How big changes coming to Henderson are creating fear, loathing — and excitement — in East Dallas

Jesse Gonzalez is the third generation of his family to live around Henderson Avenue, and he can almost pinpoint the moment he realized how much the neighborhood had changed.

Sitting on his parents’ porch in 2003, just back home after 11 years in the U.S. Army, he was startled at the sight of a white man running down the street.

“I thought someone was in trouble,” said Gonzalez, 47.

He was just a jogger — and that in itself was striking. The streets bordering Henderson in the 1980s and 1990s when Gonzalez was growing up had rundown rental houses and were known to be populated by gangs.

Jesse Gonzalez stands with his son, Tobias Gonzalez, 17 months, in front of one of several houses he owns on Cullen Avenue in Dallas. A Dallas developer wants to build a mixed-use development on a stretch of land off of North Henderson Avenue in Dallas that has been vacant for years. He is in favor of the development, which will be, if completed, within walking distance of the houses he owns. (Ron Baselice/Staff Photographer)

“This was a violent area for a while. There was drugs and prostitution.”

Now the area is characterized by rising home values, and the strangers along the street are construction workers. At night, they’re loud and rowdy partiers.

In recent years, these East Dallas streets have formed one of the city’s coolest places to live. Its residents see the area as a quaint, safe and less-dense urban alternative to Uptown Dallas’ crowded apartments.

But there are still pockets of the neighborhood that look run down, and there are long, dark gaps at night in front of vacant spaces.

Developer Mark Masinter wants to fix that. He believes Henderson should be a place where residents can walk to work, shop and eat, and less a place for late-night bar-hopping. What longtime neighbors are worried about, though, is that Henderson can’t handle this big step in the street’s evolution that a growing Dallas demands.

They’re split about what their neighborhood needs. Some are worried that the office and retail development Masinter is planning on part of a 1.1-mile stretch from North Central Expressway to Ross Avenue will bring unbearable traffic as other developers have been replacing its unique vibe with cookie-cutter apartments.

Aly Christensen, walks her dog, Coconut, along the 2100 block of North Henderson Avenue in Dallas on April 5, 2018. A Dallas developer wants to build a mixed-use development on a stretch of land off of Henderson Avenue that has been vacant for years. The lot is between Glencoe Street to McMillan Avenue. She is in favor of the proposed development. (Ron Baselice/Staff Photographer)

But others don’t understand why parts of the street look so bad, with crooked sidewalks and potholes.

“Why doesn’t Dallas care more? I’ve lived in this neighborhood nine months and there’s a lot more that can be done here,” said Aly Christensen, 27, who was walking her dog Coconut during a lunch break. She pointed to an empty lot across from the corner of Fuqua Street and Henderson.

“This part of Henderson could be a lot more exciting and vibrant,” she said.

Gonzalez said the changes so far have been good. “I’m not one to step in the way of progress. We love it here, and we walk to Sprouts and Trader Joe’s.”

But with the area’s continuing gentrification, he thinks he may be priced out of the neighborhood, even though he owns two duplexes. Gonzalez and his wife have a toddler and they need more space than they have in their 1-bedroom, 1.5-bath apartment, one of his four units.

“We’ll probably move but then move back at some point,” he said.

Why now

Henderson is the yin to the yang of a more polished Knox Street on the west side of North Central Expressway. Knox, home to trendy stores and restaurants, is continually adding to its mix, drawing some of the city’s upscale retail.

Henderson, although it has seen increased activity in some areas close to Central, seems to be lagging behind.

Where Henderson is today got started in the early 2000s as Tristan Simon and Nick Badovinus opened Cuba Libre and several other restaurants that over the next decade included The Porch, Fireside Pies, Hibiscus and Victor Tangos. Since then, upscale farm-to-table restaurant Gemma opened in a strip center farther east of Central. At the same time, small cottages have come down on the streets off Henderson to be replaced with boxy two- and three-story duplexes that old-timers say look like they’re not going to age well.

South of Henderson, the developments on Ross Avenue are creeping north. Entire blocks are gone and replaced with new apartments. Northeast of the Henderson neighborhoods, a new apartment development will be finished later this year on the northwest corner of Belmont and Greenville.

