One morning in December, I met Ray Washburne outside the Dallas Morning News’ former downtown headquarters on Young Street. I had been chatting with Washburne over the previous few weeks about his plans for the landmark George Dahl-designed building on 8 acres, which he bought in 2019 for $28 million. He is bullish about the future of his little corner of downtown, not far from Reunion Tower, even though it is one of the few parts of the city center that haven’t seen much new development over the past decade. I couldn’t quite imagine the space myself, and so I joined the gregarious 61-year-old Highland Park Village owner and Hunt family in-law to see it through his eyes.
Washburne popped open a padlock on a back door of the building and led me into a dark, dusty, cavernous hall. Since he bought the place, Washburne said, he has spent about $1.2 million gutting the structure. Little remains of its 70-year history as the base of Dallas’ most important news outlet, but Washburne seemed familiar with every nook and cranny. He pointed out passageways where reams of paper once flew between the printing presses and the typesetters, and he showed me a corner on the third floor that used to house the office of Robert Decherd, a descendant of the man who started the paper in 1885.
“Welcome to the Titanic,” Washburne said, grinning proudly and spreading his arms over his empty dominion. “I could tear it down. It doesn’t have any historic preservation on it. I could scrape the whole thing and just do garden-style apartments. I guess I’m too much of a dreamer.”
We stepped onto the balcony outside Decherd’s old office, and Washburne began to tell me about his dreams for downtown. He plans to transform the old newspaper campus into an entertainment district. Decherd’s office will become a trendy restaurant. The warehouse and printing press area will be retrofitted as microbreweries and distilleries. He will keep much of Dahl’s facade but plans to transform the interior of the campus into a brick-paved pedestrian zone lined with restaurants, bars, and music venues. On the other side of WFAA’s studio, we could see the blue glass exterior of the Omni Dallas Hotel and the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center’s exhibit halls. He may try to create new ways to access his property from the convention center, but that wasn’t why he bought the building.
“It has to be for locals, right?” he said. “Because if people think it’s only for the convention center, nobody will go there.”
Washburne neatly expressed a paradox that has defined this part of downtown for decades. Every year the convention center brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to Dallas, and yet the area around it is a concrete wasteland. The convention center’s inhuman scale, copious parking, and utter disregard for connectivity to the surrounding urban fabric make it the single most disastrous piece of urban design in Dallas. But that architectural failure is one of the reasons Washburne is optimistic. The convention center has been a bane for so long that the city has finally taken notice.
Over the past year, a proposal has quietly moved through City Hall that presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the mess that the convention center has become. This month, the City Council will decide how to proceed. A consultant has laid out four options, but they really boil down to one simple choice. The Council could opt to do more of the same, continuing to pour millions of dollars into fixing and renovating the existing structure.
Or the Council could decide to tear it down.
When we talk about the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, what we are really referring to is a series of structures that now stretches for nearly a half-mile from the railroad tracks next to the former Reunion Arena site to Dallas City Hall. Every decade or so, Dallas has sunk more money into its convention center. There have been five expansions over 65 years, plus the development of the Omni Dallas Hotel, which opened in 2011. The oldest building in the complex is another by George Dahl: the Dallas Memorial Auditorium, built in 1957. In its heyday, the arena hosted John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the Beatles’ first North American tour, and Led Zeppelin. But it grew out of fashion—too small, too antiquated—and sits today largely unused and hidden behind subsequent phases of convention center expansion.
On a visit in November, I found the doors to the arena unlocked. There was a pool and spa convention bubbling away on the far side of the convention center, but as I strolled through Dahl’s arena and an atrium that was built during the 1971 expansion, I found the spaces eerily empty. Maintenance workers zipped by on golf carts, like a scene out of Logan’s Run.
