Local Takes: Dallas-Fort Worth
Five notable locals show us how to do their towns, their way
Descend into Dallas on a clear night and you’ll see the lights.
The LEDs often shine green on the towering Bank of America building, creating a neon hue visible from thousands of feet in the air. The spinning orb of Reunion Tower twinkles from the western edge of downtown. The 23-light upward floors of the Omni Dallas Convention Center Hotel merge into a fluorescent splotch. Meanwhile, thousands of tiny pairs of headlights zoom up and down, left and right at all hours of the evening along the region’s concrete arteries, like orderly fireflies.
This is the Dallas most associated with the city: opulent, glitzy, a spectacle that promises more than it delivers. A light show that masks the city’s lack of a soul with money and tackiness.
This opinion is not new. So goes the adage from Fort Worth, the city’s little brother 32 miles to the west: Life is too short to live in Dallas. Some from Austin proudly display their slur on their chests: “Keep Dallas pretentious.” David Berman of the Silver Jews once sang that the city “shine(s) with an evil light,” and Jimmie Dale Gilmore crooned “Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes.”
This opinion of Dallas is, however, dated. And wrong. To its residents, none of these things are top of mind. After all, most who haven’t fled to the surrounding suburbs know the city’s secret: that Dallas is a web of burgeoning, interesting neighborhoods, each with its own identity and unique offerings. So direct your focus away from the lights and the skyline and its misplaced reputation.
Instead, look at the destinations beyond the soaring Santiago Calatrava-designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, which connects downtown to Oak Cliff. Drive right past those downtown lights and into Deep Ellum and East Dallas. Zoom in and see what Dallas has become — and the signs of what it can soon be.
Opportunity never left Dallas, even during the recent recession. The housing market is strong and the cost of living is low compared to a Los Angeles or a New York. In that way, Dallas is the same as ever. Its conventional reliance upon freeways has severely wounded its urban core and fueled the success of a booming gaggle of increasingly distant suburbs, each sporting the byproducts of a growing tax base: strong school districts and the luxury, upscale conveniences that Dallas was once known for. But Dallas is a young city (est. 1841) undergoing an immensely important transitional period. It’s becoming an interesting city, at once more urban and more celebratory of its roots.
Why is that necessary? Because even though the region surrounding Dallas has been healthy, the city itself is recovering from too much attention paid to the suburbs and not enough to its interior urban areas. As a whole, yes, the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington Metropolitan Statistical Area — sexy name, no? — is a success story. It added 1.2 million people between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census. Dallas proper, however, accounted for less than 1 percent of that growth: It added 7,706 people, the fewest the city has gained since 1880, notes Patrick Kennedy, an urban planner and designer.
“You can have a strong region with a strong core city. You can have a strong core city with a struggling region. You cannot have a strong region with a struggling core city,” he says. “The foundation for success is not there; it will implode on itself.”
Kennedy and others are working to redefine that foundation, beginning with shifting the public discourse on development and transportation. (More walkable neighborhoods and local businesses, fewer high-speed highways and toll roads.) Because of efforts like his and the organic revitalization of areas in and around downtown, many neighborhoods are thriving or in the middle of redevelopment. Uptown — 570 development-stuffed acres near the city center sandwiched between the inner-core neighborhoods of downtown, Oak Lawn and Victory Park — is the crown jewel and the closest realization of high-quality urban living, an urbanist dream that features apartments that open up to the street and a high density that promotes walkable neighborhoods. Nothing like it exists here and, 15 years after its creation, cheap developable sites are in short supply. Development is spilling over into nearby neighborhoods wanting to re-create the experience and value, benefiting other central neighborhoods such as East Dallas and the Design District.
Examples of un-Dallas-like development abound. Klyde Warren Park opened in 2012 on top of the Woodall Rodgers freeway, making it more pleasurable to walk to Uptown from downtown. Connected neighborhoods and an insistence on walking or biking aren’t tenets of Dallas’ past. Could they be part of its future?
(Design District, Trinity Groves and Bishop Arts District)
Modern Dallas is existential. Its thinkers are analyzing policy, strategy and development to understand why it’s in the place it is. Downtown Dallas is encased by what’s often described as a noose of freeways, occupying valuable land that could be used in major real estate plays similar to Uptown. And this gas-guzzling city is discussing the feasibility of tearing out a freeway. Urban movements like these are meant to recast the city to others by increasing the number of neighborhoods that attract small, locally owned, innovative businesses unique to Dallas.
