Deep Ellum LIVES!
Sweat beginning to stain his white shirt, Scott Beck stands on the 2600 block of Elm Street, near the Good-Latimer Expressway intersection, looking at one of the many boarded-up buildings that populate Deep Ellum. Most recently, the two-story structure served as a warehouse for the Arrangement, which packed up its "Southwestern furniture" and moved out years ago. Its brick façade still bears the small ornate curlicues its creators first bestowed upon it, likely in the 1920s or '30s. It looks as though it might have been a firehouse originally, but its pale green doors look almost sickly, and inside the place is barren—has been for years.
"This is an unbelievable building," Beck says. "I just love the architecture on the side." Once upon a very long time ago, he says, the place was an ice house. He knows this because he's had architects, engineers, construction experts and environmental specialists crawling through its shell during recent months. In coming weeks, preservationists will offer a report on the building's history, as part of a larger study of the entire area. Beck will soon enough know every last brick in this building, which he should, because if all goes according to plan, Beck will own it by year's end.
In fact, he will own almost every single building within a nine-block radius.
That's because Scott Beck is the man who is buying "the heart of Deep Ellum," as he likes to call it. Which is why Beck just might be the man to save Deep Ellum.
Perhaps you heard as much in late July, when, on the very same day Mayor Tom Leppert was proffering generic platitudes and promises at a town-hall meeting at the Sons of Hermann Hall, word leaked that Scott and his father, Jeff, collectively known as Beck Ventures, were buying land in Deep Ellum. At the time, word was they would own some 10 acres of Deep Ellum, only no one knew where or when. Neighborhood residents and tenants were terrified at the prospect of outsiders swooping down and sweeping out the last of the new bohemians. The Dallas Observer's blog Unfair Park swelled with the fretful comments of those who viewed the Beck announcement with no small amount of fear and suspicion. Musician Jeff Liles, once as much a part of Deep Ellum as concrete and skinheads, said, "They're gonna tear shit down, and rebuild high-density, maximum profit spaces for condos and chain-store retail outlets."
At the time, Scott Beck, who was still in negotiations with property owners, kept silent, allowing the paranoia to take root. Leppert, who did indeed know of the Becks' interest in Deep Ellum long before the town hall meeting, was also mum on the subject, even while speaking to tenants and residents of the neighborhood. But on this blindingly bright and sweltering late-August day, standing on a narrow path of concrete in a neighborhood that has looked more dead than alive for almost eight years, Scott Beck is at last ready to talk about his plans for Deep Ellum.
More or less.
Do not expect him to answer every single question about the deal or his plans for the neighborhood. The 34-year-old Dallas native, who has a master's degree in accounting from the University of Texas, does not like to talk specifics. It's not that he's being evasive, he insists. Quite the opposite: He asked at least one major property owner, several city officials, a real estate broker and an architect with whom he's been working—some, over the last three years—to speak to the Observer for this story. And he encouraged phone calls to the Deep Ellum Association, a conglomeration of residents and retailers and restaurant and club owners who, for years, have struggled to stave off the decomposition and ennui that have enveloped the neighborhood.
"Back in July, we did not go to the media and say, 'Hey, look what we're doing,'" Beck says. "We didn't even have everything done at that point. But it's such an important time for Dallas to be able to get something like this done that it's extremely important to actually figure out how this works and how all the stakeholders—including Baylor [Medical Center], including the city, including the developers and other groups that we may bring in to help us with other components of the project—can all work together. That's really why we're talking now. We had to have the opportunity to start synthesizing all the components before we could start publishing the components."
This is how specific Beck is willing to get: Beck Ventures will, by year's end, own "90 percent" of Elm, Commerce and Main streets from Good-Latimer Expressway to Malcolm X Boulevard. In other words, between the two Dallas Area Rapid Transit Green Line stations scheduled to open in September 2009. That, he says, is "about 14 acres." He will not say how much he's paying for the land, which is on the notoriously unreliable Dallas County tax records for some $35 million. (Besides, as one real estate broker reminds, "The land's only worth what someone's willing to pay for it.") And he will not identify every single property on the shopping list.
"I will give you some of the bigger names: Deep Sushi, Club Clearview, the Art Bar, Trees, the Green Room, Club Dada, the Sambuca building," he says. "It's stuff you know." But during an afternoon's tour of those nine blocks, Beck more or less identifies every single building pointed out as, yes, fine, one he's acquiring. There are but a few exceptions, as in, "Not Daddy Jack's."