Outside, the setting was no less bleak. The pool and spa convention had demos set up in one of the empty parking lots, and I watched attendees, failing to find a crosswalk, dart across five lanes of traffic to get to it. It’s difficult to know where to walk when you exit the center. The only visible landmarks are the sad strip of restaurants outside the Omni and the bronze bulls parading through Pioneer Plaza. I know that a determined 10-minute hike will bring me to the new AT&T Discovery District, but I suspect many visitors don’t get much farther than the McDonald’s on Commerce Street before turning back.
The best explanation for how Dallas managed to build such a gargantuan piece of Frankensteinian architecture comes from Heywood Sanders’ 2014 book, Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities. Sanders is a professor of public administration at UT San Antonio, and his research on the convention industry has turned him into one of its fiercest critics. The phenomenon of the ever-expanding convention center is not unique to Dallas. Sanders calls it “the convention center arms race.” With generous funding policies that pump hotel tax revenues into convention centers, cities compete for convention business by outbuilding each other. The investments in convention halls are justified by the promise that bigger conventions will fill more hotel rooms, increasing the tax revenue that flows to the city.
Sanders doesn’t buy it. “This is a perverse world where market realities do not affect city decision-making,” he told the New York Times in late 2020.
The last time the city drummed up public support for this arms race was in 2009, when it launched a campaign to win voter support for the $500 million tax-subsidized Omni Dallas Hotel. Voters were told the convention center was slipping behind its competitors because there weren’t enough hotel rooms within walking distance of the exhibit halls and meeting rooms. Building a city-owned hotel next to the center wouldn’t just make Dallas convention business more competitive; it would also help the area around the center bloom. The hotel funding narrowly passed. Three years later, a D Magazine analysis showed that the hotel was losing millions of dollars, and it hadn’t noticeably improved the convention center’s bottom line. And now, 12 years later, the area around the hotel is still dead.
In 2017, however, as city staff began to admit to themselves that our convention business wasn’t exactly helping downtown thrive, the city commissioned a study to examine the center’s operations. Rosa Fleming, who became Dallas’ director of convention and event services in June 2018, tells me that the 2017 study confirmed a suspicion: one major problem with our convention center is that it is a composite of multiple generations’ ideas of what a convention center should be.
“We walked away with some things that we already knew but needed to hear from the study,” Fleming says. “The big part of it was that there was no continuity to the center.”
For example, the study showed that the convention center’s current $500 million in deferred maintenance is directly related to its piecemeal construction, which requires repairing five generations of roofing, elevators, escalators, and other systems. The study also found that the empty streets around the center were not just unappealing to visitors; they also cost convention organizers money.
“Our clients were spending an exorbitant amount of money just to transport their folks back and forth to restaurants in Trinity Groves or other areas that had restaurant and retail,” Fleming says.
To improve operations, in February 2019 the city contracted with a private company, Spectra, a multinational venue management company that now also operates Fair Park, to take over. But the more the city tried to right the ship, the more problems it discovered. A 2019 financial audit of VisitDallas, a nonprofit that contracts with the city to book conventions, found that the organization could not account for $150 million in public funding directed to the organization. In May 2019, VisitDallas CEO Phillip Jones, whose annual compensation topped $700,000 when it was discovered he had expensed a $543 Tumi backpack to the organization, resigned.
As Dallas’ managerial approach has changed, so has the convention center industry itself. VisitDallas’ new president and CEO, Craig Davis, who was hired in December 2019 to replace Jones, says cities have learned to lure business by integrating their convention facilities into the life and culture of their region. For example, Nashville hasn’t been a powerhouse when it comes to attracting large conventions, but its newly expanded convention center has spooked cities like Dallas. In October, 5,000 members of the National Funeral Directors Association descended on Music City—and not because the convention center has lots of space to display caskets. Nashville has done a great job of putting its operations in the heart of an area with a thriving music scene and vibrant nightlife.
“I think you have to address green space and walkability and the other things that are very important for visitors to feel safe and part of the community,” Davis says.
