Uplift Wants to Open a Charter School in Deep Ellum. But What Does That Mean for the Bars?

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For a long while now, the old Baylor offices at 2625 Elm Street in Deep Ellum have been on the market -- for $5.5 million. And word was that a would-be buyer was eying the space for offices, which greatly pleased restaurant and bar owners, since it would have meant more warm bodies in need of cold adult beverages.

But in recent days, word has been circulating that the building's owner, Nashville-based HRT Properties of Texas, is looking to turn the building into the latest Uplift Education charter school.

Which, it turns out, is true: In documents filed with the city last month in advance of a meeting in February, Uplift is asking the Zoning Board of Adjustment for permission to offload 49 off-street parking spaces at 2625 Elm. Because, Uplift writes, "given the land use patterns, our location in proximity to a DART station and the abundance of free on-street parking during school hours, this request will not negatively affect neighboring property."

But that's the least of concerns for property and business owners in Deep Ellum.

"A school is not appropriate for the area," says Josh Bridges, whose Anvil Pub sits directly across Elm from the proposed school. "On the back of Deep Ellum, maybe, but not in the middle of the bars."

Deep Ellum property owners are meeting Monday night to discuss the ramifications of putting a school in the middle of a neighborhood built on the backs of bars and live-music venues. Their concern: Having a school in Deep Ellum would likely mean no one could ever again open a bar or restaurant in the part of the neighborhood, thanks to the city ordinance that prohibits booze-selling establishments from opening within 300 feet of a school.

"We've been working hard all these years to get the streets done and the patios open and the margaritas flowing, then look what happens," says Barry Annino, president of the Deep Ellum Public Improvement District. "Seems to be contradictory to the goals we have down here." 

Deborah Bigham, Uplift's chief development officer, tells Unfair Park: "We are committed to opening a school in Deep Ellum." But she wouldn't comment on the exact location, since negotiations are still underway with the property owner. "I can't talk about where it will go, but when I can we'll be more than happy to discuss it."

And there will be further discussions as this is probably just the first in what's likely to be a series of stories about Uplift's expansion into Deep Ellum. Because, in the words of Theresa O'Donnell, head of the city's department of Sustainable Development and Construction: "It's going to be very interesting as the city develops as an urban space. If you want families you need schools, and if you build schools you'll shove bars out. And they were there first." And in Deep Ellum, Uplift would not need to get a specific use permit to open its doors; it's allowed by right.

I've left messages for Rob Baldwin, the consultant shepherding the project through City Hall on behalf of Uplift. According to O'Donnell, Baldwin has made every effort to reassure the city that Uplift doesn't "want to have a negative impact on those bars." And, truth is, the school probably wouldn't have much of an impact on the existing establishments. They'd be grandfathered in, O'Donnell says.

The problem arises when someone else wants to open a bar nearby -- or, say, if Bridges or an existing bar owner wanted to sell to someone else, who then would have to get a new liquor license. Also, bar owners wonder: What happens when their specific use permits expire? Can and will the city deny those renewals based upon their proximity to a school?

O'Donnell addresses this by forwarding an email a city staffer sent to Baldwin in response to his questions about Uplift's possible impact on nearby saloons:

It may not be a problem, however, because Dallas City Code §6-4(d), which adopts Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code §109.59(a), says that if the alcohol business was there first, it is deemed to meet the spacing requirement for all subsequent renewals of the permit. Also, Dallas City Code §6-4(e), which adopts Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code §109.59(b), says that the alcohol business was there first, it is deemed to meet the spacing requirement for a new permit needed after a sale or transfer of the business.

Also, in some situations it is possible to apply for a variance from the alcohol spacing requirements. Dallas City Code §6-4(g), which adopts Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code §109.33(e), as recently amended by Ordinance No. 28444, allows a grocery store with at least 30,000 square feet of floor area or a restaurant without drive-through service to apply to city council for a variance from the spacing requirements. The fee for this is $1,200. There is notice by posted signs and a hearing at city council. City council may impose reasonable conditions on the variance. The front door of the alcohol business cannot face the protected use. Alcohol cannot be sold by drive-through. The variance only applies to grocery stores or restaurants; it does not apply to liquor stores or bars.

Long story short:

"There are concerns," as O'Donnell puts it, which is why she's hoping for an invite to Monday's sitdown -- so she or someone from her staff can tell property owners what might and might not happen should Uplift cracks its books on Elm Street.

"Hopefully we can find a little bit of a solution," says Annino, who says he's met with Uplift reps and asked them to reconsider the location, to no avail. "You know how property owners don't like giving up their property rights."

Says Bridges: "The property owners and the business owners don't mind them coming down here. It's just not the right space. Someone else bid for an office space there, and it would have been perfect. So now you're gong to put a school next to the bars? It doesn't make sense."

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