Saturday, June 28, 2008

Dallas mayor encourages progress in Deep Ellum

It wasn't Mayor Tom Leppert's usual scene, standing behind a flame-emblazoned lectern at the Sons of Hermann Hall on Elm Street.

But Friday's community meeting was serious city business with a focus on the future of one of Dallas' most distinctive neighborhoods, Deep Ellum.

Its history stretches to the early days of jazz and blues, but Deep Ellum has fallen on rough times. Mr. Leppert and leaders of the Deep Ellum Association acknowledged those troubles but also expressed optimism that better times are ahead.

"In Deep Ellum we have something we have very few places in Dallas," Mr. Leppert said.

While Dallas is busy trying to construct or retool neighborhoods where people can easily walk from their homes to shops or restaurants or even work, Deep Ellum already has it.

But infrastructure needs improvement. Construction around two scheduled DART stations has disrupted business. And crime, or at least the perception of it, has driven away potential visitors along Elm and Main streets.

Few question that the area will charge back. It has a central location and, by September 2009, it will have a rail station one stop from downtown.

But the idea that new development could wipe away the neighborhood's character or history hangs heavy on those who have invested either their money or their lives there.

"Essentially, it's the fear this will be 'The Villas of Deep Ellum' " said Sean Fitzgerald, vice president of the Deep Ellum Association.

Few attending Friday's meeting seemed aware that just hours earlier, news had broken that Dallas-based Beck Ventures had contracted to acquire as much as 10 acres of the area.

The company's plans are uncertain, but the land purchase has long been rumored in Deep Ellum, so few were surprised. Some, though, were concerned about what it bodes for the future.

"Our approach is to do everything we can to encourage redevelopment of the existing buildings," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

For now, there is little political will at City Hall to radically change Deep Ellum.

Mr. Leppert stressed Friday that it is key to keep the character of Deep Ellum intact. Failing to do so would diminish what makes it such an asset to the city, he said.

At the same time, "we've got to move forward," he said. "We've got to have progress."

Katherine Seale, director of Preservation Dallas, urged prospective developers to be mindful of Deep Ellum's history. But she also encouraged those who live and work there to embrace some change.

"We're here to discuss ideas that will lead to choices. We must make value choices."

By RUDOLPH BUSH / The Dallas Morning News