The convention industry has always been vulnerable to market volatility. During tough economic times—after the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 financial collapse, and now the COVID-19 pandemic—convention bookings are some of the first expenses that companies slash. But in an era of increased virtual connectivity, convention centers face a new kind of competition. Dallas has long been able to distinguish itself by offering some of the largest exhibit halls in the country. But now, to compete with cities that market their bustling downtowns and banging nightlife, Dallas can no longer solely focus on the floorplan of its convention center. It has to properly consider what happens when visitors venture outside.
It is difficult to appreciate the scale of the convention center’s footprint until you try to drive around it. The morning Washburne toured me through the old Morning News headquarters, we jumped in his GMC Denali. Like the convention center, the street grid around it is a patchwork of old and abandoned ideas. Streets still feed traffic toward abandoned parking garages constructed for Reunion Arena, which hasn’t existed for 12 years. A road called Hotel Street runs behind the convention center from Reunion Tower to a vacant lot where the Dallas Sportatorium used to stand. We followed Lamar Street under the center and past the dark DART station and turned into an enormous parking lot that runs from the backside of the center to I-30. Above us, a heliport the size of a football field towered over a stretch of vacant land so expansive that it could accommodate a small European city.
Washburne has a developer’s eye for potential action taking place where these vacant lots sit. On the far side of I-30 is Jack Matthews’ SouthSide development and the land where he hopes to build the terminus of a high-speed rail line to Houston. Matthews is a partner with Washburne on his News headquarters project; he is also one of the first people who had the idea of using the convention center to bridge I-30, creating a stronger connection between downtown and the Cedars. A decade ago, when Dallas was debating the Omni Hotel, Matthews proposed constructing it as a bridge over the highway. That design was abandoned for what we have now, a building north of the convention center and separated from the street grid by driveways and parking lot entrances.
Mark Cuban also owns some parcels of land south of I-30. To the east, developer Mike Hoque has painstakingly acquired much of the property behind City Hall; he has plans to create an entire neighborhood that includes a new public school and a possible library expansion. It’s as if developers have surrounded the ailing convention center and are just waiting for it to die so they can get to work.
The question is whether officials will take extreme life-support measures. Either way, the money is set to flow. It will get spent wisely. Or it won’t.
The state’s hotel tax policy has brought us to this inflection point. In 2013, the Texas Legislature forged a new financial tool designed for directing large capital project funding to convention centers. It specifically allowed Dallas and Fort Worth to create what are called “project financing zones.” In a project financing zone, all the state’s portion of the hotel tax, state sales tax, and mixed-beverage tax collected from all hotels within a 3-mile radius of the two cities’ convention centers can be recaptured by the cities and used for center improvements. Fort Worth used its project financing zone to fund the construction of the $540 million, 14,000-seat Dickies Arena in the Will Rogers Memorial Center. Dallas, however, did nothing.
One of the recommendations that came out of that 2017 city of Dallas convention center study was to create a new master plan. Last year, Dallas hired the engineering and design firm WSP USA to start work on it. By city standards, the planning process was both swift and inclusive. Over nine months, WSP worked with representatives from 14 city departments, multiple downtown stakeholders, and organizations such as Downtown Dallas Inc., the Texas Department of Transportation, and the North Central Texas Council of Governments to examine land use, transportation, and marketing and operating efficiency.
“Rather than look at the convention center in a silo, we created a project area,” says Fleming, the city staffer. “We looked at an area from Union Station down to Farmers Market and that crossed well over into the Cedars. We expanded that to include a study area that went a little further north and a little further south so that we can see how any changes to the convention center would impact the area.”
The result is a surprisingly bold planning document. It includes four possible scenarios for the convention center, each evaluated not only for its cost and impact on convention center operations, but also for how it integrates into the urban environment. The “baseline patch and repair” option—simply attending to the center’s deferred maintenance—is included almost as an afterthought. Highest marks are given to redevelopment alternatives that would see much of the existing facility demolished and new halls constructed either on the parking lots behind the center or buried underground.
