When I tell him we can go anywhere he wants for lunch, I just assume David Spence will pick one of the stylish, popular restaurants in or around the Bishop Arts district—many of which reside in buildings he owns. Before he picks, though, he wants to take me on a quick tour of the neighborhood, to show me what he’s working on.

We meet at his office, on the south end of Bishop Arts, in the same building as Lucia—where reservations are so coveted, surgeons joke about abandoning patients mid-procedure just to avoid rescheduling. Spence is just back from the city’s permit office and he’s a little frustrated. He’s one of the few big developers who pulls his own permits. He jokes that he used to think the city of Dallas somehow had a knack for hiring wunderkinds of bureaucratic delay, but that over the years he’s come to realize: “It’s the system.”

He just bought a Baptist church built in 1937 and plans to turn it into the home of another five-star restaurant like Lucia.

We drive up Bishop, past all the trendy boutiques and destination eateries, and turn left on Davis. He points out some more historical buildings he owns, now artist studios, apartments, the kind of urban design and entrepreneurship that has won him a slew of awards and honors. Near the corner of Davis and Tyler, his Good Space company is developing a new commercial stretch he plans to call “Clinkenbeard,” after a man who used to own one of the buildings. This, he explains, will be the next Bishop Arts. There will be cafés, bars, a long patio along the back of the building. He just bought a Baptist church built in 1937 and plans to turn it into the home of another five-star restaurant like Lucia. 

We drive a minute or two down the road, to Jefferson Boulevard, where the signs are in Spanish and the storefronts have bars and bright, chipped paint. He asks if I like “authentic Mexican” and we pull up in front of Gonzalez Restaurant.

Spence orders Guiso (a sort of adobo stew served with rice, beans, and tortillas) in Spanish. He explains that he spent three years in Guatemala, in the Peace Corps. After that and after finishing law school, he moved to Dallas—the only city in Texas he didn’t want to live in at the time. It was 1992 and he decided to move into what was then a mostly unsightly, undeveloped part of town, hoping to fix the problems from the inside. He was, Spence says, “a War on Poverty liberal.” These days he jokes that he “can sound downright Republican on some issues.” A free-market solution is almost always the way to go, he says. He’s often asked to talk about the idea of sustainability, and he tells people that true sustainability comes from endeavors that result in a profit. 

Spence notes that the salsa at Gonzalez is “just okay”—interestingly, it comes out piping hot—but that “the tortillas are unbelievable.” Sure enough, they’re warm and thick, some of the best I’ve ever had.

He explains that one reason Bishop Arts has been so successful is the immigrant population of North Oak Cliff. (Another reason: “The rest of Dallas is so vapid.”) Most of the residents around Bishop Arts, he points out, are hard-working people who mostly own their homes outright and care about their neighborhood. “They aren’t going to complain about the wine bar or the art studio going into the fixed-up mixed-use house next door,” he says. And while a lot of the patrons of the bars and restaurants come from other parts of town, many of the jobs are filled by people in the neighborhood who walk or bike to work every day.

He’s not really a real estate expert, he says, nibbling chips and sipping his Diet Coke. But he rather enjoys skirting the annoying, pointless city codes, and pushing the permit workers and testing the limits and patience of city officials. He says he’s always liked a bit of mischief. He detests the slog of bureaucracy—“like this morning,” he says. “The second sentence out of the guy’s mouth is: ‘This will take at least four to six weeks.’”

Spence says, to their credit, a few people with the city get it. They understand how much they’ll get from sales taxes alone. It just takes pushing. It takes changing the mindset, and sometimes doing things without permission.

With that, after nearly two hours, he has to leave. “I’m gonna go pull a permit.” 

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