He also says he will not demolish any property deemed historic by local preservationists. At the very least, he says, he will keep the façades of the older buildings—the remnants of the largest group of storefronts from the 1920s, '30s and '40s still standing in the city.
"There's a huge process that you have to go through in order to maintain the fabric of what's cool," he says. "That kind of stuff could be replicated, sure, but you don't want to replicate it. You want to keep it, even the murals that were just painted a year ago. It's those kinds of things that I think are important. And signs like the Clearview sign."
As for what he will do with the properties once all the paperwork's signed, no earlier than late fall, Beck is decidedly vague. But with good reason, he insists: He's not exactly sure. Well, that's not entirely accurate. He does see the inevitable mix of retail and restaurants, apartment buildings and office space, one or probably even two boutique hotels and, of course, live-music venues. But he cannot be more specific because, first of all, he doesn't yet own the land.
But there are several other considerations as well, chiefly: the recommendations of a handful of architects sketching out their suggestions at this very moment; the city's promise of securing what Mayor Leppert calls "tens of millions of dollars" in city money that will go toward improving a decrepit infrastructure; and discussions with such groups as the Deep Ellum Association and Preservation Dallas, the latter of which has long included Deep Ellum on its list of Dallas' most endangered properties because of vanishing businesses and the lack of a historic overlay designation that makes it susceptible to the whims of the wrecking ball.
"The infrastructure will take dollars," Leppert says. "And, no, it won't be easy, and you have to work with a lot of different groups. Everyone's going in the same direction, but the reality of it is the Deep Ellum Association, the Deep Ellum Foundation and the other individual groups have different ideas about what's right for Deep Ellum, and everyone's going to have to be able to compromise to be able to reach the goal line. I'm optimistic, though, because I think people understand what Deep Ellum can be, and the other thing that helps us is they are seeing what happens if nothing gets done, the kind of deterioration that's taken place. I think that's the scenario people will grasp onto: That road doesn't work, so let's find a new one."
That's why Beck won't offer concrete answers: Because even after he has all his properties in hand, there is years' worth of work to be done before this Deep Ellum becomes his Deep Ellum.
As he looks at that beautiful old building on Elm Street, Beck is asked what he sees going in there one day. A bookstore, maybe? A record store? A coffeehouse? Restaurant? Nightclub? Grocery store? What? What?
"I think all of the above," he says, smiling. "I think what you'll see down here will be probably one or two hotels. You'll probably see a grocer down here. You'll probably see multiple new types of restaurants, a lot of retail, creative-class offices and multi-family residences. And how it gets laid into the fabric for all of this, it would be absolutely the wrong thing for me to say: 'That's what that is.' I mean, it's pretty obvious that building is architecturally and historically significant. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that. To some degree that has to be preserved. The question is: How do you do it?
"I can tell you what it's definitely not going to be. It's not going to be your standard, run-of-the-mill thing that you find in any strip center across the city. What we're looking for are the types of eclectic, boutique, interesting establishments that are probably and potentially not even in Dallas right now at all. We're not looking to go and take Shops at Legacy, Uptown and other areas throughout the metroplex and just plop those tenants back in over here. That doesn't work. Is it going to be Chico's? No way."
This almost happened once before, you should know. About a decade ago. An outside investor from Chicago—and maybe one other from "up north," though nobody can recall the specifics, maybe because they've tried to forget it ever happened—came in and tried to get the landowners to sell out. Only, the property owners couldn't agree on the deal. Typical. They never could agree on much, truth be told, which is how Deep Ellum went from boom to bust in about a decade's time—from a melting pot of grungy live-music joints and fancy eateries to a cauldron of crime and, finally, decay.
And Scott Beck's deal almost didn't happen. Just a few months back, it looked like his desire to buy Deep Ellum—where, he likes to say, he came of age when he was about 16, like every other kid he knew back then—had stalled.
No. Click. Not interested. Click. Thanks, but I'll pass. Click. You crazy? Click. No way in hell. Click. Click. Click. Again and again and again: No.
They were a stubborn lot, those longtime landowners who were all too eager to hang on to their dilapidated properties. Not one was interested in hearing what Barry Annino, who'd been brought in by the Becks to feel out the landowners, had to offer in exchange for their land. Most of them had been in possession of their parcels for years. Some names—Okowita, Rachofsky and Schwartz among them—have been inscribed upon yellowed land plats for decades. And they wanted to keep it that way. Wanted to keep their land. They wanted Annino to leave them alone.
