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Real Estate

The Oak Cliff Gambler

Real estate developer Monte Anderson turned a flophouse in South Dallas into a boutique hotel. Now that the Belmont is beautiful, will the rest of the neighborhood follow?
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DEAL MAKER: Monte Anderson has turned a former flophouse into a boutique hotel. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

The Oak Cliff Gambler

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It’s a little past five on a recent Tuesday afternoon, and people who’ve called it a day are unwinding in the lounge and on the patio at the Belmont Hotel’s BarBelmont. They look relaxed as they sip smart cocktails, munch on tapas, and take in the grand splendor of the sunset reflecting off the downtown Dallas skyline.

But while most everyone in the lounge is winding down, Monte Anderson is just getting wound up, bussing tables when he’s not valet parking cars. Anderson’s been turning in 20-hour workdays lately here at the Belmont Hotel, doing everything from inspecting hotel rooms to plotting marketing plans. “Thank God I’m a workaholic,” he says.

If Anderson’s battered khaki pants and old t-shirt look a little worn, he is anything but. His eyes are bright and alert. He barely pauses to sip water as he talks about his vision for the Belmont Hotel and Dilbeck Court, an ambitious, $32 million redevelopment plan to turn the northwest corner of Sylvan and Fort Worth into a mixed-use New Urbanist development. Where now there is blight, he sees modern townhouses, office space, retail, and restaurant spaces.

But it’s a vision with structure and reality. He’s secured the financing for the whole project. The hotel is finished; its soft opening was in November, but as of mid-March, it’s already had several weeks with 90 percent occupancy. The restaurant and 34 townhouses are under construction. The mid-rise office and retail portion are in the works. The neighborhood’s turnaround is still a question mark. The Fort Worth Avenue Development Group and the city planning and zoning commission have written new development and zoning guidelines that Anderson thinks will transform the landscape. But it’s still a gamble.

“I’m all in on this,” Anderson says. “Several million in cash and all my credit, plus several properties I own.”

Over a decade and a half, Anderson has become the undisputed authority on real estate development in the southern sector, and his company, Options Real Estate, Inc., has become the largest and single most successful real estate development and brokerage firm in this part of town. Options Real Estate has about 150 properties it leases, owns, develops, or brokers in the sector, ranging from office buildings like the Inwood Bank building in DeSoto to a slew of 3,500-square-foot shopping centers throughout DeSoto and Oak Cliff. Through the company, Anderson makes deals happen under market conditions that scare off other brokers and developers. He chooses fight over flight, and he’s paved the way for northern Dallas developers who are finally migrating south.

Steve Everbach, managing partner of Evergreen Realty Partners, is one of those pioneers following the trail Anderson blazed. Evergreen is behind the $20 million renovation of Lake Cliff Tower at Zang and Colorado, which includes 50,000 square feet of new retail development nearby. Getting the financing for Lake Cliff Tower together was the biggest challenge Everbach has faced in his career, but he’s confident that future deals in North Oak Cliff will get subsequently easier.

“You have to shake people by the shoulder and get them down here and show them how beautiful it is down here, but then they see it and they’re sold,” Everbach says. “Monte has been a driving force in this. He’s shown developers that Oak Cliff is a viable market.”

Anderson, too, had to be shown the light. “My whole life I’ve been watching South Dallas deteriorate. First it was North Oak Cliff and then South Oak Cliff and then Lancaster and then DeSoto. I’ve watched this Big Box separatism and economic flight undermine the very foundations of the community,” he says. “I’m not overly religious, but I am spiritual. I believe God gave me a mission. I may never even see the end result, but my children’s children’s children will.”

During Anderson’s brief flirtation with moving to the suburbs and taking the safe route, he had a dream that he went before God for a job interview. Anderson was told that although he’d been successful, he’d left his community when it needed him the most and therefore wouldn’t be getting a promotion in the afterlife. “I was told, ‘You left to take an easy road. You bailed on me.’ That’s when I dedicated myself to South Dallas. I had to spend the rest of my life being an advocate for my own community and my own part of town.”

Is he nuts? Options cohort Lena Liles doesn’t think so. Liles, the general manager at the Belmont, is a believer.

“Most investors want fast, instant gratification returns and they have no worry about the impact on posterity,” Liles says. “It takes a lot of work to convince them that what we do has a slow upward curve, but one that yields sustainability for the long-term. It takes a whole lot of no’s to get to yes. We have to do 200 deals a year where someone else does 50 for the same amount of money, but I don’t want to do business any other [inline_image id=”1″ align=”” crop=””]Nothing in the Options Real Estate portfolio compares in scope to what Anderson envisions for the Belmont Hotel and Dilbeck Court, with its $32 million price tag. Anderson acquired the land behind the hotel back in 1999 with no original intention of buying the hotel, which was then operating as a $20-a-night flophouse. But a chance trip in September 2003 to Austin and a night at the urban, bungalow-style Hotel San Jose changed his outlook entirely.

“It was this funky, fun boutique that didn’t charge astronomical rates like a ZaZa or a The Mansion—an organic, non-hotel hotel,” he says. “The light went on.”

With consultation from the reclusive Liz Lambert, owner of the renowned San Jose, his Dilbeck Court concept started to take shape. It took $1.5 million to acquire the Belmont. With penthouse-size dreams but an efficiency budget, Anderson assembled a project team of architects, designers, and craftsmen who shared his New Urbanist vision, and who, like him, had never tackled a restoration project this size. They completely overhauled the property, turning it into a Wi-Fi’ed boutique hotel complete with an outdoor performance venue, and integrated the plan for the proposed Dilbeck Court. The hotel alone is an $8 million project, including acquisition and renovation.

Anderson’s team had to perform their own general contracting; no bidder came in at less than twice the budget. To deal with rampant kudzu on the property, they skipped hiring cutting crews and rented goats, which were more cost effective and more ecologically sound than herbicides. Driveways were turned into walkways. Parking garages became patios. Monte’s wife Rosa, who offices part-time with him in a hotel suite, kept an eye on the books and reined her husband in whenever she could. (The two plan on moving into one of the Dilbeck Court townhomes, and Options Real Estate will move its corporate headquarters to the mid-rise office building portion of the development.)

With a project as ambitious as this, despite his track record, Anderson was getting turned downed by lenders, even those used to his counterintuitive ways. It took a bank in Edinburgh, Texas, to pitch in primary lending. The First National Bank there, along with The Bank of DeSoto and the Texas Mezzanine Fund, helped him get the initial funding and have helped bridge gaps along the way. (There have been seven loans in all.) The rest comes from private investors and Anderson’s own pocket. He estimates it will take him a couple of years to get to where he can refinance all seven loans and turn the debt into a single loan, and then another four or five years to pay back investors. He expects the hotel will take two years before it operates at a steady occupancy level above the break-even mark of 50 percent full.

“I’ve got time. This is a long-term investment for me,” he says. “We can make this happen. I see this as where Oak Lawn was 15 years ago, with a strong mix of people and businesses and income levels,” he says with the certainty of an old fashioned pastor warming up the congregation.
Liles is the chorus.

“Everything is in place to make it happen. It just takes guts and hard work to see it through.”