Last night, more than 100 folks packed into the dining room at Vickery Towers "senior living community" for a standing-room-only public meeting on the proposed plans to rezone Lowest Lower Greenville Avenue as a Planned Development District -- a plan opposed by the Lowest Lower Greenville Avenue Business Association, the Greenville Avenue Restaurant Association and the Barking Dog himself.
Under the proposed PD, spearheaded by council member Angela Hunt and Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Pauline Medrano, a $1,170 specific use permit from the city would be required for any business south of Belmont Avenue and north of Bryan Street to stay open past midnight. The city's hoping the PD and the SUP process will weed out the bad bars that attract late-night crime to the strip and surrounding neighborhoods because it will give the city the power to deny an SUP to a business with a bad track record.
"We're here to discuss the future of Lower Greenville," Hunt said while kicking off the two-hour meeting. Hunt spoke briefly before giving the floor to other city officials and the presidents of the six area neighborhood associations whose boards have voted to support the PD.
Still, it was clear last night that many in the crowd did not support the PD -- and there were a few tense moments, like when folks in the audience repeatedly made unanswered calls for the city to publicly "out" the bad bars. And in the middle of the presentation, one older gentleman called out from the back of the room: "This is dumb!" He was kindly asked to wait till they'd reached the Q&A portion of the night.
"Look, it's not perfect," Hunt said near the end of the meeting. "But this, we believe, is the best opportunity we have."
But for those who had been following the story or read up on the PD, one of the most interesting moments came when, for the first time, many folks heard the city answer important questions, such as: "What has the city done to address these problems?" and "Why not just shut down the bad bars?"
After Hunt thanked the packed house for showing up, she explained the "unique challenges" that a neighborhood with nearby businesses like the kind on Lowest Greenville Avenue faces -- among them, crime, traffic, parking and trash. But she didn't get into too much detail before handing the microphone to Dallas Police Department's newly promoted assistant chief, Vincent Golbeck, for the grim and gritty crime statistics.
"Persons, places and behaviors," he said, as in: The way to reduce the crime was to "target that triangle." After saying that he knew he was preaching to the choir, Golbeck went through some of the area's recent crime trends and stats, and he repeatedly mentioned that "nearly all of the problems on Lower Greenville occur after midnight." (Which is why midnight became the key cut-off time for the SUP.)
Golbeck explained that as of July 21 on Central Patrol Division's "first watch" alone (from midnight to 8 a.m.) there had already been 25 violent offenses clustered around the Lower Greenville area. He also cited examples like a 32-percent increase in 911 calls reporting random gunfire between 2008 and '09.
Then Assistant City Attorney Melissa Miles had the task of answering the big question on the lips of the area small business owners: "Why doesn't the city just shut down the bad bars?"
According to her, it's not that simple.
"They aren't supposed to be bars," she explained. She said state law doesn't allow cities to impose any "unique regulations" on businesses that serve alcohol except to regulate "the location of bars." But because the state defines bars as establishments that derive more than 75 percent of their revenue, and those 75-percent audits are "easy to pass," well, she says, cities end up with the kind of "restaurants" that thrive on Lower Greenville.
And even if these bars or clubs or whatever we're supposed to be calling them fail their audit, then "presto-chango," she said, they'll sell more T-shirts or raise valet rates to pass the next audit.
What has the city already done to address these problems? These places get cited for not having a dance hall permit or over-crowding or for any number of other violations, she said. They just pay their tickets. Miles also detailed methods like referring certain bars to state agencies such as the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission or Comptroller's Office.
But why make these changes? While showing a PowerPoint slide that showed a future Greenville Avenue with wider sidewalks, park benches, antique lighting and the like, Hunt brought up the 2012 bond money she and Medrano will be asking for (and the $800,000 in bond money already earmarked for improvements in the area).
"There is not an interest in doing all these things for a bar district," she said.
By the time Q&A portion of the night rolled around, some came back to the "future" talk and were concerned that the face of the neighborhood would be altered after the PD is implemented. One woman expressed concern that restaurants such as Red Lobster and T.G.I.Friday's would start popping up.
Hunt said there was "no interest in making this West Village" or "getting a Gap."
"I like Red Lobster," she said. "But we won't be seeing one on Lower Greenville."
Instead, she said, the goal is to keep the area "real and local" while promoting daytime and nighttime retail.
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On a couple of occasions people in the audience called for the "bad bars" to be identified, but no one from the city wanted to name names.
The last person to speak during the Q&A portion of the meeting was Craig Sheils, an attorney representing the newly formed Lowest Lower Greenville Avenue Business Association as well as a handful of the bars and businesses that will be affected by the PD. Shiels says that even if the PD does eliminate the bad element in the area, the time-consuming nature and costs involved with the SUP process may discourage "prospective businesses" from moving in.
Shiels is instead advocating a permit system that would be just as tough on the bad actors, but involves fewer applications, fees and hoops for the businesses to jump through than the oft-convoluted SUP process. His alternate plan drew one of the largest rounds of applause of the night. After talking with a few of the bar owners and operators down there after the meeting, they're hoping that Shiels's plan starts to gain some traction now that it'd been heard by a larger audience.
What's next? First, there will be a public hearing in front of the City Plan Commission, and then a second public hearing in front of the city council. If the current PD is approved, then the businesses must come into compliance before a "grace period" to apply for the SUPs expires.