"That's everybody's response," says Annino, who, as president of the Deep Ellum Foundation, has long made sure the landowners had City Hall's ear. He laughs. "'No' is always the first thing."
But Annino, who's also been brokering real estate in the beleaguered neighborhood for the past 16 years, had all the yes-men he needed—three, only three, but the three most powerful landowners in all of Deep Ellum. They're the men about whom people speak when they talk about Deep Ellum landowners: Don Cass, Don Blanton and Al Jernigan.
"The grandfathers of Deep Ellum as we know it," Beck says.
They are the three wise men who, way back in 1982, marshaled their forces to create what would become the Deep Ellum Planned Development District two years later. Theirs would become the blueprint for the neighborhood's success in the 1980s through the mid-1990s, when nightclubs and restaurants and retailers thrived and the sidewalks were thick with patrons and the tourists from Plano, and you would have sworn Elm, Main and Commerce streets were the center of the city. Theirs would become the most beloved venues spread amongst the historic neighborhood's hallowed grounds: Club Dada, the Green Room, Deep Ellum Café and Club Clearview, among others.
"I consider Deep Ellum my baby," says Cass, who came to Dallas from Paris, Texas, in 1957 and began buying property in Deep Ellum in 1980, when it was little more than a ghost town full of empty shells. "It needed someone to breathe life into it, and I did that. I can say I was there when the Green Room was doing $350,000 a month. I saw that. It was wall-to-wall people down here, all of 'em having a good time. But that time went back over the hill and down in the valley."
And over the course of the last three years, all three men said, Yes, absolutely. As in: Yes, they were ready to get out of Deep Ellum. Finally, after all these years, it was closing time. Time to sell to Scott Beck, who, along with Annino, wouldn't stop pestering till they sold, willingly and, finally, gladly.
That, ultimately, is how Annino got the holdouts and skeptics to sell their properties—because Cass, Blanton and Jernigan were doing it. Simple as that. Though most everyone could see the writing on the wall, and it wasn't just graffiti: It's time to go. Because there was some kid standing on the corner with a big wad of cash in one hand and a promise in the other to make Deep Ellum great again.
"All of us who own a chunk of Deep Ellum have our own ideas about how it ought to be developed, and, as you know, that creates a problem simply because everybody's not going the same direction," Cass says. "We all talked about this before we decided to do it. We believe the Becks will come in and do some things that need to be done. Some of this stuff down here needs to be saved, some needs some TLC, and some needs to change. You keep all the new, it's not good. You keep all the old, it's not good. You need a good mix. That's my philosophy. And I think the Becks are just the people who will do it."
Certainly, the residents of Trophy Club will not argue with that. Scott's dad, Jeff, bought the 35-year-old planned community in Denton County in the 1990s, and Scott took over further planning of the city of 7,400. Plans are for Trophy Club to grow to some 10,000 residents in the next five years—which will likely happen, and then some, with the scheduled fall 2009 opening of the $96 million Byron Nelson High School. Only three months ago, D magazine ranked Trophy Club as the area's fourth-best suburb behind University Park, Southlake and Colleyville.
And that's been the fear down in Deep Ellum since the bomb dropped on them back in July: that Scott and Jeff will purge their neighborhood of its funk, strip it of its soul and render it little more than a suburban tourist's version of "urban." That's probably why Scott tries hard during every meeting, whether it's with a preservationist or a property owner or a Deep Ellum resident or a journalist, to prove his street cred. He talks about how he used to hang out in Deep Ellum in the early 1990s and how when he lived in Manhattan, where he was an associate vice president at JP Morgan Chase in 2000 and '01, he used to knock back a few in Soho and Greenwich Village.
"He stresses he came down here in the '90s, which is some comfort," says Sean Fitzgerald, vice president of the Deep Ellum Association and a resident of Canton Street since 2001. "But at the end of the day, the developer has to make his money. Still, it is comforting to have someone who fell in love with Deep Ellum in the '90s regenerate it to the extent he can with those properties."
Beck says his initial interest in Deep Ellum began when he returned from New York. As far as he was concerned, Dallas had become a city for adults with money to burn in the prefab live-work-plays that were still in the works at the beginning of 2001 and '02. In its rush to turn every empty block into a West Village or a Mockingbird Station—or, even, a Victory Park—the city had abandoned its best natural resource, Deep Ellum.
