John Crawford: A Deep Ellum Revival

John Crawford
John Crawford

As one of downtown Dallas’ 15 districts, Deep Ellum is a unique destination with a rich history. Its 1880s beginning as an industrial hub, peppered with residential and commercial uses, was one of Dallas’ first commercial districts for African Americans and European immigrants. In the 1930s it was a jazz and blues mecca. In the late 1990s, it was considered a national nightlife and live music hub. Today, you can find everything from white tablecloth restaurants and art galleries, to great grills, live music venues, dive bars, thrift shops, and tattoo parlors. Deep Ellum defines the eclectic urban experience.

And as these stories go, a time of transition has been occurring over the last decade, with Deep Ellum re-emerging as a creatively driven economy for residents, companies and entertainment. For a recent broadcast of KRLD’s “Pulse of the City,” we hosted a several guests who provided additional insight.

A number of developments have transformed the 170-acre district from a nightlife-focused region that included fewer than 300 residents in 2005 to a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood with strong economic growth and more than 2,000 residents living there today, making most of the area lofts and apartments fully occupied. Deep Ellum is experiencing a dramatic turnaround with residential housing, new dining options and retail establishments opening regularly and a significant $10 million Elm Street renovation under way.

In fact, there are four new establishments Barry Annino, president of the Deep Ellum Foundation, told us about that have either recently opened, or will open, within the next month, including Pepe’s Ranch, a Pepe’s & Mito’s spinoff combining Tex-Mex and home cooking; a noodle shop on Commerce called Tanoshi Ramen; an upscale sports bar called Work in the old Sambuca space; and a live music venue called Twilight.

Transportation and connectivity play a major role in the revitalization of Deep Ellum and other areas. The DART Green Line opened in 2009, spurring development around the two Deep Ellum stations. Gary Thomas, President and CEO of DART, spoke with Matt Thomas, our host of Pulse of the City, about playing a role in the revival in many areas, including Deep Ellum.

DART, which has the longest light rail system in the United States, worked closely with the City of Dallas and the Deep Ellum community to transform the ‘gateway’ underpass from downtown to Deep Ellum, which now includes part of a three-part stainless steel sculpture series called The Traveling Man, by Brandon Oldenburg of Deep Ellum’s own Reel FX Creative Studios and Brad Oldham of Dallas-based Brad Oldham Inc. The Traveling Man sculptures are now considered icons at and around the DART stations in Deep Ellum; Gary mentioned that The Traveling Man even tweets and has his own Facebook page.

Another important piece of connectivity for Deep Ellum is the Sante Fe Trail, which currently connects White Rock Lake to Deep Ellum and will soon connect Deep Ellum to Fair Park. The masterplan includes benches, water fountains, and dog parks. Friends of Sante Fe Trail are working closely with community groups and schools to ensure it is safe, clean, and a great addition to the trail system near downtown Dallas. Complementing the trail system is the new City of Dallas bike plan and some of the initial lane markings that connect the Central Business District with East Dallas through Deep Ellum.

An additional driving force in Deep Ellum is Scott Rohrman, a quiet developer with 42 Real Estate LLC, who has assembled more than 30 properties (including parking lots and buildings) in the area, with a vision of bringing businesses, life, and culture back to the neighborhood, while maintaining the character and history all of Dallas desires to preserve. Scott said his real estate and investment firm was looking at infill location opportunities; he said Deep Ellum was attractive because of its rich history, music aspect, and proximity to downtown.

There are currently 16 live music venues in Deep Ellum, and in the past four to five months, more than 12 leases have been signed with restaurants, clubs, and retail operations. Many of Scott’s buildings are currently being used for pop-up art galleries and will be renovated and restored during the next three years into even more creative life for Deep Ellum. Scott also improving the parking lots by cleaning them up, adding lighting, and making them more visible to visitors. There are more than 800 parking spots in the area—it is really just a perception that there is no parking available. Scott and his team are working to improve that perception.

Speaking of parking, Barry Annino reminded us that all of the on-street parking and meters in Deep Ellum are free on weekdays until 6 p.m., which makes it easy for anyone to visit one of the 30-plus restaurants in the area over lunch or for happy hour.

Today, Deep Ellum is much more than a nighttime destination. A dozen new restaurants and bars are set to open this year in the eclectic district, which is becoming known as a creative hub where residents can also live and work. Companies like Reel FX, with 300-plus workers at its Deep Ellum headquarters, say they appreciate the ability to work in the same neighborhood where they live.

We also spoke with Whitney Barlow, owner of Trees, who reminded us that they have more than 25 live music shows each month, ranging from rock to country to electronic dance music, and Josh Florence of Club Dada, who also boasts a wide range of music flavor with a unique “backyard” setting for concerts.

You will be able to find all of these venues and other listings from each of the 15 Downtown districts on the newly redesigned Downtown Dallas, Inc. website, downtowndallas.com—coming soon!

“Pulse of the City” is devoted to current events, with a special focus on issues and opportunities associated with North Texas and Downtown Dallas. The weekly roundtable program airs each Sunday at 9 a.m. and can be heard online at any time.

John F. Crawford is president and CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc. Contact him at [email protected]

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