdale-owned Bomb Factory, despite the fact that the impact of its revitalization was far from small and did its own damage to the surrounding citizens (even if that impact has overall been positive). Bucks Burnett knows that side firsthand, having had his one-of-a-kind 8-track museum shut down in the wake of rising property values, a shift that also forced other tenants in his building to move.
Yet Burnett has consistently described Westdale as treating him and the others affected with kindness and generosity. “My museum currently sits in a storage unit with an unlikely future,” he says. “So as one who actually has the right to complain, I simply won’t.” Instead, his advice to worried small business owners and residents is to “make friends with the giant” in the neighborhood and embrace the new customers these apartments will likely bring. Adapt or don’t, survive or perish.
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Frank Campagna, owner of Kettle Art Gallery and a Deep Ellum staple for more than 30 years, echoes Burnett’s suggestion, though with a noticeable streak of pessimism. “All you can do is support your local businesses and hope for the best,” he says, after expressing his worry that artists will have to move out of the area thanks to property values still on the rise. Burnett is even more pointed: “Deep Ellum is overrated anyway,” he contends, admitting that he may pay for the remark later. “A 17-story high-rise isn't intrinsically bad. This is what developers do. You don’t have to be a bunch of crybabies about it.”
As Burnett points out, the apartments will bring an influx of new potential customers to the area, and everyone from businesses to artists will have the chance to make them regulars. The only way for Deep Ellum to grow, although this idea may be at the root of the disagreement, is through a continuing rotation of cultures and personalities, businesses and residents.
Like every reasonable responder, Ketner realizes this is all out of our hands. “I worry about the city’s reaction,” he says, expressing the optimistic hope that they will work together with landlords to keep rents from skyrocketing. “They have to realize why the value is going up in the area: It’s the musicians, the business owners and the artists that hang out there. That’s what people want to be a part of.”
The times may be a-changin’, but at least in Deep Ellum, it’s all pretty predictable. As for Burnett, what’s his biggest concern? “We need a gas station around here.” Hard to argue with that.