"The thing that was upsetting for me to see was what had happened to Deep Ellum," Beck says. "I think that unless you are a stakeholder down here and have been down here a long time or you're from Dallas, you don't understand. You come down here, and it doesn't seem like much of anything, but the fact of the matter is, that's not true. It really is something, and it has been something for a hundred years. It's gone through that evolutionary period and transitional periods, but it's always been that kind of burgeoning area. It's a place where people can kind of experiment. Developers always talk about new urbanism. Well, this is true urbanism."
Only one problem back then: Deep Ellum was dying. And nobody could do a damned thing to stop the bleeding.
We have chronicled the demise of Deep Ellum in these pages with such frequency in recent years it has been like writing an obituary in serial form. And it's hard to pinpoint precisely when it began. When East Wind, an Elm Street mainstay long before Trees opened its doors in 1990, moved to the Quadrangle in 2003? When Sambuca followed to McKinney Avenue a year later? When Deep Ellum Café stopped serving? With the bankruptcy and dissolution of Entertainment Collaborative in the mid-2000s and the subsequent shuttering of the Green Room, Trees and, finally, the Gypsy Tea Room? Or with the closing of Club Clearview, whose neon sign illuminated the neighborhood since 1984?
Ultimately, there are countless reasons, including the proliferation of all-ages dance clubs and the crime they brought with them. And the city responded as best it could—usually, with an increased police presence that made it feel like a police-state Saturday night. Over the last couple of years, Annino and the Deep Ellum Foundation even got the city to close down a few tattoo parlors and some of the more "troublesome" clubs by refusing to grant them specific use permits. But by then the tourists from Plano moved on; the Deep Ellum regulars went back to Lower Greenville, their former home away from home; and only the die-hards and true believers remained.
Deep Ellum is not without its pockets of cool. There are still a handful of essential art galleries, among them the Public Trust, the Barry Whistler Gallery, Road Agent and Frank Campagna's Kettle Art. A hungry traveler can still fill up at the likes of Local, Angry Dog, the AllGood Café, Vern's or the newly opened Cowboy Chow. Club Dada, the Curtain Club and, closer to Exposition Park, the Double Wide still offer local musicians stages on which to perform, just like the good old days.
But no one will deny that Deep Ellum is a shadow of its former self. And Scott Beck's purchase of a big hunk of Deep Ellum—"the modern core of the entertainment district," as DEA's Fitzgerald puts it—is but one step among many. A baby step, perhaps, given the amount of work that needs to be done and the amount of money it will cost.
Since about six months ago, Beck has been meeting with city officials to discuss not only his plans, but to ask for their help. Sidewalks must be widened and repaired. Street lights need to be installed. Electrical lines have to be buried. Sewer lines have to be fixed, after which the individual buildings will have to be reattached to them. And those are but the most glaringly obvious problems, and they will take months and money to correct, until other issues rear their ugly heads.
Karl Zavitkovsky, director of the city's Office of Economic Development, says the discussions with Scott and Jeff have grown "more specific" in recent months, as "we are in the process of working the numbers with them to see how we might best be able to assist them."
One way to do that is to incorporate the so-called "heart of Deep Ellum" into the Deep Ellum Tax Increment Financing District, a source of public funding that went into effect January 1, 2006—and doesn't include the area Scott Beck's buying. That's because on April 8, 2004, Deep Ellum's property owners sued the city over its rotten sewer lines. The owners wanted the city to pay for connecting their properties to new lines; the city countered that it couldn't spend public money on private property. So when the TIF district was drawn up in 2005, before the suit was settled, the property owners were kept out. Zavitkovsky says the city will likely rectify that sooner than later.
There's also about $6 million in 2006 bond money earmarked for Deep Ellum street improvements. Only two weeks ago the city council agreed to pay $340,000 to a Kansas City, Missouri-based engineering firm that's charged with designing streetscape improvements along Commerce and Elm streets, from Good-Latimer Expressway to Hall Street—more or less Beck's buy zone, though on the day the council approved the measure, Beck said he hadn't heard anything about it.
"What we've told Scott and his dad is that we're beginning to look at the specific numbers and see what sort of public buckets we're able to tap," Zavitkovsky says. "The TIFs can provide a certain number of specifics, and that depends on how much they're generating. And there's the 2006 bond money, but you may look at more bond money. Only, our next bond program is not until 2010, and we're not able to commit that today. Obviously, you can't commit to a bond that hasn't been voted on by the voters...But we're all operating under the assumption that the deal [to buy the property] will get done. It takes a tremendous amount of persistence, guts and vision for any developer to undertake something of this magnitude. There are so many loose ends when you embark on this, and it isn't for the faint of heart."
