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.