“I want local people who are actually going to be there,” says Michael Ablon, principal and founding partner of Dallas-based development firm PegasusAblon. “That collection of individuals … it’s what makes a city.”
PegasusAblon was a major player in redeveloping the Design District, a once-industrial pocket located west of downtown to the east of the Trinity River. For decades, it was a warehouse and showroom district open mostly to the city’s designers. But a new exit off the freeway and its proximity to the American Airlines Center, the home of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and the NHL’s Dallas Stars, helped get it rezoned as a retail and residential zone. PegasusAblon’s partnership snapped up 40 acres of land in 2007. Ablon refused to rent to national chains. He didn’t advertise, instead controlling information flow through his own website and Design District-focused blog. Keeping the spirit of the neighborhood, both in the way it looks and by the businesses populating it, opening it to the public was his aim.
The Design District retains the look of the past but has an updated feel: It is a mélange of slickly designed, different-colored warehouses and storefronts populated by art galleries, bars and restaurants. The Meddlesome Moth, an upscale yet approachable gastropub in the heart of the neighborhood, is in an old tile showroom, for instance. “We said, ‘You can’t touch the walls and you can’t touch the floors and you can’t touch the ceilings without consent,’ ” Ablon says. “It wasn’t to be controlling, it was to say, when someone comes here in the Design District, you have funky tile all over the place. You can’t be anywhere but at an old tile showroom in the Design District. That’s part of the magic.”
This strategy of reclamation has been strong across the Trinity River in Oak Cliff since the late 1990s. In 1995, developers David Spence and Trey Bartosh bought their first old building at the corner of North Bishop Avenue and West Sixth Street in North Oak Cliff, a 16-unit apartment complex that dates back to 1929. Spence’s company, Good Space, now has about 20 residential and commercial properties around the booming Bishop Arts District, a shopping and eating destination that managed to do the impossible: get residents from the north to cross the Trinity River for recreation.
When he bought that first building, Spence had a head full of writings by the urban historian Jane Jacobs, who wrote the eponymous words “new ideas must use old buildings.” In 2000, he bought and renovated the Bishop Arts Building. It now houses the chocolatier Dude, Sweet Chocolate, which has expanded to three locations and is sold in more than 40 specialty grocers, museums and other retailers throughout the region. The building’s other famous tenant, the Italian restaurant Lucia, is so popular four years after opening that procuring a reservation can take months. House-made cavatelli and black cod have captured the palates of a town once known almost solely for exorbitant hunks of red meat.
Spence wasn’t planning to house these types of success stories when he decided to pursue commercial tenants in the Bishop Arts Building. It was mostly because of the unsexy reason of practicality: In commercial leases, tenants must fix the toilet when it breaks, not the landlord. But nevertheless, the neighborhood has taken off, planned or not.
“One of my favorite quotations is from Nietzsche: ‘Understanding kills action.’ ”
(Downtown, Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville) Scott Rohrman walks Main Street in Deep Ellum one afternoon in slacks and a button-down shirt. Hours later, many of the buildings he owns in the core of this once hardscrabble entertainment district will be filled with people who look quite different from him — many tattooed and bearded with tattered jeans.
The Deep Ellum cognoscenti were nervous when his company, 42 Real Estate, began buying buildings here in 2012 (29 as of this writing and 10 parking lots). Who was this outsider, and what was his vision for the neighborhood? What Rohrman brought was stability.
Deep Ellum has died and been resurrected more than once. In the late 1800s, it was among the first commercial districts for the city’s black and European residents. The blues thrived here in the ’20s via the guitar strings of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. In the ’80s and ’90s, it became home to the city’s counter-culture, offering a place for the punk kids and others to feel comfortable. New zoning laws, infrastructure concerns and a lack of coordinated leasing efforts zapped its energy and again put it into hibernation. It’s awoken in the past three years.
Its buildings, for the most part, remain from past generations and are one of the largest group of 100+-year-old buildings in Dallas. Even in past down periods, Deep Ellum is one of the state’s most easily recognizable neighborhoods.
Prior to Rohrman, the properties were split among about 25 different owners. Separate individuals owned the parking lots and hiked prices when the neighborhood was busy, which drove the populace away. And to attract quality tenants, Rohrman had to run off derelict tenants. He estimates his occupancy rate dipped to 30 percent after purchasing the buildings.
