West End Renaissance

A few years ago, anyone wandering through the West End Historic Dostrict had every reason to be beset with pangs of loneliness, for white architectoral marvels, stray pigeons and perhaps even a few ghosts abounded, other human beings did not. Tucked away in one end of Dallas’ dowtown business sector, the 30-block area with its rows of turn of the century industrial buildings was still an idea waiting for its time to come.

Today the contrast is an outstanding one. The West End fairly hums with the morning-to-night sights and sounds of people both at work and at leisure. Somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 report five days a week to office jobs in the small entrepreneurial firms dotting the West End, and (housands more join them to pursue Dallas’ main form of entertainment – eating and drinking out-at the 20-plus restaurants and clubs that hold forth there. The public acceptance that seemed so long in coming to the West End has emerged with a bang.

By day the West End swarms with more commercial real estate brokers than the number of promises made on New Year’s Eve, By night some of the wining and dining estab-lishments turn away customers, who spill forth onto the sidewalks of the brick-paved streets to sample an atmosphere never seen before in downtown Dallas (except on the Friday nights of Texas-OU weekends). The people are actually enjoying themselves, just walking and talking, stopping occasionally to pass the time in sidewalk cafes, pausing to watch the mimes and jugglers and view the assorted wares of a few sidewalk artists. Even a few Winnebagos bearing camera-laden occupants have discovered the historic district.

The West End, then, has come a long way in a short amount of time-and its promoters see it as being on the brink of something even larger. Says pioneer West End developer Robert Bagwell: “We’ve gone from childhood to adolescence. Now we have the potential to be a whole urban neighborhood.”

From a purely physical standpoint, the story of the West End’s first eight decades of existence is a sort of Horatio Alger tale of architecture. The many buildings in the area were . never intended to be rallying spots for the city’s trend setters; they were humble workplaces. In an archilectural style called Chicago School (for the most part), the red brick edifices featured miles of open spaces for the farm implement manufacturing and clothing trades and a proximity to the Trinity River waterfront and the M-K-T Railroad Line.

As the century progressed through wars and depression, the West End inevitably changed, too. Occupancy declined, although the vast spaces afforded by some of the buildings led to warehouse use by many Dallas companies.

By the early Seventies, the West End was a veritable no man’s land. Mention of the word “West End” brought only puzzled looks of ignorance from the majority of people in Dallas. Although the sites connected with the Kennedy assassination brought droves of visitors to the city, none of those people ventured off the beaten path and into the adjacent ware-house district-for good reason. The area offered nothing to do or enjoy or see, except a lot of musty old buildings.

But In the minds of a few developers, the West End held hope for the future One of those men, Preston Carter, who held options on a number of old buildings, remembers that trying to interest investors “was absolute hell,”

“When I went to see the bankers, I would have to say, ’Well, here’s the most you can lose on this deal,” Carter remembers. “Now there’s a market, but you have to remember what Dallas was like then. The only place in town to party was the Venetian Room (at the Fairmont Hotel), and you never heard about anybody owning a Rolls Royce or an Ungaro. You didn’t look at downtown and see new skyscrapers; you just saw parking lots.”

The first big turning point for the West End came in 1975- Until then, the city’s only officially designated historic area was Swiss Avenue. Now the West End became the second, throwing protective arms around a 55-acre area which is bounded essentially by Lamar Street, Woodall Rodgers Freeway, Stemmons Freeway and Commerce Street.

The historic designation not only protected the buildings architectural integrity but. by virtue of listings on the National Register of Historic Places, permitted investors to eventually qualify for tax credits.

A 1977 city bond election produced $1.3 million in landscaping and street improvements along Market Street, which automatically inherited the role of the district’s main boulevard. (Now marked by its graceful arches and old-style street lamps, Market may eventually become solely a pedestrian walkway.) Future improvements were assured with a 1982 city bond election that not only provided for more street improvements (particularly along Houston and Ross Avenues) but also could trigger additional funds to upgrade old sanitation and water lines).

By the early eighties, the fortunes of the West End were finally turning in favor of its salvation and revitalization. Many speculators had been replaced by investors – companies like Black-land, SPG International and Bramalea-who were bringing life to buildings like the Landmark Center, the Katy Building, the White Swan Building and the Old City Jail on Ross Avenue The original character ol the buildings remained, but the grime of the years had been washed away, and inside, exposed pine beams glowed over the lofty, newly workable spaces. Small firms of professionals – lawyers, real estate people, engineers, architects, communications experts-found the West End an ideal place to call home.

One of the buildings. Landmark, even houses offices of the FBI, Social Administration and the State Agriculture Department’s Dallas district. Although revelers leaving the restaurants and dubs may be in for a chilling surprise upon spotting the “Reserved for FBI” parking slots in front of the building, the government occupants are evidently pleased with the locale, at least in the case of the revitalized Agriculture Department. Says supervisor Martin Burrell: “We’re two years into a live-year lease, and we’ll probably want to sign another one. We seek to preserve Texas history, and we think we do that by having offices in historic buildings.”

None of the buildings seems to hold more fascination for visitors than the old Dallas Brewing Company Building, aptly renamed The Brewery, it’s loaded with character and stones of shenannigans from prohibition days. When the building was being renovated, one bulldozer operater who supposedly wasn’t practicing much prohibition himself careened into an interior brick wall in the basement. Lo and behold, a secret room with old stills opened up. Speculation has it that when Prohibition put the brewing company out of business officially, the enterprising folks simply walled off one huge section of the basement and went about their moonshine ways.

