The rows of empty buildings on Race Street in east Fort Worth look like a scene from the Great Depression. But the boarded up lots are a little misleading. The area is ground zero for what could be the city’s next bustling business and residential hub, the Six Points Urban Village.
Dallas developer Pretlow Riddick has poured millions into buying and fixing buildings in various states of disrepair along the street. The Riverside Arts District, a nonprofit organization that has spearheaded the area’s revitalization efforts, has tried to engage the community with various events. City, state, and federal dollars have trickled in, and police have worked to reduce the rampant crime that recently plagued the so-called Six Points intersection, where Riverside Drive and Race and East Belknap streets cross.
But beneath the veneer of city hall cheerleading, walkable streets, and open-air markets, two local business owners have found themselves caught up in the undertow of Race Street’s new wave of progress.
A couple trying to open a tattoo shop in the neighborhood has had to fight the area’s new zoning restrictions. Despite the fact that there is another tattoo shop just a couple of blocks away on Race Street, the city will not allow another one unless the zoning commission approves a change in the building’s status, which most observers think is unlikely.
When Brittany Elliot and Henry Vasquez opened Born Late Records & Tattoos on the corner of Race and Retta streets two months ago, the couple thought they had finally realized their shared dream. Vasquez owned a record store in Haltom City, and Elliot, who was featured on Season 2 of the Oxygen Network’s tattoo reality show, Best Ink, had been commuting to Dallas to work and wanted to set up shop closer to the couple’s Eastside home.
“For an urban village it seems like they want a mixture of art, culture, and all kinds of cool stuff, which I really thought our store would be perfect for,” Elliot said. “But then we had this monkey wrench thrown into the gears.”
The interior of Born Late looks like it’s equal parts record store, vintage clothing and gift shop, and heavy metal shrine. There are handmade tables emblazoned with the image of Kiss, walls full of posters from long-ago Deep Ellum shows at the Orbit Room, Deep Ellum Live, and The Galaxy Club, and racks of vintage concert t-shirts with names as varied as Chicago and Van Halen.
There’s a room in the back of the building that sits mostly empty, except for a chair and a drafting table. The vacant space was supposed to house the tattoo parlor, but, thanks to a 2006 zoning change, that part of the business will remain empty unless the store’s owners can convince the city to change the building’s zoning or issue a special permit. Every day the tattoo parlor isn’t open, Elliot said, her business is losing about $500.
The city has several kinds of mixed-use zoning types, and Born Late’s space is wrong for the business that the co-owners want to operate.
When the city made the area an urban village, businesses that are considered taboo or believed to be incompatible with the urban village concept of living, working, eating, and playing in the same walkable area were no longer allowed to open shop in the neighborhood. Unfortunately for Elliot and Vasquez, tattoo parlors were not part of the city’s plans.
When the co-owners signed their lease, they thought the building’s mixed-use zoning designation meant they were in the clear. And since there was another tattoo shop nearby, neither the new tenants nor the building’s owner knew there was a problem.
Garland Horn, who owns the space, said the city also misled the couple.
“I went down there to the city with [Elliot] a time or two,” he said. “One guy told her that she could do the tattoo, record shop, and furniture store that she wanted to. When she went to get her certificate of occupancy, that’s when they caught it.”
After being told she couldn’t ink, Elliot was told by a city staffer that she’d have to make her case for changing the building’s status in front of the zoning commission, who would then advise the city council on how to vote. Just to apply for rezoning, Elliot said, costs $1,000.
“We poured every penny we have, blood, sweat, and tears into this place,” Elliot said. “I don’t have another $1,000. … I have an enormous waitlist of people who want tattoos, and I can’t tattoo them because I don’t have this permit.”
Horn said he would speak on the couple’s behalf at their hearing.
“I told her I’d stand up with her,” he said. “It’s not a strip joint. Her business is by appointment only. It’s private. It’s not open all hours of the night.”
Debbie Stein, founder and chief improvement officer of the Riverside Arts District, said she supports the way the development has been zoned. People are living there, she said, and the restrictions will prevent businesses from opening up shop that might be disruptive to residents.
“It’s the zoning that was appropriate for the area,” she said. Elliot’s location, she continued, is “in the heart of the urban village.
“We will support [Elliot] if we can work it out so that it benefits everyone,” she said. “People are living and working here, so we can’t have a tattoo parlor that’s open until odd hours of the morning. It’s not about tattoos or their customer. It’s now a mix of people living and working on the street,” and giving them a sense of quiet.
The change in the village’s zoning didn’t affect Ink Attic Tattoo, near the corner of Race Street and Grace Avenue. The shop has been there so long, it received a permit that allows the owners to operate outside of the purview of its space’s zoning restrictions –– the same permit that Born Late is hoping to be granted after its July 8 hearing and subsequent city council vote. If and when Ink Attic moves out, its building will revert to the urban village mixed-use zoning.
The area’s council member, Ann Zadeh, who is also the former chair of the zoning commission, called the situation “tricky,” adding that she would be open to looking at the city’s urban village zoning policy going forward.
“I’ve seen Ms. Elliott’s work and she is a talented artist,” she said. “The area aspires to be an arts district and is an urban village. It would seem there should be a fit there, but changes to the code are more problematic in that while they might appear logical in one particular situation, they affect every similar neighborhood in town.
“Tattooing is becoming more commonplace and socially acceptable, so perhaps we should take a look at how we classify it in regulations that were written decades ago,” she continued. “We would still need to make sure that any changes would make sense in all similar neighborhoods, not just this one.”
Janice Michele, who founded the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association and a new pro-development group, Oakhurst Alliance of Neighbors, said that she would definitely oppose the tattoo shop’s rezoning. She was surprised that Horn would have signed them to a lease in the first place.
“I’m surprised that he would have supported that, but investors are going to put whatever they can in a building, just like slum lords put whatever they can in a house,” she said. “They don’t care what it does to the neighborhood.”
Born Late has started a petition in the hopes that the zoning commission will be swayed by the community’s support. Elliot and Vasquez will host a grand opening party at noon on Saturday, July 4.
“I just have to win these people over and show them that it’s not a taboo business,” Elliot said. “It’s actually a very difficult thing to do. … I mainly need the people of Fort Worth to tell the city that this is an awesome business, this is what Race Street needs, because the street is vacant.”