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Spence contributed the cash and a lot of sweat equity.

"It instantly filled up. I filled it with mostly college-educated urban professional types."

Bishop Terrace now draws rents of a dollar a square foot--$600 for a one-bedroom with no bills paid--which Spence says is three times the cost of the housing around it.

"Two-thirds of the first 16 tenants were single women. Half were from outside Loop 12. Only two moved from other Oak Cliff addresses. Only one worked downtown. Two worked in Carrollton. Two worked in Arlington. One worked in Farmers Branch. Some of them were really suburban animals when they moved here."

Last March a special study by the Texas A&M University Real Estate Center found that Dallas was way ahead of all other Texas cities, including Houston, in construction of new and rebuilt apartments near downtown. Since 1990, the report found, developers had built 8,600 residential units near downtown Dallas, compared with only 2,100 in Houston, a much larger city, in the same period.

Since the report came out, the downtown and close-in residential market has grown even more heated, maybe overheated. Greg Willett of MPF Research, a real estate market-study firm, says there are 2,538 rental units now under construction and reconstruction in the close-in area, enough to increase the existing supply by almost 30 percent when they all open their doors to renters by late this year or early next year.

That's so much supply so fast that it's probably a little ahead of the demand, Willett says. "We're taking a hit on rent growth, especially in the in-town area. In-town rents went down recently, about 1 percent in the year that ended with the last quarter. Obviously that's not a big hit, but rents had been growing by 4 to 5 percent a year previously."

Even with all that growth, living downtown still requires a certain missionary zeal: Things like grocery shopping and car repairs involve treks back out to the land of shopping malls and fast food. Downtown has the big culture of the symphony and opera but precious little small culture, like movie houses and book stores.

Robert Shaw's projects in Uptown have been built around courtyards and common rooms, a concept borrowed from the suburban model of New Urbanism, in order to create a sense of community. But, of course, even the best "sense of community" isn't quite the same thing as community.

In a way, all of the new back-to-the-city developments so far tend to re-create the basic circumstance of the suburbs. Because it's all so new and instant, there has been no time yet for the subtle layering and accretion of schools, shops, bars, parks, churches, temples, mosques--all the fabric and detritus that make a place a real community. For at least the next few years, the new downtown rental market will be another moon colony waiting to feel like home. But for the new apartment people moving into North Oak Cliff, the fabric of community is already in place and wrapped all around them.

When MPF Research turns on its real estate radar, Spence and Bartosh don't show up at all. North Oak Cliff is not even included in MPF's in-town study area. MPF's general Oak Cliff study area, from the west side of Interstate 35 and south of downtown all the way to Loop 12, shows zero. Nada. No new units completed at all. Nothing going on. In upscale rental market terms, this is the great void.

David Spence chose North Oak Cliff as the place he wanted to live and work for basically unbusinesslike reasons.

"I was studying for the Bar exam in Waco. I drove up here on I-35, got off, took a right on Clarendon, and all of a sudden I was in this neat little community with all these ice cream [pushcart] guys all over. They have those guys all over Guatemala like gnats."

He and his wife had served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. The very things about Oak Cliff that might be off-putting to a white-bread suburbanite appealed to Spence because they reminded him of special times. "Especially if you're a Latino-philic person, this is an attractive place," he says.

Son of a Waco physician and businessman, graduate of A&M with an English degree, Spence later picked up an MBA and a law degree at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill with specialties in both poverty and corporate law and in private-sector and nonprofit management. He came to Dallas in 1992 to work for Jim Reid, executive director of the Southern Dallas Development Corp., a nonprofit set up by the city to recruit and help launch businesses in the city's southern sector.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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