The City’s Trying To Plop A School In Deep Ellum. Well, Crap.

Every day, when Josh Bridges goes in to work at Anvil Pub, the Deep Ellum bar he opened and built alongside his brother and father almost two years ago, he stares across the street at a vacant building. And, every day, he gets pissed off.

But this isn’t the same sob story about vacant buildings in Deep Ellum that has been heard throughout the years. It’s vastly different.

Bridges’ concerns, actually, revolve around the building getting a new occupant, and, specifically, who that occupant is slated to be — a charter school for 6th to 12th graders.

For the past few weeks, the idea of this school moving into Deep Ellum has been among the hottest button issues in the city. No surprise there: Any time a charter school opens all the same issues arise. Residents worry about their tax dollars being funneled away from supporting the public school system (especially in Dallas, where 11 schools are set to close next school year). Parents worry that, because charters have the option to send children with discipline issues back to the public school system, they will end up gleaning the best and brightest from DISD out of the system. Lastly, because charters are free of many of the rules and regulations the state holds public schools to, many also worry that the overall level of education will suffer.

But in the case of the Laureate Preparatory Secondary School charter attempting to open in Deep Ellum, there are much bigger sticking points that are causing residents to worry.

The biggest questions: Why anyone would want to open a school in a building surrounded by bars and nightclubs? And will the presence of such a school in Deep Ellum eventually kill off a large part of the long-established entertainment district that is this neighborhood?

As of now, the answer to the latter appears to be no.

Last week, Dallas City Council voted in favor of lifting the rule that would prevent new businesses planning to serve alcohol from opening anywhere within 300 feet of the school — a move that Uplift Education, the company behind the charter school, wholeheartedly supported.

“Uplift is not about changing the community it moves into, but rather embracing the culture while preserving our student’s learning environment,” says Uplift’s chief development officer Deborah Bigham. “The local businesses in the area operate outside of Uplift’s normal operating hours, and we do not have an issue with lifting the 300-foot rule in order to help ensure local economic development.”

Although the existing bars would have been grandfathered in and allowed to continue selling alcohol near the school even before the City Council voted to amend Chapter 6, Section 6-4 of Dallas City Code, the Deep Ellum Community Association believes the move has gone a long way towards alleviating the fears of local business owners who not only feared that their property values would plummet, but that the school’s arrival would signal Deep Ellum’s eventual demise by attrition.

“For every one bar with live music that comes in and makes it, you may have ten that come in and try to make it and flame out,” says Deep Ellum Community Association president Sean Fitzgerald. “That’s sort of the dynamic part of having an entertainment district. The bars and local music venues need similar high-quality places doing the same thing next to them. You don’t want to be on an island, you want to make that little area a destination. The folks I talked to in the neighborhood, the bars and live music venues, [felt the amendment to] Chapter 6 was really important. And they feel a lot better about it now.”

But there are some business owners in Deep Ellum who still do not feel like their best interests are being taken into consideration by DECA, and that that DECA may no longer represent their well-being at all.

“[DECA] is telling everyone in the press that they represent the business owners and the property owners, but go talk to the big five property owners in Deep Ellum,” says Bridges, whose year-and-a-half-old bar is located directly across the street from Uplift’s planned location on the north side of the 2600 block of Elm Street. “Every single one of them is opposed. Ninety percent of the business owners are opposed. But [DECA and the Deep Ellum Foundation], per their news articles, would have you believe that they’re not opposed, that they have open lines of communication with [Uplift], and that they represent the business owners. They don’t represent me.”

Explains Bridges: Assuaging his and other business owners’ concerns may not be just as simple as lifting the 300-foot rule and forgetting about it. Conflicts could resurface, he says, after the school is opened and a new alcohol-based business wants to move in nearby.

According to Councilwoman Pauline Medrano, whose district includes Deep Ellum, the idea that future business attempting to open near the school hurdle-free is, perhaps, a significant misconception.

New bars would be subjected to the specific use permit application process, which could potentially leave them open to opposition by Uplift or anyone else located in their proximity.

“For example, if there’s an empty building there and [a business wants to move in] after the school is open — say it’s a restaurant but it does serve alcohol — they would go through the S.U.P. process,” Medrano says. “They would come through the planning commission and they would come through the city council and we would ask them, ‘How late are you open?’ and ‘What do you sell?’ If it’s going to be a restaurant with a bar, that’s OK because most of their sales are going to be food, not alcohol — as opposed to if it was a bar or a nightclub. [Then we might say] you can come, but you can’t open your doors until after 5 o’clock. We would have those types of restrictions on them.”

