DALLAS – The population of downtown Dallas in 1988 was just 300 and homeless people slept around bonfires on City Hall Plaza in scenes that evoked a “Mad Max” movie.
The deterioration of the district was swift after the bottom dropped out of oil prices and the savings and loan industry self-destructed. Skyscrapers once filled with oil companies, banks and other businesses seemed desolate, as did the neighborhood, except for the office workers who drove in and out on a 9-to-5 schedule and the customers using valet parking at the Neiman Marcus flagship.
Seeking to reinvent the one square mile downtown, Dallas has awarded some $160 million in tax breaks to spur projects from developers and planners who are trying to craft the district with retail and street life and appeal to empty nesters eager for proximity to cultural institutions such as the Dallas Museum of Art as well as young professionals in search of nightlife and generational camaraderie.
It is a strategy being replicated in other U.S. cities, including Atlanta and Los Angeles, as many Americans seek diversity, tire of suburban sprawl and strangulating traffic and try to soften the impact of rising energy costs.
In Dallas, the push to redevelop vacant structures like the Dallas Power & Light building, completed in 1931, into mixed-use projects and residential lofts has produced new boutiques and restaurants.
A $2.5 million city Retail Incentive Program that provides grants helped fund the opening of small shops, including a contemporary boutique named Crimson in the City in the power and light building, and Kül, a gallery for fashion and home accessories and art in the renovated Davis Building.
“Downtown Dallas is going to be so fun … so I was willing to take the risk and do it,” said Stefani Shulz, who received $205,000 from the Retail Incentive Program to help open Crimson in the City. “There are so many people moving down there with lofts going up and a grocery store opening. It will be an exciting place to come, and Dallas needs the downtown area to be that way.”
Downtown redevelopment has also helped bring residents like Brooke James, 27, a graphic artist and photographer who was lured here from New York last March by a new job.
“I love my loft building, and it just seemed an easier transition coming from New York,” she said. “I’m so excited about downtown growing and all of the new things that will start happening.”
Among retailers, Neiman Marcus is committed to keeping its flagship and headquarters downtown and has long supported revitalization, said Neva Hall, Neiman’s executive vice president and a board member of the Central Dallas Association, a private group funded by companies that promote downtown.
“We have a very healthy business, and it’s still our flagship store down here,” she said. “If we were suffering we might feel different, but we’ve always been committed to downtown. … We’d like there to be more retail around us, and I’m working on that with the CDA. I would like to see destination fashion retail down here just like we are.”
Hall lauded what’s been done so far.
“There is a lot of progress and cleanup,” she said. “Way-finding signs have been put up so it’s easy to navigate your way around downtown. At night there is traffic and pedestrians. Would we like the progress to be faster? Always … but we’ve been pleased with the development taking place.”
To be sure, downtown Dallas has a long way to go. In the third quarter, the most recent period for which statistics are available, the office vacancy rate in the central business district was 25 percent, according to CB Richard Ellis, a real estate brokerage firm.
Downtown streets lack the energy associated with cities such as New York and Boston. That’s partly because of a network of tunnels lined with restaurants and shops that link the major office towers. They were developed in the Sixties by former Mayor Erik Jonsson as a way for people to avoid the intense summer heat as well as to ease street traffic, said Darwin Payne, a historian and professor emeritus of journalism at Southern Methodist University here. In addition, many of the towers built during the Seventies and Eighties were designed without ground-level retail spaces that draw pedestrians.
These are among the factors that squeezed the life out of downtown, beginning with the end of streetcar service in 1956 in favor of buses, Payne said.
The opening of NorthPark Center shopping mall, about five miles from downtown, in 1965 started luring shoppers from the city’s core, a cycle that gained momentum in the ensuing decades. Finally, plummeting oil prices in the Eighties led to failures in the banking and energy industries, and downtown towers began to empty.
Downtown Dallas “was once a vibrant place into the Fifties, and then it started disappearing,” Payne said. “It is sort of depressing not to see people on the street.”
The city, founded in 1841 as a trading post because of its location on the planned Preston Trail that would link North and South Texas, is now the ninth largest U.S. city and has a population of 1.2 million. It also is the fifth most dangerous, according to City Crime Rankings, a reference book of FBI statistics.
Apart from downtown, Dallas is a city with an overwhelmingly suburban feel. Neighborhoods of single-family houses with grassy yards abound, along with hundreds of low-rise apartment complexes.
Half of the 120,000 people who work downtown commute from bedroom communities, according to the Downtown Improvement District. Major downtown employers include SBC Communications, the city of Dallas, Dallas County Community College District and Bank of America. The wholesale fashion industry in 2003 opened the Fashion Industry Gallery, a boutique mart specializing in contemporary and forward clothing and accessories.
The incipient movement to revitalize downtown has boosted the population to 3,100 as well as nurturing the opening of a handful of restaurants and boutiques.
“We’re looking for a very urban, dynamic 24/7 destination,” said Ryan Evans, Dallas’ assistant city manager. “We want this to be a neighborhood that you want to visit, and we’re starting to get there … and I think it will accelerate.”
