At this very moment the city council members are discussing whether they'd like to get into the bond business to help Uplift Education with its plan to sell tax-exempt bonds to help open a new charter school in the former Baylor offices Deep Ellum. (Sounds, so far, like the item will be deferred, though, as Angela Hunt just said, "it sounds like we're being asked to take sides" -- charters or DISD.) Last week, business owners from the area met at the Deep Ellum Foundation's HQ to fret about what the project will mean for their bars and restaurants, specifically a rule that prohibits new alcohol-having businesses from opening up within 300 feet of the school. (Privately, some of them have started calling Uplift's new venture "Nightlife High.")
But last night, Sean Fitzgerald, president of the Deep Ellum Community Association , dropped by the weekly meeting of the Deep Ellum Enrichment Project (D.E.E.P) to cautiously deliver some good news. He "can't say a whole lot yet," but after a meeting with Uplift higher-ups, it's possible that they will agree to lobby the city to grant a variance on the 300-foot rule, making it possible for new bars and restaurants to freely open up around the school.
"In general, the tone of that meeting was very positive," Fitzgerald told the crowd, consisting of several dozen who'd crammed into La Bella Cupcakes on Elm Street. "We want to be in control of the nature of this neighborhood." Small business and bars, he said, "are our life-blood. ... We're still in negotiations, but we can probably work out a way that this is a win-win."
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That win-win involves getting the city council members to extend the variance on the 300-foot rule that currently applies to downtown over to Deep Ellum. "That's the ultimate solution," Fitzgerald said. That way, he added, "They're coming into this neighborhood because they want to be here and accept us as is."
Carolyn Beck, the spokesperson for the TABC, says the city does indeed have the authority to grant such a variance. "State law says a city or county may enact regulations to create a distance requirement," she told us this morning. "The state gives the city or the county the authority to establish a 300-foot rule, and the city or the county can also enact variances as they see fit. It's not just talk. It's absolutely something the city can do."
As it turns out, Beck has been following the charter school debate from the get-go. "I've been seeing the press coverage on this deal, and I haven't see anything like this come up" before, she said. While it's not unusual for bars to run into zoning laws when they try to co-exist with schools, churches or day-cares, she says, "it's not usually in terms of a school trying to open up in the middle of an entertainment district."
Fitzgerald of DECA says at this point, they accept that the school is going to happen. "As a neighborhood, we have to be realistic," he tells Unfair Park. "We're focused on seeing how we can work this out and turn it into an asset for the neighborhood. If it's gonna happen, it needs to be positive for us."