His strategy paid off: Deep Ellum’s offerings are more diverse than they’ve ever been. Pecan Lodge, declared the world’s second-best barbecue joint by Texas Monthly, passed on a seven-digit relocation offer from a Dallas suburb to open its brick-and-mortar spot in one of 42 Real Estate’s buildings on Main Street. About a block away is the Akola Project, a nonprofit that sells jewelry made by women from Uganda and donates the proceeds back to them.
The neighborhood will also likely benefit from the city’s (past-due) project to widen sidewalks on Elm Street. A similar plan transformed Lower Greenville into one of the city’s premiere dining and drinking destinations. Much like Deep Ellum, Greenville endured a slump following neighborhood complaints about drunkenness and violence. The city redid its zoning laws to push out the nuisance tenants and set about widening the sidewalks and narrowing the street from four lanes to two, another example of a small effort to promote walkability. Three years later, two of the city’s 10 best new restaurants as ranked by D Magazine (full disclosure: my employer) are on Greenville Avenue.
“A lot of times I’d say, because I mean it, that we’re not doing real estate deals. We’re community involvement,” Rohrman says from the bar at Pecan Lodge, between sips of a beer at local brewery Four Corners Brewing Co., made specifically for the restaurant. “I give everybody a hug, I know most of the people in the kitchen. I know the guys in the smokehouse. It’s about community. What we’re trying to do is make everyone feel like their family is part of a neighborhood.”
This is where Dallas is shining brightest these days, in the shadows of the lights downtown. Look past the sprawl and the chains and the malls and you’ll find a city eager to redefine itself and set a new path for a future starkly different than its past.
“The city is just now getting into a maturity, where it has a depth to these places,” Ablon says. “Now, (tourists) could say, I was in Dallas and went to the Design District or XYZ neighborhood and I thought it was really special. Five years from now there will be 10 of these neighborhoods. And 50 years after that there will be 20 of these neighborhoods, and 50 years after that, there’ll be New York.”
If you think a visit to Dallas should only involve a trip to Southfork Ranch, NorthPark Center or the grassy knoll, you haven’t visited recently. Here are a half-dozen areas featuring the restaurants, bars, museums and spaces of the moment. —ERIC CELESTE
ARTS DISTRICT AND THE PEROT MUSEUM OF NATURE AND SCIENCE The Arts District downtown is home to several astonishing venues — theaters, performance and symphony halls, museums and high-rise condos. It’s worth attending an event or trying top restaurants Tei-An or Proof + Pantry. www.thedallasartsdistrict.org
EL RANCHITO Everyone who comes to Dallas wants authentic Tex-Mex. You’ll find it here, along with Comida Norteño (northern food) — outstanding dishes experienced in a wonderful atmosphere at this Oak Cliff institution, and fajitas, margaritas, mollejas, mariachi bands and tables filled with families who clearly know their Tex and their Mex. www.elranchito-dallas.com
LOWER GREENVILLE Dying and decaying just a few years ago, this area of Greenville Avenue has been revitalized by widening its sidewalks and narrowing the road. Hot spots include the Truck Yard for beer and cheesesteaks, Blind Butcher for meats and beverages, and Nora Restaurant and Bar for some of the best Afghan food in the city.
BISHOP ARTS DISTRICT This collection of restaurants, bars and shops is considered ground zero for the collection of new urbanists transforming Dallas. Boulevardíer is a top-tier neighborhood bistro, Oddfellows grinds world-class coffees, plus the neighborhood has nearly two dozen shops and galleries — including, of course, a bicycle shop (Oak Cliff Bicycle Company). (Also, take the trip just down West Davis Street to Bolsa—it’s worth it.) www.bishopartsdistrict.com
KLYDE WARREN PARK Built above a freeway that formerly cut off downtown from the burgeoning Uptown neighborhood, this small urban oasis is usually filled with families, concerts, food trucks and a gorgeous restaurant (Savor Gastropub). www.klydewarrenpark.org
BARBELMONT AND SMOKE A twofer you’ll remember, especially if you go at night, as The Belmont Hotel’s bar and its next-door-neighbor restaurant will blow you away with the nighttime view of the Dallas skyline and the sparkling food and drinks. www.belmontdallas.com