Deep Ellum LIVES!

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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."

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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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky