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Arts pioneers stake their claim in Deep Ellum
By Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons |

There are no bumper stickers that say “Save Deep Ellum, Shoot a Developer.” No confidential memos have been leaked to the press accusing its landowners of putting self-interests above the greater good. There hasn’t even been any grand banding together to declare the area historic. But Deep Ellum is in the fledgling stages of a transformation and a rebirth. And most people don’t even know where it is.

Deep Ellum, for want of a better name, is the area on the other side of Central Expressway, just east of downtown, bounded roughly by the Texas & Pacific railroad to the north, Second Avenue to the east, R.L. Thornton Freeway to the south and Good-Latimer Expressway to the west. It was first claimed – and named – by blacks who settled it as a freedman’s town after the Civil War. Over the years, Deep Ellum evolved into a teeming shantytown with sidewalk bazaars, flophouses and gambling, and some of the best blues around.

It has yet to attract foreign investors with truckloads of cash and visions of high-rises. Nor are there neighborhood groups bent on returning Deep Ellum to its original rough-and-tumble state. What’s at hand is a subtle redevelopment of a pocket of the inner city that has a Realtor’s magic mix: low property values and location.

The area has been virtually deserted since 1952, when the building of Central Expressway severed it from downtown. While a few businesses have continued to quietly operate there over the years, many were boarded up as their owners sold out or died. “The potential here is obvious,” says John Tatum, one of Deep Ellum’s redevelopers. “You’ve got Fair Park to the east, Baylor and Old East Dallas to the north and the Central Business District [CBD] to the west. But to look at it as raw land would be to miss the point.”

In the eyes of its beholders, Deep Ellum possesses an urban beauty -a cohesion of scale and form, a raw landscape ripe for new life. In its solid, brick-fronted warehouse buildings, they see places for people to live and work, to shop, to eat and be entertained. It’s been cast as Dallas’ Soho – a 24-hour, walk-around community heavy on arts-related studios and businesses. It’s been imagined as the city’s creative heart and soul – an arts district with a little “a” and a little “d.”

It’s too soon to tell exactly how Deep Ellum will evolve. There’s a degree of dissension among its key developers on things like where the boundaries are, what the area should be called, who’s speculating and who’s not. But if there’s a consensus, it’s this: For now, the less said about Deep Ellum the better.

To a degree, what’s happening here is an offshoot of development activity in other parts of town. Some of the people who have already moved in did so to flee the rising rents of Oak Lawn. Theoretically, the more publicity the area gets, the more valuable property will become and the more likely it is that the people Deep Ellum is trying to attract will be priced out.

But an inner-city area in the throes of shedding its cocoon is a tempting subject to explore. Fascinating questions arise: Is redevelopment purely a private enterprise, or should the city play a leadership role? Have we learned anything from our experiences in Oak Lawn, East Dallas and the West End? Can we restrain our impulse to search and destroy? How do developers with disparate interests form an effective political base?

These are questions that bear examining. But first, an overview of who’s doing what, where, how and to whom:


One of the first groups to see Deep Ellum as something more than an anachronistic mix of popcorn warehouses and transmission shops was the Preston Carter Co. real estate brokerage firm. Preston Carter had done its thing in the West End and was seeking further fertile ground near the CBD. The firm saw Deep Ellum as the last inner-city frontier. Explains Preston Carter, the firm’s head, “It was a process of elimination, not intuition.”

Two years ago, under the direction of Robert Bagwell, the firm began to research and plot the identity of every building in the area. Then it began knocking on doors. In a series of transactions, some with outside investors, Preston Carter bought and began to negotiate deals on some 100,000 square feet of small warehouse building space. Because of the size of the deals and the cost of upgrading the buildings, Bagwell says “it’s not the most profitable thing we’ve ever done.”

The firm is cautious in its public predictions for the future of Deep Ellum. But privately, it has persuaded several influential people to commit to this still raw part of town. Shuler-Reese, prime developers of lower Greenville Avenue, was convinced by the firm to invest heavily here. So was Gene Coker, who bought the fine old Adam Hat Company building on Canton Street. Neither has definite plans for development at this time.

To Carter, Deep Ellum makes sense because of its location and its economics. He explains, “We see Dallas’ inner core as the place to be -because of the cost of gasoline, the time it takes to commute and the quality of life people want.

“We don’t see this as a chichi tourist area -but it can provide good work space for creative and professional people who want to own 5,000 square feet. You can’t do that in a skyscraper downtown.”

According to Carter, rents in Deep Ellum are 75 percent less than in Oak Lawn; land values are one-quarter to one-third of the $40 to $60 a square foot that the area near Turtle Creek now commands. Naturally, they’d like to keep it that way. Says Bagwell, “The only thing that can stop this is greed on the part of the owners.”

The Carter approach is to first take possession of a building; second, find a user; third, renovate to accommodate them. To keep costs low, they’ll rent it out as it is. “Or we’ll spend what we have to,” says Bagwell, “depending on the needs and grade of the tenant.”

Some owners won’t sell. “We’re not interested in dominating the area,” Bagwell says. “We want to turn it around. If someone wants to hold on to their property, we’ll try to convince them to upgrade and lease it out.”

How long will it take to see a new face on Deep Ellum? Carter: “Well, in the beginning, you’re bucking a trend, but when it turns, it turns quickly. Deep Ellum’s happening faster than the West End.” And Bagwell says: “When an area begins to decay, it’s contagious. But happily, the opposite is also true.”

John Tatum is no stranger to redevelopment efforts near the CBD. He bought the White Swan Coffee building in the historic warehouse district in the hopes of rehabilitating it for offices and housing. He eventually sold out to Keith Cecil, who has bought up most of the area; but he quadrupled his investment in just five years.

It was that cash profit that led him to reinvest in another inner-city pocket -Deep Ellum. Tatum bought what was originally the Continental Gin complex, more recently owned and operated by Otto Coerver -an interior woodworking and elevator cab production firm. His property is at the northeastern edge of the area, spanning a wedge between the T&P railroad, Trunk Street and Elm.

Tatum believes that the area has long-term potential, not only because of its location but also because of the architectural character of the buildings and the texture of the neighborhoods -which he describes as having both diversity and continuity. “I think it has more commercial potential than the West End Historic District,” he says, “but I also think it has the potential for housing in the manner of the Back Bay of Boston – formerly a stinking mudhole. Cityscape-wise, pedestrian-wise and mechanically, the area has the same elements as the Back Bay.” To test his instincts, Tatum has commissioned an independent study of potential appropriate land and property uses for the entire area.

Of the four structures Tatum bought, the two smallest are being tackled first. A two-story building at the corner of Trunk and Elm is undergoing renovation now. The ground floor will house two art galleries, one of which is the DW Gallery, formerly on McKinney. On the second floor, Tatum will locate his own offices and those of Architexas, an architectural firm with which he has close ties. Work is scheduled to be completed by spring of 1983.

The building next door was the old foundry- a cavernous one-story structure with a center-peaked roof. Tatum sees this building as housing two theaters, a shared lobby and a restaurant. The larger of the theaters, to be developed at a later date, will be mechanically and functionally designed for cable production as well as for live stage. Tatum is now in the process of negotiating with an established theater group for the smaller stage. Theresa Astarie, whose track record as a restaurateur includes the Stoneleigh P, Bar Tejas and the new Inwood Theater Lounge, is under contract for the restaurant. It and the theater are slated to open next fall.

In the bigger buildings, Tatum hopes to continue leasing commercial or office space on the street level and perhaps convert the upper floors to residences. He figures he has the capability for 80 to 100 units of housing ranging in size from 800 to 2,400 square feet. “We have investment i reasons to go with rentals in the beginning, | perhaps with an option to buy. You have ] to offer equity to pioneers.”

Tatum has syndicated the project as a limited partnership, of which he is the general partner. He feels he profited enormously from his experience in the North End -and not just financially. “I didn’t know up from down about real estate when I bought the White Swan Building,” he says. “I knew enough to know that the area had potential, but I couldn’t inspire the confidence of would-be investors. I made a lot of mistakes, but at least I made them on paper. I didn’t build my mistakes.”

A third key figure in the Deep Ellum rebirth is travel and computer man Jim Her-ling, whose wife, Michelle Herling, has had a pre-Columbian art gallery in the Quadrangle for 14 years. Recently, Michelle got the word that her lease was not being renewed. She was given four weeks to get out.

The Herlings had been looking for a place to own for some time. They had considered the North and the West End, but hadn’t come up with the right building or the right deal. Then they found, and fell in love with, a group of warehouses on the 3200 block of East Main.

Though Herling is still in the process of acquiring the five buildings, he has grand visions of what the complex will eventually become. He plans to locate shops, galleries and cafes at the street level, and sell or lease living/working lofts on the floors above.

Herling’s plans for the development, which he has named L’Assemblage, is innovative in a number of ways. First, the concept of a community where everyone lives and works in the same place has yet to be fully explored in Dallas. In Manhattan – especially in arts-oriented areas like Soho and Tribeca -lofts that double as residential and work spaces are common. From the community’s point of view, 24-hour residents are desirable because of their commitment to the area. “Thirty-plus property owners makes a pretty effective political base,” Herling says. “I want those people in case it becomes necessary to fight City Hall.”

Herling’s development, when it gets off the ground, will not be lacking in either amenities or the basics. For food, there’s the Farmer’s Market nearby, Deep Ellum’s long-established Rudolph’s Meat Market and a bread bakery already in operation on Commerce. L’Assemblage will contain a colony of other small food-service operations-perhaps a pastry shop, a wine-and-cheese store or a dispenser of custom-blend coffees. Herling envisions the heart of the complex to be a courtyard that utilizes existing alleys. It will serve as the main entrance to the buildings and will be dotted with café tables, art exhibits and occasional musicians.

Work is currently under way on the six-story building -the largest of the complex, which will house Michelle’s art gallery and, eventually, the Herling residence. Architecturally, the aim is to return the building to its original condition – adding or subtracting as little as possible along the way. Herling sees potential in each concrete pillar and brick wall, existing box-car tracks and loading ramps. Rooftops also play a central role in the plan -as outdoor sculpture gardens, restaurants and courtyard connections between the buildings’ upper floors.

Herling is confident that he can attract other kindred souls to L’Assemblage. He may be right: A small, eight-line advertisement in the business properties section of the paper attracted 170 responses.

Everyone involved in Deep Ellum expresses concern that creative people will not be able to afford it once it catches on. On that score, Herling has put his money where his mouth is. He has agreed to reserve 50,000 square feet of the project for struggling professionals, to whom he will lease loft space at $5 a square foot, if they agree to live and work there for five years. At the end of that time, he will give them one-half of their rent money back to use as a 40 percent down payment to purchase. Says Herling, “No one believes an owner would sacrifice profits for the arts.”

Jim Herling, John Tatum, Preston Carter and his investors are the major acquirers of property in Deep Ellum. But there are other key figures who have staked their claim in a more limited way. Laura Carpenter, daughter of Ben Carpenter and owner of the successful Dela-hunty Gallery, bought a building on Canton Street and moved both her art operation and her residence there this fall. To have as influential a member of the Dallas arts community as Carpenter already in place is the biggest boost Deep Ellum has had so far.

Another prominent citizen who has recently moved to Deep Ellum is Lyn Dun-savage, publisher and founder of The Dallas Downtown News. She has just purchased the La France Fire Co. building at 3600 Commerce, near Exposition. She has renovated 4,000 square feet as office space for the Downtown News and built a small apartment for herself (she commutes from an East Texas farm). The Rominger advertising and public relations firm will be joining her at the first of the year.

A couple of restaurateurs are poking around in Deep Ellum, too. Adair’s Cafe, a trendy spot that was recently uprooted from Oak Lawn, will be taking a lease in the Adams Hotel at 2622 Commerce. Shannon Wynne, who brought us Rocco’s and 8.0, is looking at the Ice House, a landmark on the northern edge of the area, as a location for a restaurant or club.

So far, none of the giant developers – Trammell Crow, Vantage, Campeau – have expressed an interest in Deep Ellum. That could be because it’s not big enough game for them, or as Herling suspects, because the economy is bad. It’s obvious that the owners who have bought there want to keep the area low-profile and low-rise. “Deep Ellum is the place where the little guy can buy a small building and renovate it for himself,” Laura Carpenter hopes. “A lot will depend on the zoning, but we think high-rise encroachment, if it comes, is still a good 20 years away.”


EVEN WITHOUT the threat of the big guys, the area has definite problems, Probably the least significant but the most talked-about is the name. Hardly anyone likes “Deep Ellum.” “It suggests a rundown black shantytown,” says one broker who works the Deep Ellum beat. Even Deep Elm -the Anglicized version, is considered a throwback to the area’s early days. East End is not a popular candidate because it’s thought to be a tired recall of the West and North Ends. The greatest approval so far seems to be going to East Side.

More potentially troublesome is the zoning. At present, Deep Ellum.. .uh, er, East Side, has industrial (1-2) zoning. 1-2 prohibits all forms of housing except apartments, for which it requires a specific use permit. It does include a provision for the housing of a caretaker or watchman.

The route to a zoning change is not prohibitive, but because of the uncertainty of some of the developments, the nature of that route is still up in the air. Owners may either file a request for a specific use permit, ask for a reprieve from the current zoning or submit a Planned Development District application, for which the minimum site size is two acres. All these approaches require hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council.

Naturally, if everyone in the area is in favor of the same zoning and the city agrees, no one has a problem. But not all of the owners have as firm visions of Deep Ellum as do Herling and Tatum. Some people who have bought buildings would prefer to wait and see what develops before they commit to any permanent zoning change. Then too there’s the potential opening of a Pandora’s box when you change to a zoning that allows, say, not only housing but other uses as well. One artist who bought a small building near Tatum’s property got it rezoned to Heavy Commercial because it includes single-family dwellings. Some are afraid that may be a dangerous precedent. So far, according to the city zoning office, no other formal requests have been filed.

Another real concern is parking. If even half of the buildings under study are converted for new use, the area is going to need a lot more.

A scarcity of parking is one reason Her-ling is intent on keeping his project as low-density as possible. He explains: “We want quiet, low-profile restaurants, small shops and businesses with a minimum of workers. We’ve already had to say ’no’ to one potential tenant who needed parking for her employees.”

John Tatum has visions of handling the majority of his parking needs on site. He says he learned from his experience in the North End how to assess whether a building’s structural system can accommodate parking within it. Happily, the columns that support the Continental Gin Building are spaced widely enough to allow cars to fit in between. An excavation for basement parking is feasible, Tatum thinks.

Interestingly, crime is not a major concern in Deep Ellum. According to Tom Covington, crime analyst for the Central Division of the Dallas Police Department, there have been a couple of outbreaks of one-man burglaries, but virtually no “persons crimes.” One rather blatant deterrent may be the daily influx of patrolmen who pick up their squad cars at the City Service Center at the eastern end of Canton Street. Robert Bagwell remembers standing on a street corner not far away one afternoon. Within 15 minutes time, he saw nine policemen drive by.


ACCORDING TO assistant city manager Victor Suhm, the city has not, in the past, played the leadership role it should in the redevelopment and reuse of inner-city land. “On the other hand,” he’s quick to add, “we don’t control the market. We can’t always be anticipatory of market forces.” Suhm points out that the city is now involved in planning the redevelopment of Oak Lawn. But he admits that their participation came out of community panic when the buildings started to disappear.

Suhm has expressed an enthusiasm, shared by the planning department, for the activities occurring in Deep Ellum. “I think it has good potential for specialty retail, and I hope it has the potential for housing. With our transportation problems, it is crucial that we encourage people to live closer to downtown. The question is, what kinds of strategies and incentives do we use?”

“It sounds to me as if Deep Ellum is falling together rather informally,” says Planning Department senior designer Leif Sandburg. “The area is looser, funkier than the 50 acres of prime historic architecture on the West End. It’s hard to master-plan ’funky.’ If you come in with a lot of guidelines, the spontaneity will be killed.” Though she prefers the term “raw” to “funky,” Laura Carpenter agrees, “I don’t think Deep Ellum should be super-planned.”

In a visit to Dallas several years ago, city planner Edmund Bacon (who played a major role in Philadelphia’s urban renaissance) said that Philadelphia’s redevelopment probably wouldn’t have taken off if the city’s planning commission had been involved. “It was really done by young people, who probably view themselves as largely outside the regular cultural system,” he said in an interview published in D’s June 1978 issue. “But it has grown and strengthened to the point that now it has attracted people from the cultural establishment.”

Deep Ellum can be said to be following in that path, yet there is one area where the establishment’s role is crucial and inevitable: the fate of the Fair Park Link. For some months now, the transportation department, planning staff and planning commission have been looking at alternatives for a thoroughfare link from Fair Park to the CBD. In July, the planning commission approved so-called Plan 2-A, which outlined a route along the Texas & Pacific railroad right of way. The plan called for the roadway to split at Trunk Street into one-way couplets culminating at Fair Park. Tatum didn’t like the plan because it severed his property from the rest of Deep Ellum. Herling was opposed to a major thoroughfare passing by the Trunk Street side of L’Assemblage. Nobody thought the plan had adequately considered its potential impact on the redevelopment plans.

Soon after its release, James Pratt of Pratt, Box & Henderson Architects, a member of the Urban Design Task Force, began to formulate a revision of 2-A, eliminating the idea of the two one-way streets. He proposed instead a fully landscaped, ceremonial boulevard all the way from Exposition to Good-Latimer. He also added a secondary ceremonial link along Canton Street from Exposition to City Hall. The new alternative, named 2-B, gave form and definition to the prime redevelopment land and won the support of Deep Ellum property owners. The City Planning staff asked transportation consultant Rod Kelly of Barton-Aschman Consultants to evaluate the 2-B plan, which he did, amending it slightly and endorsing its potential enhancement of the entire East Side. In late October, the commission voted to scrap 2-A and send the new link plan back through the process of community- and committee-approval. It should be brought before the City Council soon.

Dallas city officials and planners see Deep Ellum’s greatest promise in housing. Studies in cities all over the United States, including Dallas 2000, see people moving closer to their place of employment -and there are 135,000 of them working in the CBD. Another major neighbor, Baylor Medical Center, has a large concentration of employees who have already voiced an interest in housing nearby. Bill Carter, Baylor’s executive vice president, says, “Our reviews with employee groups show a real interest in inner-city housing -especially rentals -if the prices are comparable. There was less interest in Bryan Place than we had expected, but many people just weren’t in a position to buy.”

“The city is crying out for housing,” says Gail Thomas, director of the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture -a think tank and learning center that studies city life. “The warehouse areas are fertile fields for housing because they’re low-level and on a human scale.” Many people fear that escalating prices in the West End Historic warehouse districts have already priced out two groups who tend to opt for downtown living -single professionals and young marrieds. Says Jim Cloar, president of the CBD Association and a proponent of downtown housing, “It is a paradox that the more successful a developer is in getting a plan for inner-city housing off the ground, the more jeopardy he puts that plan in.”

Nobody wants that to happen in Deep Ellum. And here there’s double jeopardy because of its aspirations as an arts community. Artists are often the first to claim a deteriorating area and the first to be forced out when it turns around. Patricia Meadows, program director of the artists’ cooperative D Art, says, “Creative people will go into a less expensive part of town and make it chic, then they’re pushed out because they can’t or don’t own property there. Landlords need to reward artists rather than punish them for making their property valuable.”

In commenting on the early plans for the West End, Philadelphia planner Bacon put forth a less sympathetic view: “I would do everything I could to make the district a center of creative artists, and I wouldn’t get all hung-up on ’Maybe it won’t work,’ or ’Maybe later on they’ll be thrown out.’ If they are, they may have made a tremendous contribution to Dallas by calling attention to the potential of the area.”

There’s no question that, at least so far, the new activity in Deep Ellum is centered on the arts. It’s estimated that as many as 100 artists already live or work there, and five galleries are in operation -with rumors of more to come. (This issue of D was photographed in a Deep Ellum studio.) The area’s future for housing is more precarious. The zoning issue must be resolved, and the demand for inner-city living more resolutely established. “The developers I’ve talked to,” says Suhm, “fear that the market in Dallas just may not be there right now.”

“It’s too soon to say what Deep Ellum will become,” says a Preston Carter employee. “There’s plenty of talk but no building permits, no zoning changes, no tenants lined up. If someone offered enough money to John Tatum or Lou Reese or Preston Carter, even, things could change overnight.”

Whether it becomes a Soho, a residential enclave, a small businessman’s districtor all three, one thing seems assured: DeepEllum is on the way up. The creativemeans for taking it there have been enthusiastically outlined. What remains tobe determined is the security of the marketand the sympathy of the local financiers.It’s hoped that with interest rates downand the prospect of at least a minorrecovery in early 1983, would-be lendersmay judge the times right for a risk. Somewhere down the line, those who are speculating in the area will have to put up or getout. Gail Thomas sums it up: “There hasto be a sense of restraint on the part of thedevelopers to turn a buck. Somebody hasto bring this kind of mixed-use texture todowntown. For Dallas to have the dimension it needs to be a true city – Deep Ellumhas got to succeed.”