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The Battle To Build the Dallas Arts District

When word got out about Dallas’ plans, it caused a land run downtown that almost ruined the entire project.
By George Rodrigue |
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photography courtesy of Getty

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photography courtesy of the Dallas Morning News

One week before the election, Californians passed Proposition 13, which gave Charlton a very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. His stomach was right. Less than 16 percent of all registered voters cast ballots, but this time it was the antis who showed up. While 58.6 percent of the voters approved Erik Jonsson’s cherished downtown library, only 45.6 percent affirmed the cultural bond issues. The museum lost all its land options.
George Charlton and his colleagues conferred the morning after that defeat and decided they had not yet begun to fight. They asked Kilcullen to get new purchase options, and Kilcullen started knocking on doors. Even so, he was almost too late.

When Kilcullen went back out to the landowners, he found that they wanted the museum to pay for its options this time. And the purchase price on some parcels had doubled. The arts district idea made owners think their land might be worth something. One owner, holding title to the property at Ross, Harwood, and Olive, wouldn’t consider an option. He wanted to sell his property outright, but the museum didn’t have the money to buy it.

Trammell Crow had the money, and he bought the land. He bought it, in fact, within three weeks of the bond issue’s failure. He liked it for the same reasons the museum backers did: it was cheap, close to several major traffic arteries, and within a few blocks of downtown. “It was a good area to develop, and we could develop a large project,” Crow says. He felt the same way about the east end of the arts district, which is defined by Routh, Ross, Central Expressway, and Woodall Rodgers Freeway. “I guess I started buying land there back in 1976,” he recalls.

Crow was the first developer to buy into the proposed arts district, and the 90,000 square feet he purchased in the summer of 1978 for about $20 a square foot was worth $125 a square foot within three years. It was, in other words, a shrewd buy.

The arts patrons did not call Crow shrewd, however. They called him menacing, self-interested. A threat to the environment of the museum. A trespasser upon the arts district. In the name of beauty and culture, they asked him to sell them back the property.

In the name of free enterprise and economic health—of the city, not only of Trammell Crow—he refused. The Central Business District was moving in that direction, he told them, and parks or plazas would impede its natural growth. The land was perfect for a high-rise development, and it would be best for all concerned if he held on to the property. Which he did, producing a bitterness that some arts patrons still taste when they speak of him. Indeed, that conflict—perhaps inevitable given the ambition and farsightedness of the two camps and the desirability of the property—has affected Crow’s relationships with the various arts groups ever since.

As far as the development of the arts district was concerned, however, the dispute with Crow was more a symptom than a disease. The Central Business District’s growth, and to a lesser extent the very notion of an arts district, pushed property values ever higher. Available land was rapidly blocked up by brokers and sold to commercial developers, who saw the same virtues that Crow had, albeit later in the game. “What attracted us was really the prospect of an arts district,” says Webb Wallace, local partner in the Tishman Realty Corp., which bought into the district last spring. “With the district, there was a prospect for superlative development. Without the district, there was the prospect for a piece of still promising downtown property. It would be a good deal one way, and a great deal the other.”

It was sort of a raw deal for the arts institutions, who, with the exception of the museum, were priced out of the game. The museum won $24.8 million for its project in a city bond election held November 6, 1979. Thanks to Kilcullen, it still had options on land for $13 to $25 a square foot. The symphony was allotted $2.25 million in bond funds for site acquisition, but it had no options. By June of last year, the symphony association had to throw up its hands and announce that it simply could not afford to buy “arts district” property. And the opera, which was not on the 1979 bond issue—it wasn’t ready to proceed and did not want to clutter up the ballot and endanger its sister institutions—seemed to be out of the picture entirely.

Obviously, those economic facts changed the very idea of the arts district. The Carr, Lynch concept was of a square, compact collection of cultural facilities and parks, with commercial uses accounting for about 16 percent of the district’s land area. In the current district, the commercial ownership accounts for about 65 percent of the land. The current district stretches rectangularly from St. Paul Street east at least to Routh Street and possibly to Central Expressway.

In retrospect, the changes have not been for the worse. Dr. Philip O’Bryan Montgomery Jr., who is coordinating work on the district, says the new layout “is better, because it’s bigger. You have a much bigger area along Flora Street than you did before, and you can put more on it.”

With the private developers involved, there would be more money to spread around on the special landscaping and building designs the arts groups have envisioned. “The Carr, Lynch recommendations probably were a purist ideal or vision,” says Vic Suhm, the assistant Dallas city manager who has helped coordinate arts district activities for the city. “The reality is that the arts institutions have to have the funding and planning, and you are dealing with privately owned land that has high value, and you can’t just confiscate that.”

That is one reality. Another, brought home by the symphony’s problems last summer, was that there might not be enough “art” in the area to form a cohesive district. “You couldn’t have an arts district with just the museum,” Wallace says. Something had to be done about the symphony.

===Another reality was that there might not be enough “art” in the area to form a cohesive district. “You couldn’t have an arts district with just the museum,” Tishman Realty’s Webb Wallace Said. Something had to be done about the symphony.!==

It wasn’t that the symphony didn’t know what it wanted. A committee chaired by Mrs. Eugene Jericho had worked on that question for 18 months and had decided that the best site was a chunk of land at Pearl and Flora streets, next door to the Borden plant. “We had anticipated costs of $15 to $20 a square foot in 1978, and by 1981 it was going for in excess of $115 a square foot,” Leonard Stone recalls. The symphony needed 50,000 square feet for the concert hall alone, and the city wanted green space, parks, and plazas around the building. But its $2.25 million would buy only half enough land for the building.

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photography courtesy of Texas/Dallas History Division, Dallas Public Library
“Given what the market was asking for land, and what the bond issue had provided us, we ultimately had no option at all,” Stone says. “On the sixteenth of June, we told [Mayor] Jack Evans that we were convinced we would never get an opportunity to get into the arts district. He said, ‘I will take it upon myself to try to find you space.’ ”

Evans knew the symphony wanted some of Borden’s land. He also knew Eugene Sullivan, the chief operating officer of Borden. The two had met about four years earlier at a grocery industry convention, which Evans attended on behalf of Tom Thumb grocery stores. “When I called him, he was in an executive committee meeting, and he stepped out of the meeting and talked to me on the phone,” Evans says. “I explained what we needed, and he said he would get right on it. And boy, he did.”

Within two weeks, Sullivan had flown down from New York and taken an automobile tour of the arts district. All the city needed from Borden, Evans explained, was about 25,000 square feet of land (then worth more than $2.5 million). The city owned adjacent land and could buy out five smaller landowners. “He said they did want to relocate their plant, and I said, ‘We would like to help you stay in Dallas.’ And the more we talked, the more he became interested in what they could do about a gift,” Evans says. “He said, ‘Let me run it by my board,’ and two weeks later he called and said, ‘We want to give you those 25,000 feet.’ ” On September 18, 1981, the gift was announced.

What was not made public at the time was the involvement of Tishman, which had been negotiating to buy the rest of Borden’s property, next door to the symphony site. “Tishman was involved in the donation package. They were part of the negotiations,” says city planner Schoop. While the symphony deal was strictly between Borden and the city, there was a sweetener for Tishman (a sweetener that, presumably, helped Borden to charge Tishman a healthy price on its remaining acreage). “There was a promise that the city would be building some parking spaces that could be used by Tishman while they were building their own space,” Schoop says. “About 2,000 spaces, which was about what we needed for the symphony anyway, and for public uses down there. So that was no big problem to us.” There were reports at the time that the city had given Tishman something for free.
Webb Wallace dismisses those stories as “newspaper talk.”

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