Monday, June 08, 2009

Stage set for revival in Dallas' Deep Ellum

For a year, Dallas-based developer Scott Beck worked to buy up about 10 acres of Deep Ellum to build a mixed-use project that would have dramatically changed the heart of the entertainment district.

It was a deal that promised to revive Deep Ellum or threatened to destroy its character – depending on your point of view.

He brought in real estate broker Barry Annino, who helped draw contracts for the property at premium prices. Then the economy tanked. Property values dropped 20 percent, the agreements were overpriced, money was hard to get – and the deal was officially dead in December.

Much of Deep Ellum was on hold during the Beck deal while people tried to figure out whether they could cash in or would want out. But now, the district is beginning to stir, particularly with the upcoming link to the city's light rail system.

And it looks as if Deep Ellum will move forward as it always has, with varied interests doing their own thing while community leaders strive to make it cohesive.

"I think what will happen is a lot of onesie-twosies instead of big picture stuff. You'll have individuals who, as the prices get to the right place, will buy a building or two and use it to chase their dreams," said Annino, who is back to working his own deals while advocating for the neighborhood as president of the Deep Ellum Foundation, which is made up of the property owners.

There is a shared goal: to make Deep Ellum a thriving, eclectic, artsy community.

"A lot of it is just letting a whole new breed of people come in and throw their ideas against the wall," said Sean Fitzgerald, president of the Deep Ellum Community Association. "If you have a business or a dream, you can pour your heart and soul into it in Deep Ellum."

Evidence of change

Several things are happening:

•Two new live music venues are in the works. On Wednesday, the City Council will consider a special use permit for Trees to open under a new owner. A second permit is pending for a blues club in the old Blue Cat Blues space.
•New restaurants have opened, including Lemongrass, offering sushi and a Vietnamese menu, and Po-Bill's Cafe, serving soul food.
•DART will open three Deep Ellum light rail stations in September at Good Latimer Expressway, Baylor Medical Center, and Exposition Avenue and Fair Park.
•New infrastructure projects in the early stages include work on design and funding to connect the Santa Fe bike/pedestrian trail to Deep Ellum and a road linking Hall Street with Fair Park, said Pauline Medrano, District 2 City Council member.

How quickly Deep Ellum fills in remains to be seen. The community association estimates there are more than 4,000 residents, about 30 restaurants and 25 art galleries, as well as businesses ranging from tattoo parlors to cheese makers and auto services. And that doesn't count the bars and clubs.

Still, some strips are pockmarked with empty storefronts. There are times when the streets are empty except for the dog walkers, and there are times when people are spilling out of galleries and bars.

It's not the Deep Ellum of the early '90s, when the masses would descend at night, raise hell and go home. But that's not necessarily what the community wants again.

Live music
For years now, Deep Ellum has battled the perception that it's dangerous because of regular reports about late-night fights and assaults. In 2007, the city began to require that clubs apply for two-year special use permits. And the clubs that had repeated police calls and violent crimes were forced out.

Now, the neighborhood is welcoming live music venues but is cautious about other nightclubs. Council member Medrano said the special use permits helped clarify which kind of businesses work in the neighborhood. "The nightclubs were draining resources in the area," she said.

In fact, Annino said the Deep Ellum Foundation had been paying $50,000 a year for security, but it's no longer needed.

Medrano said she supports special use permits for both Trees and Tuckers' Blues.

Trees was a popular rock concert venue that closed in 2005 after the owners had financial problems. Clint and Whitney Barlow plan to open it in the same building, with largely the same setup.

Clint Barlow, the touring drummer for Vanilla Ice, said he is focused on catering to both the bands and the audience. "I've been a musician here since '91 and I know what bands want. They want awesome sound and awesome lights, and they should get paid properly."

He said people are ready for it. "The ultra lounge thing is really played out. Everyone's sick of a regular night with a $20 cover and $10 drinks. We'll have a reasonable cover, reasonable charge for drinks and great entertainment."

