Since its anchor stores began moving out in the late 1990s, followed by all but a couple of other tenants, the empty storefronts and weed-sprouted parking lots of Six Flags Mall have become little more than a haunt for camera-wielding, dead-mall fetishists. It's not completely dead -- a Dillard's outlet still operates there, as does a Cinemark movie theater -- but almost.
But where some saw an outdated eyesore, G.L. "Buck" Harris, an affable furniture and antiques dealer from Fort Worth, saw opportunity. Late last year, he snapped up 364,000 square feet of the mall, which included the shops and food court and one of the four anchor stores. The plan was to renovate the building, now called Plaza Central, and transform it into a shopping center targeting Hispanics.
"God led me," he told the Dallas Business Journal.
Harris did his due diligence before making the reported $5 million purchase. He met with city officials who he says assured him he would run into no permit or zoning issues before renovations.
"I'm 76 years old, and I told them I'm coming to you before I have any financial investment because at 76, I don't want to buy a problem," he says. "I want to buy an ongoing shopping center."
He hired a contractor to begin work on the facade. The contractor went to the city to get a permit but was told that one couldn't be issued until he did a certain piece of work to the building. When he returned, it was something else. Harris says he visited with city building officials a dozen times until, one day, he discovered the property had been "flagged" by the city, meaning no permits could be issued.
That left Harris in a tricky spot. He'd just put down serious cash on an enormous building, not to mention the money he was shelling out for electricity, water, and property taxes, only to find that, despite assurances to the contrary, he wasn't actually allowed to do anything with it.
"I'm like a man that's laying on the floor breathing my last [ounce] of breath, and I got a guy choking me to death. You try to reason with him, but he keeps choking you."
(Update at 4:28 p.m.: Arlington City Attorney Jay Dogey acknowledges that city officials initially told Harris there would be no procedural problems, but that was when they assumed he was going to buy the entire mall property. Because he only wound up purchasing a portion of it, it needed to be replatted, a pretty standard zoning procedure. They made this clear in numerous conversations with Harris and his representatives.
Arlington officials figured they had made themselves clear when Harris applied for a replat of the property. They have been working with the city's development office ever since to refine the proposal. "We're a little bit puzzled" over why he would file a lawsuit.)
Harris says he responded by hiring a couple of consultants who soon developed a theory for Arlington's about-face on the project.
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"Everyone seems to agree that the city of Arlington, we believe -- this is our opinion. We have some evidences, but this is our opinion. I don't want problems over it -- that the city is acting unreasonably ... because they want [General Motors] to own this site and build a warehouse."
He and the consultants also have another theory, which is based on hearsay but which Harris thinks might be a contributing factor. "We have been told ... that some of the City Council members have been heard to say that we're not gonna let a Mexican or Spanish shopping center in Arlington."
The other thing Harris did is hire a lawyer. He sued the city of Arlington in federal court on Wednesday, arguing that the city, by preventing him from conducting business, has effectively taken his property illegally and violated his due process rights. The suit also claims that he's being treated differently than other business owners in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
An Arlington spokesman has not yet responded to a request for comment.