Leppert began meeting with the Becks shortly after Zavitkovsky's initial get-together, and he says he needed Scott to prove he was serious about investing in Deep Ellum, and it took a while—not because he didn't believe Beck wanted to buy in, but because he wanted to make sure he could stick it out, especially as city officials made Beck aware of the enormous infrastructure problems that lie ahead.
But as far as Leppert's concerned, this is the only way to save Deep Ellum: with a single property owner who insists he'll preserve the integrity of the neighborhood while also increasing the density to justify both Beck and the city's investment.
"To be real frank, when we go in and open up streets, it's like going in to any old building: You're not sure what you're gong to find," Leppert says. "I think we'll put tens of millions of dollars into it over a period of time. And maybe that'll start with the bond program in 2010; that's fine. We're going to need to do it. That's what cities do."
Even before he started meeting with the city, Beck was consulting with architect Larry Good—the Good in Good, Fulton & Farrell, which has put its fingerprints on such projects as the Dallas Design District, the 33-acre Park Lane development across Central Expressway from NorthPark Center and the Knox-Henderson retail corridor, and other familiar projects. Beck needed Good for one very good reason: to design a plan that showed the city how he'd reshape the space—and, more important, fill it, to show precisely how many people he could get in Deep Ellum to spend their hard-earned.
In other words, he has to present a new tax base to convince the city it will one day see a return on its substantial investment.
That's why Good, along with two associates, is designing the master plan for Deep Ellum with input from three other architectural firms (including one from London) whose representatives have been in and out of Dallas inventorying the buildings and offering suggestions on their best use. Earlier this summer, they gathered at the Good, Fulton & Farrell offices on Fairmount Street for a two-day charette, during which they struggled with these key questions: How do you build up—which will be essential, considering Beck's desire for residential and office space—without tearing down? And just how much of Deep Ellum is worth saving, anyway?
"This is a tipping point, and everyone will be trying to figure out how close we can get to making this work without losing Deep Ellum," says Katherine Seale, Preservation Dallas' executive director, who began meeting with Beck in June after first contacting Good. "Everyone recognizes the challenge. We understand this is not an easy, breezy process. It'll take a lot of input from the Deep Ellum groups, from potential tenants and architects and...well, a lot of folks will be involved."
To the first question, the answer remains elusive. Good says he expects Elm and Main will probably be the livelier streets—the ones full of clubs and restaurants and retailers. Commerce will most likely house most of the residential units—about 750 should be enough, according to their capacity studies—and office spaces. And somewhere in between, they will have to find a place for two parking garages—one that will likely be built above ground, one that will go below. The DART stations are nice and all, but Good's no dummy. This is Dallas. People will always drive.
"Scott wants to make this an area where most of the people work and live, not just some place that comes alive at 10 p.m. until 2 a.m.," Good says. "And this doesn't work without significant parking. It's part of the strategy and fits into how you save certain buildings, demolish certain pieces and consolidate others."
That brings us to the second question. Good's come up with a color-coded inventory list: Buildings in red aren't architectural "assets"; buildings in yellow are "maybes," as in, perhaps the façade stays while the rest gets adiosed; and buildings in green "are ranked as the highest priorities." At the moment, Good figures, the list breaks down into thirds.
"And in our opinion, you've got to keep a third to a half of the façades in order to create a fabric that feels really good," he says. "In these particular blocks, none of the buildings has any sort of historic designation. So what's important is the feeling of the fabric of the neighborhood. It's not the preservation of an individual historic building. That's the spirit Scott had and we brought to it. I think there was a oneness about the fact that you very carefully weave new into old. And we are all aware that this is a neighborhood that needs our tender loving care."
At this very moment, everyone involved is sure of only one thing: This thing will take years to evolve. That's the most specific thing Beck offers as he pleads for patience. Because to throw out a concept—and he would not reveal a single architect's sketch—would be to introduce a "homogenized" product, he says.
"You've got to literally come up with an overall concept of how it needs to evolve and then let it evolve," he says. "Ultimately, what I hope is that 10 years from now, when I'm walking down and I'm looking to my left and my right, I pretty much see the same kind of storefronts on both sides, but when I look up there's going to be a little bit more density. More than just the bohemian feel, it's that same sense of belonging and history—that sense of grit and cool that will make Dallas stand out. When people say, 'Why are you going to Dallas?,' I want you to answer, 'Man, 'cause I love going down to Deep Ellum.'"
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