Uplift Education's CEO: "We Do Not Want To Be a Roadblock" to Development in Deep Ellum

Anna's attending tonight's meeting of Deep Ellum property owners and city officials concerning Uplift Education's latest charter school -- which, Uplift CEO Yasmin Bhatia just told me, is very definitely going to take the former Baylor building on Elm Street. As Bhatia put it: "All systems go" for an August 2 opening for the Laureate Preparatory secondary school that will serve middle-school and high-school students coming from the West End elementary campus with ties to the Museum of Nature and Science.

Bhatia says Uplift decided on that spot after a yearlong search for a downtown location, which, she says, is ideal because it's "relatively close to our primary schools and backs up to a DART line. We serve a high-need student, and we try to look for locations near public transportation. And it looks like a school, which is rare downtown, and it also met the economics we were looking for. For lots of reasons we liked it -- and we liked the idea of being able to help contribute to the economic development and revitalization of Deep Ellum."

But, of course, that's the issue here: Property and business owners are concerned that plopping a school in the middle of an entertainment district will have the exact opposite effect -- thanks in large part to the city ordinance prohibiting schools and bars from existing within 300 feet of each other, property line to property line. While existing businesses will be grandfathered in, those whose livelihoods depend upon Deep Ellum ask: What about newcomers who want to open near Laureate Prep? They're terrified that the City Plan Commission and city council would never approve their necessary specific use permit, not in violation of a city law.

To which Bhatia responds: "We do not want to be a roadblock to economic development." Which may be easier said than done; Anna will offer the city and owners' further thoughts on the subject tomorrow morning. But as Theresa O'Donnell, head of Sustainable Development, told us Thursday: "There are concerns."

Bhatia began meeting with Deep Ellum property owners a few weeks ago, and she says that quite frankly, she was "a little taken aback" by their response to Uplift's intentions to open the school, which is allowed by right.

"Anyone who operates a business near one of our nine sites would say we're a great neighbor," she says. "We've been a collaborative and positive neighbor and easy to work with. It might be surprising for some people where we decided to open because they may not realize we serve a high-need urban student population, and we recognize fully with the student population we're serving we will often find ourselves in a situation where there's a bar in the area. Candidly, we know how to operate near them and serve our students and make sure they're ready to go to college and thrive in college. After all, we're in West End now -- in an entertainment district. We have a bar that shares a wall with our school there.

"We're a pretty pragmatic business. I shared multiple times with man people we will be happy to issue to the city a letter of no-contest when a new establishment wants to open near the school that the Deep Ellum community is excited about and the city supports."

Bhatia said as much in her missive to Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Pauline Medrano last week. But there were caveats. As in: "I was not comfortable agreeing to ... a broad sweeping 'no contest' letter for any establishment within 300 feet of the school." Which is what tonight's meeting is all about.

"The mission of our organization is to serve students and make sure they're ready for college and not to be distracted by debates in the community about what's the next property going in across the street from us," she says. "That's not a productive use of our time. I just hope that as the property owners in Deep Ellum get to know the school and get to know Uplift over the course of the first year they'll see what the other businesses near our other schools see -- we're a good partner and will build trust. We don't want to stand in the way. So, really, I understand there's a lot of dialogue about this now, but once the school's in and the property owners see us, they'll be reassured we're dedicated to continuing to make Deep Ellum a great entertainment district for the broader community."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky