A Q&A With the Man Crafting the "Action Plan" For Developing South Dallas

On Friday, Karl Zavitkovsky, head of the city's Office of Economic Development, mentioned to Unfair Park that The Real Estate Council had hired St. Louis-based housing developer McCormack Baron Salazar to evaluate the potential for development along the DART Green Line in Fair Park-South Dallas and the section of the Blue Line running along the Ledbetter corridor. We tried to get more info out of Tony Salazar, one of the firm's namesakes, but he was actually on a plane back to Los Angeles from Dallas on Friday; he graciously returned our call this morning.

Alas, Salazar didn't want to say too much about what he's up to -- after all, The Real Estate Council's footing the bill, and the report's not due till first quarter of next year, after which point it will also go to the Dallas City Council. That's when we'll know more. He also suggested we talk with TREC president Michelle Corson, with whom messages have been left. Still, we spoke long enough to merit a Q&A -- and Salazar did say something that resonated: MBS is not working on a plan for South Dallas. Why not? "Becausethe consensus in Dallas is there have plenty of plans -- stacks and stacks of plans and pretty pictures." Jump for it, but mind the optimism.

Karl Zavitkovsky said Friday that you were "looking at what it takes to actually get deals done in these markets, land costs, the types of projects that can be supported," and that you "know how to develop in the inner-city, how to negotiate with for-profit and nonprofit investors." So, then, I was trying to get a more specific idea of what you're hoping to accomplish?

We are national developers of urban, inner-city developments across the country; we're in every major city in the U.S., from New York to Los Angeles. We're just not in Dallas at the moment, and The Real Estate Council hired us to come in and look at the distressed urban neighborhoods in South Dallas to not talk about a plan, because the consensus in Dallas is there have been stacks and stacks of plans and pretty pictures. The real question is: Where do you start? And what does it look like? And how do you get it done? It's to their credit that The Real Estate Council said, "We gotta roll up our sleeves and get to work." That's the charge we have. And they've asked us to look at some areas in South Dallas. I 'm not at liberty to give you much more than that.

Since you can't talk specifics -- it's too soon and so forth -- how about some general ideas of how you operate? Because obviously MSB has developments all over the country, including one in Fort Worth. How do they come about, and what might we be able to expect in the areas of Dallas you're looking at?

It's the way we enter into cities -- through foundations, private corporations. And sometimes, city governments or state governments ask us to come in and look at some difficult-to-develop areas and come up with strategies. Sometimes it's through a nonprofit with a relationship with Local Initiatives Support Corporation at the national level. But we're often invited in because of the local infrastructure's not there to develop these other areas. And it's pretty common for us.

In this country, what you have are a lot of for-profit companies that, because of the way the system's set up through banking and credit and lending, they aren't set up to develop in areas with distressed markets, including low land values and housing that families that really can't afford, including market-rate developments or condos or homes. There's been this very extensive polarization of what people can afford -- if you can't afford it, you're just out. So it's not unusual for us to get invited in, whether it's Spanish Harlem or Atlanta or South Chicago or East Los Angeles. These are all areas that suffer the same kind of distress because of lack of lending and lack of infrastructure, so it's been left to the churches and nonprofits to get something done.

When your research is turned in to TREC and the city council, what kind of information will you give them? What kind of direction will they be told to follow?

It will be filled with specifics: what is it, how tall is it, how much does it cost, how do you finance it. I think what you'll see in this is less pretty pictures and less a discussion about doing and more about how many square feet you need for a development and the kind of zoning that needs to get done to get it build and the pedestrian paths and where the stores go and how much you can lease the land for. It's more that than the other. It'd be pretty boring reading to most people, because it's not conceptual. It's detail. That's why we get invited. We're not planners; we don't plan. Everything we do leads to an actual physical development.

And you guys do the actual building, correct?

Yes, but it's also in partnership with local people. We recognize the local infrastructure isn't there -- the actual knowledge and experience of the development community isn't there. We typically partner with local people. We reach them as we go along. We hire local people to build it. We hire local people to manage it and operate it. You try to create the industry while you can. You're building an industry and trying to institutionalize it so you can pass it along.

You turn this in within a few months. How soon after that can people expect implementation of the effort?

Within another year.

That seems awfully quick.

Oh, yeah.

I mean ...

You gotta movie quickly. That's the other part of it. It isn't a plan. It isn't something that can sit there a while. It's an action plan that says, "Here's what has to be  done over this next year." That's the problem with most plans in this country: They're don't tell you how to do.

But this is Dallas. We love our plans. Apparently, that's why we have a million of 'em! Collect the whole series.

And that's OK. It sets the tone and creates public opinion and talks about possibilities. But there isn't an action plan with it most of the time or a time line that can he held accountable. That's what we're doing. You'll see.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky