Two buildings downtown that have sat vacant for decades are set for major redevelopments. Yesterday, the Dallas Business Journal broke news that the historic Dallas High School has finally found a developer, and what’s encouraging is that it’s South Side on Lamar developer Jack Mathews. Mathews has a strong track record with regards to turning around historic properties. Dallas High School has sat on preservation lists for years, and with its odd lot – adjacent to I-345 and Dart – it was clear it would take a creative developer (plus a rebounding downtown residential market) to make the property work. Mathews hasn’t said what he’ll do with the building, but it’s reasonable to expect some mix of residential and commercial.
The other historic property long considered in-danger is the 508 Park, the four story art deco (or, “Zig Zag Moderne,” if you want to nit-pick architectural styles) that was famously the place where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson made half of his recordings. Originally built in 1929 as a distribution center for Warner Brothers Pictures, the studio and A&R department on the top floors were the site of the recordings of artists like Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Lolo Cavasos, and others. These recordings have made 508 Park something of an unacknowledged shrine in the history of music. It’s part of the reason Eric Clapton decided to host his Crossroads musical festival here a few years back, and John Mellencamp, apparently, once requested to record in the building. (He was not allowed.)
First Presbyterian Church, which sits across the street from 508 Park, purchased the building in 2011. Their plans for the building are multi-faceted and ambitious. Encore Park, as they are calling the redevelopment, seeks to preserve the historical significance of the building while incorporating that history into the church’s missionary vision. During a hard hat tour earlier this week, the team working on the project (including architects from Good Fulton and Farrell and historian and filmmaker Alan Govenar) laid out the multiple uses it will serve when the renovation is complete, including museum of Street Culture, an art gallery and studio for First Presbyterian’s Stewpot resource center’s artist program, a coffee shop, recording studio, projection and audio installations, a film screening area, and an event space.
In addition, adjacent sites are currently undergoing transformation into a community garden and an outdoor amphitheater. Brad Oldham and his wife Christy Coltrin have created a bronze sculpture relief – in the Regionalist style that was contemporary to the building’s original construction – that adorns the partition walls around the amphitheater space. The ten panels recast the story of Dallas’ history from its hard scrabble frontier founding through its hardscrabble urban development. It offers a vision of Dallas as built on the backs of the working class.
Encore Park has the laborer and the tramp in mind, which makes it bold, almost provocative kind of development for Dallas. Encore Park seeks to adapt and reuse the historic property in a way that doesn’t necessitate displacement and gentrification. Standing on the roof of the building, which features what is perhaps the most magnificent view of downtown and will surely be a popular spot for events and weddings, you can immediately see 508 Park’s significance with regards to the redevelopment of the rest of downtown. Just a couple of blocks away is Main Street Garden, the edge of the Forest City and Headington Company-led redevelopment of Main Street. Turn around, and you see the outer edges of the Farmers Market, with its new shed and new apartment developments slowly transforming the languishing southeast corner of downtown.
In between, however, is a kind of no man’s land: warehouses, many vacant, parking lots, and abandoned streets. All around there are wandering homeless who have long occupied this part of downtown, which features homeless services like the Stewpot and also The Bridge shelter. Encore Park is a project conceived for and of this community. Its various functions – which will include art programs, gardening, meals, education, and mentoring, among other outreach efforts – will support and expand the Stewpot’s existing mission while allowing these functions to blend with the broader community programs conceived for 508 Park.
This isn’t a ghettoization of homeless services, it’s an attempt to create a space which service coexists with community. Visitors to the museum, recording studio, a music performance, film screening, or wedding will be able to view art created at the Stewpot, 90 percent of sales of which goes directly to the artists. Encore Park is also a stick in the ground. Looking at the twin forces of redevelopment on Main Street and Farmers Market just blocks away, it is easy to see this entire area eventually filled in with high end apartments, commercial, and other real estate in coming years. But this corner, at least, will still be a place that welcomes and supports the homeless.
In conversations with people who have worked in neighborhoods like the Cedars, the homeless population is often seen as agents of disinvestment and obstacles to change. Churches and other non-profits are disliked for offering services that attract homeless. There’s even been chatter about potentially relocating The Bridge to a location off Harry Hines, since it is seen as one of the major obstacles to redeveloping this part of downtown and bridging, so to speak, the Cedars and downtown. But by weaving its services into the redevelopment of this historic site, Encore Park is advancing a more progressive way to think about how to handle redevelopment. Rather than displacing the homeless, it will attempt to integrate and normalize. It will be a fascinating to watch their efforts take root.