This morning, I popped into a Downtown Dallas Inc. Zoom chat to hear what developer Ray Washburne has planned for the former Dallas Morning News headquarters. The daily moved out of its 1949 George Dahl-designed home back in 2017 when it moved into the 1955 George Dahl-designed former-Dallas Public Library building, adjacent the Statler Hotel. Since then, the former HQ has attracted much speculation and interest, at one point being proposed as a possible home for Amazon’s HQ2 project.
After Amazon passed on Dallas, Washburne scooped up the spot. The location is also in an Opportunity Zone, so, Washburne got himself a pretty sizable chunk of land with some sweet incentives tied to it. After Washburne purchased the site, it looked like the long-neglected southwestern corner of downtown was finally going to get some love—well, before COVID-19 and all of that, but we’ll come back to that.
In his chat this morning with DDI’s Kourtny Garrett, Washburne said one of the things that attracted him to the DMN site was Dahl’s building, known colloquially as “the Rock of Truth” because of the quote from George B. Dealey carved into its façade.
“I always loved the front building,” Washborne said. “It is the fifth Dahl building I’ve owned . . . I didn’t want to see it torn down.”
Instead, Washburne hopes to turn the front part of the former-DMN complex into a boutique hotel targeted at capturing overflow from the nearby Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and Omni Dallas Hotel. The new boutique will anchor what Washburne described as a new “entertainment district” designed to serve the convention center crowds. The former DMN executive suites on the top floor will be turned into a “cool club,” he said.
Washburne plans to use the land behind the original DMN building to develop apartments as well as bars and restaurants, which can be linked to the convention center along a now-private stretch of S. Record St. that cuts behind the neighboring headquarters of WFAA. Toward the back of the site, Washburne says he would like to develop a second larger Hilton or Hyatt-style hotel that connects directly to the convention center. Washburne says he has already gutted the old DMN production facility, which he wants to turn into a music venue similar to Gilley’s or the Bomb Factory.
Citing new competition not only from other Sunbelt convention cities but also suburban neighbors like Arlington and Las Colinas, Washburne believes Dallas needs to step up its game in order to make the area around the convention center attractive enough to attract new business.
“Right now, you walk out and there is nothing to do and nowhere to go,” he said. He hopes his development can give all those Mary Kay agents somewhere to walk to and let loose.
When Garrett asked him about connectivity issues around the site, Washburne described observing tourists visiting the Sixth Floor Museum wandering down Houston St. “bewildered” and not knowing where to go next. He said the former-DMN site could function as a linchpin between the West End, the convention center area, and the South Side development in the Cedars south of I-30. Throw in the undeveloped land around the former-Reunion Arena site and the former-Oak Farms site on the opposite of the Trinity, and Washburne believes smart development could reinvent what he described as downtown Dallas’ “last frontier.”
“Dallas is an east-west downtown street system,” he said. “This will create the first north-south connector that we’ve had. You could have a connected street all the way from the Sixth Floor down Houston. It’ s not complicated, not expensive. It’s doable.”
Or, at least, it was doable, before the COVID-19 hit and the bottom fell out of the economy. It is difficult to think about developing hotels, bars, and music venues when those are the precise businesses most affected by the current pandemic. Still, Washburne, the owner of Highland Park Village, remains ever-hopeful. He says that even before the pandemic he didn’t plan to break ground on the boutique hotel element of the project until early next year. He plans to open in 2023. The hope is by that time COVID-19 may be a memory, and the hotel and convention business will be back up and running.
“Lots of times, the best time to build is in the worst time because you get best pricing,” he said.
In the meantime, the economy will have to weather the next few months, and Washburne admitted his current holdings are a mixed bag.
“The next 45 days in restaurant business is going to be horrific,” he said. “You can’t believe now how many people are not going to make it. But our apartments downtown (are) in the the 90s [occupancy rate] and rent collection is good.”
And so, like everything else in the world right now, this is another wait and see situation. One of my concerns following the conversation is that this is like a lot of Dallas development deals in which a handful of developers holding huge swaths of land promise massive projects that will transform the fabric of Dallas’ urban core. Washburne and Garrett spoke about areas as far apart as the Sixth Floor Museum, the Sante Fe trestle in the Trinity River floodplain, and the massive empty space around Reunion. Even the Longhorn Ballroom at the edge of the Cedars more than two miles away was brought up.
You could fit a whole new city in that area, and yet most of it is owned by only a handful of players: Washburne; South Side developer Jack Matthews; Reunion owner Ray Hunt; and Cienda Partners, which controls the former Oak Farm site. And yet, Dallas’ greatest urban successes in recent decades have tended to be ground-up affairs driven by a handful of smaller developers and community-rooted urban advocates and entrepreneurs working at a neighborhood-scale.
Whether the Dallas economy recovers with an appetite large enough to build a new city in the southeast corner of downtown will remain to be seen. The site planning, zoning scheme, affordable housing requirements, and mobility strategy will have to be flawless — if not downright miraculous — to make this vision work well.