Hubert Flamant has a daring vision for downtown. Will the city share the risk?

WHEN YOU WANT to go somewhere really special, where do you go?” inquired Hubert Flamant of a fellow executive.

“Well, several places,” he responded.

“In Dallas?” Flamant asked.

“Actually, we usually go out of town,” the executive said sheepishly.

Another time, another place. “What do you think of when you think of Dallas?” Flamant asked a group of non-Dallas ites who frequently travel to the city. They pondered.

“The green building,” giggled one.

“That building where they shot Kennedy from,” said another.

“That tower, you know, the one that looks like a golf ball tee up at night,” opined another.

“J.R.,” deadpanned a fourth.

But the fifth, a banker and real estate developer, a devotee of design and city planning who once lived in Dallas but now resides in New York, offered a more serious response: “Actually, Dallas has no single place or structure that is emblematic of Dallas. There is no place you can go in Dallas that is considered the soul of the city, the heart of the city, the recognized epicenter of what Dallas is all about, Dallas needs that.”

Wanting to test Flamant’s findings, we conducted an impromptu poll of twoscore often-out-on-the-town Dallasites. The results mirrored both the reaction of Fla-mant’s executive and the out-of-city critics. The soul of the city? White Rock Lake was frequently mentioned. The West End Historical District was named by three or four as a growing center for nightlife. The embryonic Arts District won occasional ballots. Old City Park drew two mentions. The Galleria and NorthPark drew one vote each. But seriously or in jest, the top candidate for Dallas’ soul center was The Village apartment complex.

Although Hubert Flamant preferred not to comment on The Village’s king-of-the-hill position with more than a wry smile, he did allow that his conversation with the Dallas executive and the polls of outsiders and insiders alike reinforce his strong contention that Dallas desperately needs a center, a development of bricks and mortar, shopping and residence, arts and commerce, that can become the symbol of Dallas to the world, the soul center of the city. “San Francisco has its Embarcadero Center, Boston has its Faneuil Hall, Detroit has its Renaissance Center. Dallas needs something to stand as its centerpiece, something that people would rather stay in town to go to than travel elsewhere, something international travelers will want to stop in and visit,” says Flamant.

Who exactly is this Belgian Hubert Flamant (Hugh-bear Flah-mont), and why is he trying to remake an i adopted city-and why does he think he can? First, Fla-: mant is the president of a Dallas-based investment and development company known appropriately enough as The Belgian American Investment & Trade Company. For most of its seven-year existence, the Belgian American company has been a conduit for European money speculating in Sunbelt real estate. Throughout the recent go-go years in Dallas area real estate, Flamant has made a fortune for himself and his investors through buying and quickly reselling properties. The Belgian Americans are probably best known to their fellow Dallasites as producers of the Belgian American tennis tournament.

Flamant hasn’t been in Dallas very long. He arrived in 1979 with friend and now partner Christian Tremont, planning to attend the University of Dallas and get his ! MBA, then return home to climb the corporate ladder. Both got degrees, but the return home was postponed after European friends asked them to locate some prom-ising land investments in the booming Sunbelt. They : said they could. They did, and now they have a company with assets around one half-billion dollars. They also have forty-six acres of land in the Dallas Central Business District (CBD).

Yes, forty-six acres. Approximately $125 million worth of dirt in and around that area known as the Farmers Market. And it is this astonishing package of land that has thrust Belgian American and founder Flamant into the center of one of the city’s biggest dreams and most tangled controversies. Flamant desires mightily to build a massive, heart-of-the-city, signature-of-the-city development, including the city’s long-sought Festival Marketplace. The price tag for Flamant’s resi-dential-commercial-retail-arls center? Maybe as low as $500 million. Maybe as high as $1 billion.

What Flamant envisions is virtually a city within a city, a development with an extensive high-rise and low-rise residential component. Shops filled with European retailers and restaurants, and yes, office space. “I realize that in today’s economy this plan may seem a bit overblown to some, but if done properly, and in stages, we can in time build a monument that will become the identity of Dallas,” says the gregarious Flamant. “What will make it work is people. And yes, that means people living in the area. If I have to. I’ll build the residences at a loss because around-the-clock activity is essential to the project’s success and that requires people living downtown.”

There are those who consider Flamant’s dream exactly that-a dream. These feel the project he envisions is too grandiose, especially in the slower growth period likely to come. Others doubt the economics of the project will work without massive support from the city. Others note Flamant and his friends have no development expertise and that Flamant has yet to produce a talented development partner. Still others believe that whatever success the Belgian American company attains will come at the expense of other downtown projects, most notably the West End district.

OF COURSE, if Flamant’s vision were to be a strictly private affair, the city might wish him well, reroute a few streets, rezone a few tracts, and send the mayor over to cut a ribbon or two. But the realization of Flamant’s dream will require participation by the city on a scale many oppose. Indeed, a signal problem for an earlier, less grandiose version of the dream, was that several city council members objected to the city’s financing of much of the project. Even in the project’s current incarnation there are still those who believe the city’s participation is too great.

