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The Birth of Uptown

There was a time when the area we know as Uptown faced two options for its future: become another series of gleaming skyscrapers or become an urban wasteland.
By Robert Shaw |
Scott Womack

The bank crash and subsequent fall of the real estate market took care of the former. A small cadre of nascent urban planners set to work on the latter in 1990. But it wasn’t always so easy. In fact, in the early days, the entire thing seemed perpetually on the verge of falling apart.

Uptown is what it is today because of the real estate collapse in the 1980s. It created an opportunity for the noneconomic players to be involved in Uptown. Absent that collapse, it wouldn’t have happened.

It wasn’t just about the money. It was about creating something special that didn’t exist in Dallas but did in other great cities around the world. The economic collapse allowed prices of land to drop to a point where it made sense to put in residential and retail. If not for that, Uptown would have been a high-rise office development, basically an extension of downtown.

We had a core group of people who really made it happen. There was Patricia Meadows (a civic leader), Susan Mead (a lawyer and historical preservationist), Hank Rossi (with Uptown Insurance), John Crawford (with the city of Dallas’ economic development department), Gail Thomas (the first executive director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture), Tom Lardner (a land owner with a vision), Phil Cobb (McKinney Avenue Transit Authority), and John Gosling (a planner with  RTKL). There were others, but that was the core group.

It was a magical time of envisioning what it could be. We were looking back at the great cities and reading important works like The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (an influential book about urban planning in the 20th century) and A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander (about what makes buildings, streets, and communities pleasing, comfortable, and alive).

Everyone drank the Kool-Aid. This was before the term “new urbanism” was part of the lexicon. The Uptown name didn’t exist, but we came up with it while sitting around a table. We hired no one. We had no consultants. We sat around and threw out names, and someone said “Uptown,” and that sounded good so we all started calling it that.

In the beginning, very few wanted to live in that environment. The reality was that it was a transitional neighborhood. It was a time when people had given up on cities because of crime and the crack epidemic. I remember giving a tour to a group of Germans who were considering investing in Uptown. It was around 1990. They had come to see about investing in an apartment project that we wanted to build on property fronting Woodall Rodgers Freeway, where the Uptown Village apartments are located now. The land at that time had been foreclosed upon. I was talking about how safe the area was, and we came around a corner, and there were police and a body outlined in chalk on the sidewalk. Needless to say, they didn’t invest. In the beginning, I always had this fear that we were one crime away from ending it.

Over time, the vision became more real and more attractive to the marketplace, and confidence in cities began to grow. As Uptown caught on, the noneconomic players got squeezed out, and the economic players began to dominate again, and it was all about the money.

But when the world was upside down, and no one believed in cities, a group of people got together and created a vision. I fell in love with urban development (through my Uptown experience) and became passionate about that type of development. I’ve been doing it ever since. I was an economic player. I was trying to attract the capital, but I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed in it.

Robert Shaw is a Dallas real estate developer and president of Columbus Realty Partners.

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