Developers have taken note. They are incorporating ground-floor shops and restaurants into the residential makeovers of office towers.
“We want retail that isn’t anywhere else or at least isn’t at the mall,” Evans said. “We want to give people a reason to drive by the mall to go downtown.”
City officials hope developments such as the $3 billion-plus Victory mixed-use project on the edge of downtown will help recapture the district’s vibrancy by luring more convention business.
But Joel Goldsteen, professor of urban planning at the University of Texas in Arlington, said Victory might sap energy from downtown.
“Islands of dense high buildings … typically drain potential development and redevelopment from existing vacant downtown buildings, lessening the opportunity for an improved downtown during a reasonable period of time – say 15 to 25 years,” he said. “So, in that way, Victory has set back the development and redevelopment of the immediate, as currently defined, downtown Dallas.”
He added, however, that Victory could have a positive impact on downtown should the city create a well defined and landscaped pedestrian connection between the two.
With 2,200 housing units under construction or announced for completion by 2007, the number of downtown residents and businesses will keep rising, according to the Central Dallas Association, a nonprofit advocate group for downtown.
Construction of a citywide light rail system – 43 miles of mostly above-ground track that features a downtown station and has a link to Fort Worth – has helped by providing fast, clean public transport to and from downtown.
Still, “downtown has come a long way and has a long way to go,” said Jack Wierzenski, director of economic development and planning for Dallas Area Rapid Transit. “It’s something that is typical of what is going on throughout the U.S. Older inner cities are competing against outer suburbs.”
A strong downtown image might be a linchpin to a city’s branding, Goldsteen said.
“From a city booster’s point of view, there is absolutely a need to differentiate cities from others that could be competitive and harmful to their business interests,” he said. “People have images of places that are pretty strong, and in Dallas-Fort Worth, the clusters of buildings don’t have a real strong image like, for example, State Street in Chicago or Park Avenue in New York.”
Rising just outside the loop of freeways that encircle downtown is Victory Park, the $450 million phase two of Ross Perot Jr.’s 75-acre Victory redevelopment. It features a W Hotel, 4,000 residences, retail, offices, parks and nine restaurants.
Arts aficionados are eager for completion of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, a $275 million project on the northeast edge of downtown that broke ground Nov. 10. Plans call for five venues designed by world-class architects, including an opera house by Foster & Partners and a theater by Rem Koolhaas, all opening in 2009.
The center is to crown the 60-acre downtown Arts District, which city officials proclaim is the largest in the nation. It is home to the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center designed by I.M. Pei and three art museums, including the Nasher Sculpture Center designed by Renzo Piano that opened in 2003.
Next door to the performing arts center, Billingsley Co. is building a 24-story office and luxury condominium tower. When One Arts Plaza opens in 2007, it will be the first addition to the downtown Dallas skyline in 20 years. The convenience store chain 7-Eleven Inc. plans to move its 1,000 employees to the tower, which will have a two-level, 30,000 square-foot retail and dining retail plaza at its base.
Perhaps the most ambitious city initiative is the Trinity River Project, a $2 billion, 20-year plan to convert a flood plain into parks, wetlands and a lake crossed by three soaring bridges designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Running near the southwestern edge of downtown and extending several miles northwest and southeast, the proposal seeks to create thousands of acres of parkland and recreation facilities such as a whitewater rafting course, equestrian center, a 6,000-acre forest, hiking trails and a nature center.
Parts of the master plan have been funded, and the first phase devoted mostly to building highways and bridges is under way. Groundbreaking for the first Calatrava bridge, soaring 400 feet over the Trinity River at the foot of downtown, was Dec. 9.
“The Trinity redevelopment is the second most significant thing we’ve ever done in this region after Dallas-Fort Worth Airport,” said Gina Norris, managing director of Crow Holdings, which supervises Trammell Crow Co.’s real estate empire.
The Uptown area, just across Woodall Rogers Freeway from the Arts District, has become a trendy neighborhood of apartments, restaurants and retailers. A Ritz-Carlton Hotel and residential tower is being built there.
A key goal of the Central Dallas Association and developers is to link downtown with Uptown by putting a roof on the recessed Woodall Rogers Freeway and creating a park on top. Private fund-raising has started for the project, which might cost as much as $60 million based on some estimates. It is likely to require public financing as well.
“If there is one project that needs to become a done deal, that’s it,” said John Sughrue, a principal in Brook Partners, which developed Fashion Industry Gallery, a wholesale fashion mart downtown that opened in 2003 next to Woodall Rogers. “That will have the most bang for the buck.”
“Uptown is really hot and is rubbing off on downtown and other areas near us,” said Crawford Brock, who owns the luxury store Stanley Korshak at the Crescent Court complex, just north of downtown.
“We used to advertise ‘Stanley Korshak downtown at the Crescent,’ 15 or 18 years ago, and then Uptown developed its own identity and is a thriving place,” he said. “The erosion of downtown stopped here at the Crescent, and now it’s coming back. There are great things in the future for downtown, especially when Woodall Rogers gets covered up. Walking and eating and shopping will all be part of it.”