Tossed Out

The smell of grilled lamb and exotic spices permeates Ghion, a restaurant run by Dessalegn Befekadu, a native Ethiopian. Desi, 48, is the evening chef; wife Amaki cooks lunch. That way they can trade off driving duties for their 13-year-old daughter.

Craving the flavors of home, Ethiopian and other African immigrants come from all over the city to eat at the Befekadus' storefront restaurant at 7001 Fair Oaks, just east of NorthPark on the other side of Central Expressway. Customers can dine at booths with Western utensils or the traditional Ethiopian way: sitting on stools around a massob, a colorful mushroom-shaped grass basket as tall as a table, where they scoop food and condiments with bite-sized pieces of injera, spongy bread that serves as a platter.

The Befekadus have operated Ghion for six years. Located in a strip of retail storefronts at The Villas at Vickery, a complex with 900 apartments, Ghion is at the center of an East Dallas neighborhood that might be called Little Ethiopia. Within two miles are numerous other businesses owned by Ethiopians: groceries, tax services, nightclubs, garages, gas stations, hair salons, beauty supply shops and African video stores. All cater to immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Dessalegn "Desi" Befekadu left Ethiopia as a political refugee in the late '70s, living first in Djibouti, then Rome. With help from the International Rescue Committee, he moved to Oklahoma in 1982 and got work as a busboy. He learned the restaurant business from the ground up, moving to Dallas in 1987.

"There weren't too many Ethiopians in Oklahoma," Desi says. The success of Ghion is the culmination of his American dream.

But in April, the Befekadus and other owners of shops at The Villas at Vickery were given abrupt notice that they must move their businesses within 30 days. Exercising its power of eminent domain, DISD has purchased the 19-acre property for $14.3 million to build a much-needed school to relieve overcrowding at Hotchkiss, Hexter, Rogers and Kramer elementary schools. The purchase is part of the $1.36 billion bond program passed by taxpayers in 2002, says Jack Hill, associate superintendent for construction.

"The Villas at Vickery has been selected as a location for quite a while," Hill says. "That's a key location. That's where the kids are."

Unfortunately, it's also a key location for Dallas' African immigrant community.

"This is the highest concentration of African-owned businesses in the city," says Edward Okpa, a Nigerian real estate consultant who last year ran for mayor against Laura Miller. "People will come here straight from the airport." In a drive around the neighborhood, you might see young Sudanese women in colorful traditional robes or Congolese men wearing bright shirts made from African wax cloth.

"People feel comfortable here," Okpa says. "They catch up on the news here. It's not just brick and mortar for us."

Because the property is so large, discussions are in the works on whether to build an elementary school or a PK-8 school. "Our plan now is to have a school there in 2006," Hill says. "We'd like to start demolition sometime this fall."

Befekadu supports the school district's efforts, but he says the poor handling of the process has left the retail tenants dangling. Some, he says, could go out of business.

Built in 1976, The Villas at Vickery has an interior atrium that was home in its heyday to a popular club called The Mad Hatter. The two-story stucco complex became Section 8 low-income housing sometime in the '80s and has been poorly maintained.

DISD bought the property from Thurman Apartments; a subsidiary, Fifteen Asset Management, based in Florida, managed the residential leases.

"We always knew the property might be developed for another use," says Kathy Dickey, senior vice president of Christon Co., which handled the retail tenants for Fifteen Asset Management. "The apartments weren't all that nice, and it's a big piece of property."

Dickey says that several months ago, Fifteen Asset Management said that if she could help the retail tenants find new locations, the company might be able to help with moving expenses. But the tenants were confused. They had heard rumors for more than a year that the property would be sold, but were always told there was no reason to worry. Most of them have more than a year left on their leases and were told they had to honor their leases.

When the sale closed on March 12, Fifteen Asset Management withdrew its offer to help with relocation. The tenants were no longer its problem.

Befekadu says he learned of the sale through other tenants who received letters in mid-April saying they had 30 days to vacate. He called Lee Simpson, an in-house attorney for DISD, to find out what was going on. Simpson said that he had 30 days to vacate, and based on the terms of his lease, the district wasn't required to pay him anything.

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Glenna Whitley

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