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Forest City's "Not Ready" For Mercantile Continental to Become Landmark. Or Apartments Either. Not Just Yet.

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Jim Truitt, Forest City's vice president of residential development, called me back today to discuss yesterday's meeting of the Landmark Commission's Designation Committee, which did indeed vote to re-initiate the historic designation process for both the Mercantile Continental Building and the former Dallas National Bank Building, now The Joule. Forest City didn't send anyone to protest the designation, Truitt says, as the company responsible for the Merc redo and the next-door Element is working with the Landmark Commission to draw out the proceedings as long as possible. But, truth is, Forest City would just as soon not have the building labeled a city-designated historic landmark -- not just yet, anyway.

Why not? Well, for the obvious reasons: Designation comes with a lengthy list of restrictions that disallow property owners from making changes without the Landmark Commission's OK, which can be an arduous process but not an impossible one. And Forest City's a long ways off from renovating the Continental Building, Truitt acknowledges: The developer wants to convert its empty offices into 190 residential units, but, you know, the economy and all. Hence, Forest City's attempts in recent months to raise the money from not only the city via tax incentives but also the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We're not ready for it to become a landmark," Truitt says. "We've got to figure out what to do with it first. We're working with different lending agencies and HUD, and if we have to make a changes to the building to make it work, we'll have to go back to the city and tell them we need to make changes. ... We also wanted to see what the results of the Merc were and how all that worked. There's a lot of [housing] supply that opened downtown in '08, and we wanted to see how it was absorbed. And then, when the economy fell apart, it put a stop to all that."

Right now, Truitt says, the Merc's occupancy is at 70 percent; the newer Element, at 30. Both offer only rental spaces.

"Downtown's doing pretty well, but we're affected by what's going on," he says. "Occupancy's dropped a little bit, [and] we're having to give a lot of concessions to make it work, but, fortunately, we're seeing occupancy. As the steets gets better, the residential will get better and vice-versa."

Truitt guesstimates Forest City won't move on the Continental for at least a year, perhaps as long as two. Oh, and he says the company has no intention of touching Millard Sheets' 30-foot-tall mosaic, commission by one R.L. Thornton.

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