And he's looking to open with a Texas-based band.

"It would be super cool to do like the Toadies or Deep Blue Something or the Reverend Horton Heat – something from that era when it was in its prime."

A city plan commission hearing on the special use permit for the second club, Tuckers' Blues, is scheduled Thursday.

Dianne Tucker, who is opening the club with her husband, Roland Young, and other family members, said it will offer a broad spectrum of local blues artists. "There's so much blues history in Dallas, particularly Deep Ellum. There's so much to build on there."

Her parents had a blues club called Tuckers in Fort Worth about 40 years ago. But when she thinks of her own club, "sometimes I flash on images of the old Cotton Club, where the music is celebrated."

She said the timing feels right for Deep Ellum. "There's a sense of a constant reinvention."

She anticipates catering to a mature audience.

"We've grown from a wild stage," Annino said. "It used to be that place that people drove to and yelled and screamed and did what they wanted to and abused the neighborhood and left. And now it's about people who want to be here, live here and do business here."

Infrastructure
As soon as the Barlows get the City Council's OK, the contractors will start work on the club. But they plan to leave the "Trees" sign untouched, with that authentic distressed look characteristic of Deep Ellum.

While the old buildings are part of the area's charm, the old infrastructure is a problem. "Frankly, every sewer is shot, every sidewalk is cracked, fire hydrants are in the middle of the sidewalks," Annino said.

Annino said the Beck Ventures deal would have helped since the developer would have handled the infrastructure. "The city is used to having the private developer do the work," he said. "Think about Victory and Uptown. That's a huge incentive."

Instead, the city will have to be a partner of the neighborhood. But the city moves slowly, Annino said.

"I don't think that leadership is together enough to do this. They should say, 'There are 170 acres in Deep Ellum from downtown to Fair Park to Baylor, and let's do something with this thing,' " Annino said.

While the city might not move as quickly as developers do, the area hasn't been ignored, according to a list of projects provided by Alan Hendrix, assistant director for Public Works and Transportation.

There are $91 million worth of bond-funded projects in the works or recently completed. Of that, $57.5 million is for the Mill Creek drainage system that will provide flood relief for Deep Ellum and a much broader area. The rest includes street resurfacing, much of which has been completed, and streetscape projects that need to be awarded to contractors. Some of the streetscape projects go through the heart of the entertainment district.

A "needs inventory" or "wish list" includes a $65 million second phase for Mill Creek drainage and $20 million for Deep Ellum alley reconstruction, sidewalk improvements and additional streetwork and streetscaping.

Fitzgerald, president of the community association, said rundown buildings and infrastructure are among the "hundreds" of reasons retail businesses began disappearing in the late 1990s. He said property owners made their money off their buildings and don't necessarily want to invest in upgrades.

But he thinks the opening of the train stations will spur some to make improvements. "DART will help break a lot of that loose. It could happen real fast," he said.

In fact, the Barlows and the Tuckers are timing their openings to coincide with the light rail.

Green Line
The DART station at Good Latimer will host a Sept. 12 grand opening to show off the new gateway into Deep Ellum.

The station will have three permanent "Traveling Man" sculptures that will lead the way into Deep Ellum. It will also have 4,000 square feet of murals leading into the district.

Fitzgerald said the murals will be reminiscent of the old Good Latimer tunnel that was lined with art work and signaled to people that they were entering Deep Ellum. The tunnel was demolished when the rail was built.

"For a lot of people, when they went through that, they knew they were in a different kind of place," said Fitzgerald, an art photographer who owns, lives and works in a building on Canton Street. The demise of the tunnel "created a void, and added to the perception that Deep Ellum was dead."

But he and others talk about the energy that is building. And to reflect that, community association members are creating a new Web site, deepellumtexas.com. They want the old Web address to be obsolete: SaveDeepEllum.org.
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By NANCY VISSER / The Dallas Morning News