In other words: The elimination of the 300-foot rule goes a long way towards calming area bar owners’ fears, but this doesn’t mean that the idea of maintaining the Deep Ellum entertainment district is suddenly in the clear.

And that’s another problem at hand: Student parents and Deep Ellum residents alike are still having trouble grasping why it makes sense to open a school in a building already surrounded by bars.

“Originally, the concern was that it was going to be like Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, where these kids are taking off and running around at lunch, and they all have fake IDs and they’re hanging around after school, trying to sneak into the bars, and all this stuff,” Fitzgerald says. “The way we understand it at this point is that they will almost never be in the neighborhood un-chaperoned — unless they are there on their own time on the weekend or something. But any kid can do that.”

With many of the nearby venues, such as La Grange and Dada, already frequently hosting all-ages shows, Deep Ellum’s nightlife scene has already shown itself to be somewhat inviting to the upper-level high school set. Some in the neighborhood even embrace the fact that the school will be bringing more young people to Deep Ellum where, not only will they help diversify the community, but might gain some positive influences while spending time there as well.

“I’ve known a lot of people that have been coming to Deep Ellum since they were a lot younger than 16, and they’ve grown up in Deep Ellum, and they end up being some of the most creative people,” says La Grange manager and co-owner Scott Beggs. “We’ve been throwing all-ages shows for a long time, and we’ve never had a problem.”

But that’s not necessarily the common perception. For the past five-and-a-half years, Deep Ellum has been fighting the stereotype that it is a dangerous place to visit. A school moving into the area could be just the type of addition that signals to the rest of the Metroplex that Deep Ellum is different now.

“We have heard from community business owners that they feel having a school in their neighborhood will further signal that Deep Ellum is a safe place to visit, have lunch, dinner and stay for happy hour,” Bigham says.

Indeed, that may be the case initially, but the longer the school is around, the greater the likelihood is of a negative situation involving their students occurring.

And if such an incident were to take place, some fear that the media attention likely to accompany such an incident could potentially bring back Deep Ellum’s image from half a decade ago.

“You have kids in an unsafe neighborhood surrounded by bars,” Bridges says. “The first time one of these kids gets out of school and goes to one of these all-ages shows and something happens, it’s now a problem with the business. You are going to put 6th to 12th graders down here, and none of them are going to get into trouble in the neighborhood? When they do, it’s not going to be the school’s fault. The school looks at it as ‘We’re very strict with our students,’ and that’s awesome. But, at the end of the day, they’re still kids. As soon as one of them fucks up, where does the bad publicity go? It goes to the neighborhood.”

But the bottom line remains: Throughout its application process to install this new charter school, Uplift Education has been following the proper procedures, at least so far as procuring the property goes.

By city guidelines, they absolutely have the right to be there.

And perhaps the fact that they are choosing to open a school in an entertainment district — be it for its proximity to the Museum of Nature and Science or to their primary school in the West End — is just another indicator that Dallas is becoming more urban.

That’s Medrano’s argument, at least.

“It happens in Chicago, it happens in New York,” she says. “It’s a big city. You’re going to have different venues and public schools right next door to them. They have the right to be there. It wasn’t our decision to say is this appropriate or not. By rights, under our own plan development, a school has the right to be there. They didn’t have to ask for any type of zoning request.”

Moving forward, the bigger test will be how well these two opposing sides on this issue can learn to get along with one another — or perhaps to even figure out ways to work together to mutually advance Deep Ellum’s long-term plan for growth and sustainability.

“The most likely scenario is going to be something where you hardly notice them, or [the best case scenario] is that there is a ripple effect that’s positive to the neighborhood in terms of different collaborations with [the students],” Fitzgerald says. “They may be able to become involved and help with things like the Urban Garden that we’re going to do, or with the murals. There are all kinds of ways they can get involved in the neighborhood in a positive way.”

If this ends up being the case, though, how long will the good feelings last? In two or three years, will bar owners feel that Deep Ellum is worth the hoops they’ll need to jump through with the DPD, the TABC and the parking problems that come with a move into such a district? What about the constant worry about the safety of the kids coming into their neighborhood? In five years, will it matter whether it was the bars, nightclubs, tattoo shops or a school that got there first? If existing business and the school can’t get along, will the “It’s all about the children” sentiment win out?

Without knowing the answers to these questions it is hard to say whether Dallas’ children or the future of its entertainment district are 100 percent safe.

Bridges, for one, thinks he knows the way this whole thing will play out.

“Hell, the city’s been putting all this money into this neighborhood to make it nice again for an entertainment district,” he says. “Well, too fucking bad. It doesn’t make sense.”

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