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So, Fellas, What Happened to that $15 Million Development You Promised?

Apparently, John Wiley Price was talking about the Knights of Pythias Temple today on KNON. Great minds, hunh?
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So, a Friend of Unfair Park was doing some Interwebs browsing today came across a piece from the Dallas Business Journal in 1996, wherein Dallas developers Cliff Booth and Randy Moses of Southwest Properties Group promised a $15-million development at 2500 Elm Street -- the site of the Union Bankers building and former home of the historic Knights of Pythias Temple. There's even an artist's rendition of the proposed complex, which was to house retail, restaurants and offices.

You may recall that back in July, we ran down the rumors that the building's owner, Westdale Asset Management, had sold the building -- which wasn't true at all. Westdale didn't even want to talk about the building; Chuck Hixson there pretty much hung up on me. What is true is that the building's rotting -- Mark Roberts at Pawn Gallery provided plenty of photographic evidence earlier this summer. Our Friend, pondering the ol' what-if scenario, asks a simple question: So, what happened?

After the jump, a very long answer.

Deep Ellum mainstay Jeff Swaney of Delphi Group brokered the original deal with Southwest Properties. He says he doesn't know what happened to the proposed development -- maybe it wasn't even "real" to begin with.

"You can pay somebody $5,000 to do artist's renderings and conceptuals for any kind of development," Swaney tells Unfair Park today. "That doesn't mean they'll develop it. But I am not qualified to say why they didn't develop it. Any good developer buys a piece of land and explores the potential and comes up with ideas and decides whether or not to pursue it based on market conditions, the lending market, etc., etc. I guess based on all that, they decided not to pursue it."

Actually, it wasn't for lack of trying, says John Tatum, who currently owns a handful of properties in Deep Ellum (including Barry Whistler Gallery and Road Agent Gallery) and is a member of the Deep Ellum Foundation. Eleven years ago, Tatum says, Southwest Properties brought him in to help redevelop the property. There was a press conference promising big things for the historic site.

Tatum consulted with local historian Alan Govenar; they searched for original photos of the building so they could do a rehab that adhered to the strict standards of the National Register of Historic Places. Tatum says he even asked Southwest Properties to "pursue getting the entire Deep Ellum area designated as a historic district, not just pieces of it."

But in the end, he says, four years of work led to absolutely nothing.

"For whatever reason, they didn't pull the trigger on that project, some of the partners left, and the desire was to sell it, and ultimately they sold it to Westdale in the spring of 1998," Tatum says. "Then Brady and Brant Wood wanted to turn it into a historic hotel. For three, four years, there was a lot of activity on it." But the Woods, already tied up with Trees and the Green Room and their other businesses, also abandoned the project.

"And it's a shame, because it's really one of the most significant buildings in the city in several ways," says Tatum. "There are buildings on the National Register that either have local, state or national significance. Fair Park has national significance because of the art deco buildings and so forth. I suspect that building, if placed on the Register, would have state significance for lots of reasons -- the architect, what it meant to Deep Ellum, but mainly for what that building stood for in the black community."

Tatum's an optimist, though. A realist too. Yes, he knows people are "scared of Deep Ellum," and, yes, he's knows "there's not a lot going on." He also this very morning sat through a lengthy meeting with city officials and representatives from the North Texas Council of Governments trying to figure out how to use government grants -- including Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program funds -- to revitalize the area.

He refers to the plight of the Knights of Pythias Temple as "both a cause of the current situation in Deep Ellum and the effect." He continues: "Ten years of work got put into it, and it's deteriorating. It's like the Mercantile sitting there empty for 22 years. It's a blight on the district. You wish something could happen to it."

That said, Tatum insists, "some of us are trying to change" Deep Ellum -- not by tearing down historic buildings, but by filling in the blanks with restaurant, retail and residential developments that "will bring people to the streets." Which shouldn't be hard in area where, Swaney says, 60 percent of the buildings are currently vacant.

As for what Westdale plans to do with the Knights of Pythias Temple, well, I didn't call back today. Didn't see the point. Swaney says he still gets calls about the building on occasion; developers want it, even if they don't know what to do with it. But Swaney, who also brokered the deal between Southwest Properties and Westdale, does make this observation.

"The last time I looked, Westdale was in the top 10 in apartment ownership in North America, which means they own a lot of apartments, which means the real estate they own in Deep Ellum relative to their portfolio is a really small number -- like 1 percent of their assets," he says. "So for them to focus on that at this time while the market is down wouldn't make a whole lot of sense, especially in an area that's in a transitional phase."

In other words, keep waiting. Then, wait some more. --Robert Wilonsky

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