By  on October 16, 2008

A 12-year-old effort to breathe life into the once-moribund city center appears to be finally paying off. There are now 5,300 residents in the central business district, along with new restaurants, hotels, nightlife and a thriving arts community. Another 25,000 people live in surrounding urban neighborhoods including Uptown, Deep Ellum, Victory Park, the Cedars and the Design District.

And while downtown Dallas may still not be as active as the cores of some older cities, it’s enjoyed a huge improvement from 1990 when just 300 people resided downtown and the streets were utterly deserted after business hours.

“Downtown is well past the tipping point,” said John Sughrue, founder and chief executive of Brook Partners, which has redeveloped three buildings downtown, including the Fashion Industry Gallery wholesale venue next to the Dallas Museum of Art.

“Everything happening in and around downtown is extremely positive and the best it’s been in the 20 years I’ve been in Dallas.”

More than $1.8 billion has been invested over the past five years in the central business district, the skyline that’s circled by a loop of freeways, according to Downtown Dallas, a nonprofit advocacy group.

And it appears the best is yet to come.

The cornerstone of downtown’s revitalization is the $348 million Dallas Center for the Performing Arts rising only blocks from the DMA.

Set to open Oct. 12, 2009, the multitheater complex will boast dramatic architecture — an opera house encased in dark red glass designed by Norman Foster and a high-tech vertical theater by Rem Koolhaas — plus outdoor performance spaces.

The DCPA anchors the largest contiguous arts district in the country, and the only one to claim four buildings by Pritzker Prize-winning architects.

Besides Foster and Koolhaas, they are the Nasher Sculpture Center by Renzo Piano unveiled in 2003 and I.M. Pei’s Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, which opened in 1989.

Entirely privately funded, the DCPA has reaped donations of $1 million or more, the most of any arts campaign in the U.S., said Billy Lively, president and chief executive officer.

“We are at 128 [donations of $1 million or more] today, and we’ve raised $333 million,” Lively said. “More than 80 percent of donors have not before given to the arts. They say they are making an extraordinary investment in the future of Dallas. They believe it will help make Dallas competitive in attracting companies and families for relocation because our cultural landscape is about to be redefined dramatically.”

The performing arts center will be active 340 nights a year with performances by the Dallas Opera, dance, theater and touring Broadway productions. It is expected to draw 800,000 people and pump $200 million into the local economy each year, not including ticket sales, Lively said.

Another big score is a blockbuster exhibition of Egyptian artifacts starring King Tut’s wardrobe and accessories at the DMA.

“We hope to change the way people think about coming downtown and break those barriers about parking and transportation,” said DMA director Bonnie Pitman, noting one million people are expected to visit the museum to see the pharaoh’s ancient finery.

“You will see Dallas come alive,” predicted Lucy Billingsley, a founder and partner in Billingsley Co., which last year opened a 24-story tower next to the DCPA and has plans for a sister structure. “We’ve never had a beautiful heart-of-the-city, and once we have it, people will want to take part and take ownership.”

Billingsley’s tower made history as the first addition to Dallas’ skyline in 18 years, with a sleek contemporary building housing 7-Eleven Corp., 61 luxury condos and five restaurants.

Downtown also won the corporate relocation of AT&T, which is moving from San Antonio to a building it has long owned, as well as Comerica Bank and Tenet Healthcare.

On Monday, Capital One Bank said it will establish a regional office there, noting it is committed to the “vibrancy of downtown Dallas.”

At the same time, however, big law firms have moved out of the city center, where the office vacancy rate remains a sizable 20 percent, about 2 percent less than three years ago.

“Over the last five or six years, downtown [office space] has been dramatically more attractive than it was in 2001 or 2002,” observed Bret Hefton, senior associate at Cresa Partners real estate advisors. “The Arts District is a big draw because you see cranes and buildings going up.…But there is not enough parking [for office tenants]. That is by far the biggest negative about downtown.”

Since retail follows residents, stores have trickled in slowly. They include Jos. A. Bank men’s clothier, Crimson in the City contemporary boutique and Benji’s Collezioni designer store. All are within a block of Neiman Marcus’ flagship and headquarters, which stood as downtown’s sole fashion merchant for years.

Inevitably, the national banking crisis is slowing down new development, Sughrue noted, including his plan to erect a $200 million luxury condo tower in the Arts District.

“We have $50 million in pre-sales,” he said. “I am still hoping to get back on firm footing and break ground by yearend.”

Some projects are already funded, such as the $17 million Main Street Garden opening in February and the $56 million plan to create a deck over Woodall Rogers Freeway, a 10-lane canyon-like motorway dividing downtown from Uptown.

The deck project will form a park linking the Arts District with Uptown, a hotbed of development where the Ritz-Carlton hotel and residences opened last year and four towers are currently under construction.

Other neighborhoods surrounding the central business district are also seeing major development. Baylor University Medical Center last month announced plans to build a $350 million cancer center and hospital to be completed in 2013 on downtown’s eastern flank.

Victory Park, the $3 billion urban development on the northwestern shoulder of downtown, will move tenants into a new office tower starting Monday and a condo tower in December. Since 2006, the W Hotel & Residences, an office plaza and several apartment buildings with ground-floor retail, have opened on Victory’s 75-acre site, which is anchored by the American Airlines Center arena.

“This city has re-created itself over the last five years and will re-create itself over the next five,” Sughrue asserted. “I like downtown Dallas. I don’t apologize for it. It is a pretty dynamic urban center.”

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