In 1977 the first office building to be renovated, the Katy Building at N. Market and Commerce, held no such surprises, since it had been owned and occupied since 1912 by the original tenant, M-K-T Railroad. The railroad’s vice-president of property management, Raye Reynolds, has logged numerous volunteer hours over the years in behalf of West End revitalization, and she was particularly delighted when restaurants began to flock into the area. “Without the restaurants, the rest of the West End would never have had a chance,” she explains. “Now I think when we have more retail, the restaurants and the retail will feed off one another.”

Another building. 501 Elm, will house the area’s first hotel. beginning in October, 1987 provided nothing goes awry with plans of the developer, Arbor, whose past successes in downtown historic areas have included the Water Gardens Place office building in Fort Worth. Scott Deakins. Arbor’s marketing director, says the opening of the 77-room Elm Place Hotel in a converted 1899 warehouse is intentionally being delayed until next year in hopes that an improved economy by then will boost hotel occupancy rates.

The one element still lacking in the West End, residential spaces, has been explored and rejected by developers in the past. One well-publicized scheme to convert one building into apartment spaces fell through last year when the developers discovered that the costs involved would mean rental fees approaching New York levels. Still, rumors persist in West End real estate echelons that new plans to develop apartments are already on the boards, with announcements soon forthcoming.

The notion of a “festival” market may not be a familiar one to many Dallasites. accustomed primarily to shopping malls, unless they have visited the similar establishments already thriving in such historic locales as New York’s South Street Seaport, Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Baltimore’s harborplace. The concept mixes history with various elements of an upscale State Fair Midway, a neighborhood block party and European street theater. Under one roof, visitors find countless side-by-side opportunities to spend endless hours eating, drinking, browsing, shopping, walking, watching, talking, being entertained and, ultimately, spending money.

A new company, Market Street Developers, is spending $25 million on the hope that Dallas people will bring success to the West End Marketplace when it opens October 18. The company’s principals are Bagwell, a former president of the Preston Carter Company, and David Levine and John Martin, formerly of Blackland.

“We think that this will make the people of Dallas start saying to one another, ’Let’s go to the West End,’” Bagwell explains. “I believe it will become a major entertainment center by day and by night. After all, people all want to eat three times a day, and historic districts have a particular ambience that always attracts people”

The hardest thing for many people visiting West End Marketplace may be deciding what to do next. One of the notions of festival marketplaces is that they are ends or destinations unto themselves- so complete with the gamut of possibilities for doing everything under the sun that people will arrive there and stay-and stay and stay.

To that end the marketplace will spread its wares, consumables and sights and sounds over seven floors and a basement. With more than two-thirds of the space occupied by opening day, the market will offer a tenant mix of 60 percent food, beverage and entertainment operations and 40 percent specialty retailing.

The centerpiece will be Dallas Alley, a huge, $3 million entertainment complex created by Spencer Taylor, co-founder of the phenomenally successful Fort Worth nightclub, Billy Bob’s Texas. But rather than country and Western, Dallas Alley will offer a multitude of diver-sions-six restaurants and clubs, Plaza Bar, Boiler Room, Bubbles Beach Diner, Backstage, Take Five and Froggy Bottom (the West End was once dubbed Frog Town because of its proximity to the Trinity River).

If West End Marketplace sounds catered at least in part to the conventioneer and visiting relative trade, that’s for good reason. Like other West End developers, the market’s advocates and leaders see it as an eventual reason why out-of-towners will want to visit Dallas. That, they say, has been the case with other marketplaces from New England to New Orleans.

“Our dreams are no longer just dreams,” says Newt Walker, a partner in the Carter company who is one of the breed of energetic young developers working in the West End. “Dallas is not a historic city by definition, and we have seen success come to the West End because it is the only part of town where you can go and see history and be entertained, too. I think there will be a residual effect on the rest of downtown as well. I can see people going from the West End someday to the state-of-the-art technology and the new architecture of ’’ the skyscrapers on Ross Avenue, which I think . will become Dallas Park Avenue.”

That’s still a way down the road. But (or the time being, visitors can simply find diversion in watching the West End on any given day, as the tapestry of daily life rises and falls from the time the first office workers dip into La Petite Madeline bakery for a breakfast pastry and coffee to the sleepy-eyed hour when the last disco dandies bid farewell to the glossy environs of the Starck Club.

In between times, the West End crams a lot of living into each day’s pace, from the big bucks deals still being negotiated behind closed doors to lovers kissing on the steps of The Palm restaurant to the sea of automobiles surrounding Nick’s Bar-B-Q, where 25-year-veteran Nick Zoys keeps denying developers’ hopes (that he will sell out) and fulfilling barbecue lovers’ dreams (that he will not).

Carter, who has seen land prices go from about $4 per square foot a decade ago to $50 per square foot today for “undeveloped shells,” voices the feeling that “the West End is starting its second phase. A year from now it will be a lot different.” More people, he says, and more activity “It’s certainly not totally developed,” he explains.

Bagwell sticks to his neighborhood theory for the future: “housing, serious retail, more officing, trolley service and just a lot more happening.”

Concludes Walker the younger breed: “The West End is by no means a ’done’ deal. It’s in a growth mode. . .and its become something of a chic thing. When it matures, it will be the hottest place in town. It will still be a sought-after concept, but there won’t be any more land left.”

And where wilt the people and the developers go then? Nobody is predicting that. But then, years ago, nobody was predicting they would go to the West End, either.

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