It’s an old debate. Should the City of Dallas provide financial assistance or use its power of eminent domain to enrich private companies and/or individuals even if the projects prove successful and a boon to the city? In a town where free enterprise is a municipal religion, it seems the answer would be an almost undebated no. But Dallas has gone in big for public/private cooperative efforts, among them the Reunion project and Bryan Place. City participation in both projects drew opposition.

A long-time foe of public/private partnerships is former city councilman and now State Sen. John Leedom. His objections are philosophical. “I’m not saying that many of these public/private endeavors won’t prove good for the city and even profitable,” explains Leedom. “I’m saying that a city government has no right to take hard-earned tax dollars from its citizens and spend those dollars for the direct enrichment of private individuals. No matter how good the project sounds or looks, it is still a matter of a few people’s judgment and 1 maintain that tax dollars should not be put at risk on judgment calls. If these things look so good, I don’t see why private developers shouldn’t carry the full risk.”

Leedom feels just as strongly about the use of eminent domain, by which a city government can condemn property so that it may purchase the property for use in the public interest. Normally, private land is condemned for such things as roads, sewer lines, and other elements of infrastructure. But in the case of Bryan Place eminent domain was used to gain land that would allow a developer. Fox & Jacobs, to bundle together enough land to make its near-downtown residential development feasible. The land was condemned, purchased by the city, and then leased to the Fox & Jacobs people.

“People make land investments or buy homes and then one day are told by the city they have to give all this up so someone else can profit. That’s just plain wrong,” Leedom says. Assistant City Manager Jim Reid agrees there are ethical questions involved. But he suggests that as a practical matter such projects as Reunion and Bryan Place- and, he hopes, Flamant’s massive development-greatly benefit the city as a whole. “What we’re doing is planting seeds. Some of these ventures are highly speculative, so a developer, who is still putting a great deal at risk, comes to the city government and asks that some of that risk be taken on by the city, which stands to benefit greatly if the project succeeds,” says Reid.

Dave Fox, currently Dallas County judge and the force behind the Bryan Place development, likens Dallas’ public/private ventures to the U.S. government’s granting tax incentives for oil exploration. Fox also defends the use of eminent domain to assist local developers. “This is a tough area. You are taking one man’s property to benefit another man and the city. But take Bryan Place. If you can’t put the land together for a large enough development to make economic sense, and to provide an environment of sufficient scale to make your prospective buyers comfortable, the project won’t work.” According to Fox, the choices are clear. “Do you just give up and say we won’t have any residential development in or near downtown, or do you say this is something essential to the city and we are going to help make it happen?”

Another argument cited by Reid in support of a government role in private development is the frequent need to bring disparate parties or elements together to make a master plan work. “Take the entire Reunion area development,” he says. “We needed to develop a master complex of a convention center, an arena for sporting events and concerts, adequate parking, hotel facilities, and parks together in reasonable proximity. Did we really want to get the city into the business of building and operating a hotel? An office building? I doubt many would want us to do those things; they belong in the private sector. So to make the master plan work, we needed a public/private partnership, and that partner turned out to be Woodbine Development.”

Another recent example of the utility of public/private partnerships is the Lone Star development of Metropolitan Harboard in the downtown Arts District. Ultimately, that project, which covers 105,000 square feet of surface space, will boast 2.2 million square feet of office space, a multilevel retail and office structure, and underground parking structures with 3,000 parking spaces. The parking is the key to the public/private nature of the project. The City of Dallas wanted a very large parking facility to serve its Arts District; parking in the area now is very limited and very expensive. The deal worked out between Metropolitan and the city provided for Metropolitan to be the construction manager for the city’s parking facility, a facility that would additionally serve phase one of the Lone Star project.

Belgian American’s grand design aside, there are those who believe the city should let the developer go it entirely alone, except for some rezoning and street changes. West End developers, for example, say that the West End renaissance was accomplished almost entirely with private funds. They add that no city in the country has successfully developed two entertainment areas and that the full-scale development of the Festival Marketplace might ultimately mean both it and the West End would fail. City Manager Charles Anderson admits he knows of no other city that has attempted two such areas, but he believes both could be successful in Dallas.

Originally, the city had expected to sink as much as $26 million into a controversial proposal to build a multi-acre city park and lagoon as the development’s centerpiece. Flamant’s new approach, which shifts the location somewhat, gets the city off the financing hook. The city’s direct role would be in street and drainage improvements and in working out some land swaps intended to give Flamant’s group a better development package. City council members who oppose using tax dollars to support a private development, such as Bill Milkie, have indicated qualified acceptance for the new plan.

Even with city assistance, Flamant has plenty of obstacles left to overcome. First, he must find a development partner with the proven expertise to design and execute the massive project. His original plan was to bring in Maryland master developer James Rouse, but that plan has fallen through, at least for the time being. Next, Flamant must convince European investors and retailers that Dallas hasn’t died with tailing oil prices and that the investment is still a solid one. ; Finally, he must overcome continuing local skepticism about the viability and desirabil-ity of so grand a project.

Flamant, the young MBA student who decided to slick around Dallas a while and make a few hundred million dollars for his friends, has proven himself able to make visions into reality. If he succeeds with his master dream, the face of Dallas could be changed forever. Dallas might be able to boast a grand marketplace for a soul, not an apartment complex.


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