Yet around Henderson, the focus is on big plans from Masinter. He thinks his project will jump-start growth in an area of Henderson that has stagnated. His planned two-story office building and shops in bungalows will be built on 4.5 acres from Glencoe Street to McMillan Avenue. The businesses that are on Henderson now need some neighbors in order to thrive, he said. Without some cohesion to the long street, it risks falling on bad times again.

Masinter’s firm, Dallas-based Open Realty Advisors, and Los Angeles-based CIM Group have purchased 18 buildings over more than five years. The partnership is behind the 156,500-square-foot office, retail and restaurant development.

In 2014, he also brought internet-first retailers into the mix of vintage stores, apparel shops and artist dens that were already there.

After three years of walking the neighborhood and testing his idea that the street can be a shopping district, Masinter moved ahead and took his new construction project to the City Plan Commission, which approved it last summer.

“I felt like I’d been in the New Hampshire primary, going door-to-door and meeting with everybody who would talk to me,” Masinter said. “It’s hard work, but I get that this is a very precious part of Dallas, and that’s why I started first with conversations.”

The plans

Rezoning of the property from residential to commercial took several months to get through the City Council, but it was finally approved this month with some height and size modifications.

Some residents who opposed Masinter’s plans live farther from Henderson in Lower Greenville, Junius Heights and Swiss Avenue. They’re worried about spillover traffic coming to their Old East Dallas streets.

Beth Bentley, president of the Vickery Place Neighborhood Association, an area that was platted in 1911 and was once called north Dallas, said her group is concerned that residential land was rezoned commercial to accommodate Masinter’s project.

“Neighborhood associations never want to see commercial encroachment because the zoning will never go back,” she said. “There are only a couple other residential subdistricts in the planned development, and we’re worried those will be wiped out too.”

People aren’t opposed to Henderson becoming a more cohesive street, and they like the idea of new sidewalks and even some of Masinter’s plans for more restaurants and shops. It takes Bentley 15 or 20 minutes to walk to Houndstooth Coffee or Sprouts Farmers Market, and she likes that.

But much of Henderson was already zoned commercial, and neighbors wonder why that land can’t be developed first.

“I think it all could be done with the zoning that’s there now,” Bentley said. “He’s a developer with different objectives than a neighborhood association. He knew what he was buying and banked on it becoming commercial. “

Bentley is referring to the vacant land that Masinter is about to develop. Construction will probably start early next year and be completed in 2020, he said.

A motorist passes by two buildings on the 2000 block of North Henderson Avenue in Dallas on April 5, 2018 that will be torn down. A Dallas developer wants to build a mixed-use development on a stretch of land off of Henderson Avenue in Dallas that has been vacant. (Ron Baselice/Staff Photographer)

The neighborhood realizes that traffic will continue to accelerate organically if the street is developed out. “But this is one big change at once,” Bentley said.

Depending on the time of day, traffic can be bad with people trying to turn left on Miller Avenue, causing cars to get backed up coming off of North Central Expressway. There are also two schools in the area, including one being expanded by Dallas ISD, the Solar Preparatory School for Girls on Henderson between Mission Avenue and Manett Street.

“I just hope it doesn’t turn into Uptown,” said Chris Canelakes, who runs Louie’s, a bar and restaurant he and his brother opened in 1987 on Henderson at Monarch. It’s known for its pizza and the dessert pies their mother makes.

“I’m hoping for the best possible plans. I think Henderson should be developed, but that it’s suitable for the street,” Canelakes said.

While Knox Street across Central has been growing upward, that’s not the character of Henderson, Masinter said, and he has no plans to build up.

The neighborhood has changed a lot, Canelakes said. Years ago, he remembers a strange smell in the air coming from the street behind Louie’s, and it turned out to be from a meth lab. Money started coming into the neighborhood in 2006 and 2007, and now the bigger developments with residential townhomes and apartments are making the area more dense, "which is great for me,” he said.

Louie’s used to stay open late and was a place where all the sportswriters and other media types would gather after late deadlines. The city’s 2008 smoking ban in bars also sent a lot of former customers up to Addison, he said. “We went bigger into the food business and have become more of a neighborhood dinner place.”

That doesn’t mean Henderson is without a late-night scene. Of the 20 or so food and drinking places on the street from Central to Ross, about a dozen are bars.

“When I’m leaving, there’s still a lot going on on the weekends,” Canelakes said. “Parts of Henderson don’t get revved up until midnight.”

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