Turns Out, Not Everybody Loves Continental, Lone Star Gas Building Makeovers

Over the years, the re-do of the Continental Building downtown has started to feel like a bit like Guns N' Roses's Chinese Democracy. Forest City, the developers behind turning the vacant building on Commerce into condos (complete with spa and yoga studio) kept telling us it would be done. They just couldn't say when, exactly. Just ... soon.

But now it looks like not one but two long-stalled downtown projects are set to move forward in the next year: the Continental Building and the Lone Star Gas Lofts, formerly the Atmos Complex, developed by Hamilton Properties. It's part of a long-planned makeover for the southeast part of downtown, and Downtown Dallas Inc., as well as the mayor and other city officials, are very excited about the whole thing.

"The best is yet to come," John Crawford, DTD's president and CEO, told a crowd of developer types at a press conference in the UNT building on Main Street this morning. "2012 and 2013, we'll have [new projects] darn near every month."

"We've come a long way," said Mayor Mike Rawlings. "This is all about how government and private enterprise work together ... People often say they don't work for the common good, but I think this is a good example of that."

Rawlings might have been directing those comments, at least in part, towards the protesters who appeared just outside the window almost as soon as the press conference began: two people in their early 20s, a guy in a black pullover and a girl with a pink sweater and a bashful expression. "Developers Are Getting Rich!" one of the guy's signs read. A few dollar signs adorned the poster board, along with the word "cha-ching." Back to them in a second.

Rawlings called the new developments "part of the fight for what needs to happen downtown." He praised the developers and the Housing Department for making sure the buildings will feature lower-cost housing: Forty-one of the Continental's 203 units are slated to be for people "earning 80 percent of area median income," while Lone Star's lofts are set to have 107 affordable units in phase 1 and 63 in phase II, with their definition of affordable as 60 percent or less of the median. (To refresh your memories: That's a pretty big step forward from a year or so ago, when Schutze pointed out a city council briefing that put the number of affordable units downtown in HUD-supported projects at, um, zero.)

"We must have affordable housing in downtown," Rawlings said, to house "teachers, people who work in stores, and artists." He too promised that these developments were the first of many. "This is the front end of this movie," he said. "Things are moving quick."

When it was her turn at the mic, Angela Hunt reminisced about living downtown with her husband a decade ago, when they shared the block with what she called "a decrepit parking garage and dilapidated buildings."

"I feel pretty qualified to say things have changed," she said.

Hunt called the two projects "assets" and "shining stars" to the neighborhood, and promised that the Statler Hilton (whenever that one happens) will also be a "shining star, all lifting up the area."

"This is about knitting our neighborhoods back together again," Hunt told the audience, "as well as pulling together the Main Street district with the Farmers Market."

David Levey of Forest City said that the Continental was "not an easy building to do" (we noticed) and that getting it planned and financed required "a tremendous amount of help from HUD and the city."

Ted Hamilton, president of Hamilton Properties, agreed. "There's no way we would have gotten started on construction without the city of Dallas," he said. "It's been a fun ride, and we look forward to the days ahead."

As the conference ended, we headed outside behind Angela Hunt to see what the protesters were sign-waving about. The lone security guard who'd been manning the door when we came in had been joined by another guard and three police officers. "You're not here just for this, are you?" I asked one of them, a bald guy with wraparound shades.

"I think so," the officer replied. He was not smiling.

"I'm part of the University Libertarians at SMU," said Tiffany, the protester in the pink sweater. Her male counterpart, Spencer, was busily engaged in a sidewalk debate with Hunt and a couple of developers about "government subsidizing," (the young libertarians were against it) and the "free market economy" (they're for that). The government helping pay for affordable housing, Spencer told Hunt, is "bankrupting our country."

"Affordable housing is bankrupting our country?" Hunt said, looking at Spencer skeptically. He said yes, sounding a little unsure. He recovered quickly and launched into a discussion of a shadowy UN mandate to force people to drive less.

"We'll have to agree to disagree," Hunt said, very politely. "This is one of the best things to happen to downtown in a long time." She looked at his signs a moment longer and added, "I have to tell you, this sounds a little paranoid."

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