The preferred option, at least according to city and convention staff I’ve spoken to, appears to be what is called “Concept 3C.” This would see the entirety of the complex between Dahl’s arena and Lamar Street razed. A new center expansion would be constructed over the parking lots and railroad tracks that run between the current building and I-30, with a section extending over the highway into the Cedars. The reconfigured center would have two front doors, one looking north into downtown and the other south, toward the Cedars and the (possible) new high-speed rail terminal. If the city pulls it off, the plan will transform the convention center from a barrier into a bridge.
The scope of the plan is driven by a confidence the funds exist to execute it. In an October briefing to the city’s Economic Development Committee, Fleming outlined a financial strategy that would generate about $2.2 billion from the creation of a project financing zone like the one Fort Worth has. Another $1.5 billion could come from a state provision that allows cities to collect an additional 2 percent hotel tax if approved by voters. In the last legislative session, Dallas representatives amended this provision, known as the Brimer Bill, to allow a portion of the new hotel tax to be directed to Fair Park, which might make it more likely to pass muster with voters.
The funding for a massive redevelopment of the convention center—between $4 billion and $4.4 billion—is precisely the kind of generous tax capture that Sanders, the UT San Antonio professor, argues has fueled the convention center arms race. And while the individual design proposals don’t have firm cost estimates associated with them, the Council might find it difficult to stomach the idea of spending another $4 billion on the convention center (even if that money comes largely from visitors) at a time when the city still struggles to find funding for the most basic services.
But that October briefing to the Economic Development Committee offered a hint at where the city is headed. Mayor Pro Tem Chad West peppered Fleming with questions about the restrictions state law places on how the city uses the money from the project financing zone. West wanted to know if extending the Oak Cliff streetcar line to the convention center could be considered part of the redevelopment. What about reconfiguring the surrounding streets to add better pedestrian and bike facilities?
The picture changes entirely if you begin to think of the area around a convention center as vital to its overall success. Spending $4 billion on the center no longer becomes about merely building exhibit halls; that money could be used to transform 100 acres of downtown, creating a destination as much for the people who live here as for visiting funeral directors.
Rather than talk about his Morning News project, Washburne, I came to realize, wanted to talk to me about his idea for a park. As we continued our tour around the convention center, he described the plan. If the city tears down the aging wing of the convention center, it could be replaced with a massive urban gathering space on the scale of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It could stretch from Pioneer Cemetery all the way across I-30 and into the Cedars. It would be big enough for restaurants, music venues, and sports facilities. Perhaps it could wrap around an unencumbered Dallas Memorial Auditorium, and the arena could be turned into an esports center. Cuban owns the land on the other side of I-30. Maybe the Mavericks could be persuaded to build a basketball arena adjacent to the park. The way he described it, Washburne’s park sounded like Klyde Warren on steroids.
“It’s got to be run by a private enterprise because they’ll raise the money,” he said. “The city will never have the money to do it.”
Washburne’s park idea begins to capture the scale of the opportunity that lies ahead for the city if it demolishes a large part of the convention center. The city will find itself holding an immense stretch of available real estate. What it decides to do with it will largely determine the next chapter of downtown Dallas. The master plan alternatives the City Council will vote on this month do not include detailed designs of how to use such a space. They also don’t detail exactly how the street grid could be reconfigured or how much the convention center demolition and reconstruction would cost or how much funding may be available for investing in the area outside the center.
Fleming says the land-use studies created during the master plan process included looking at possibilities such as adding park space. Jennifer Scripps, director of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, says that during those master plan meetings there were conversations about including gallery space for local artists and other venues within a new convention center. “When you put local art in front of national visitors, everybody wins,” Scripps says. “It elevates our artists and is unique and something that you can only see in Dallas.”
Why stop there? Once you begin to think about a redesigned convention center as an urban revitalization project, the scope of what a convention center is expands. The arts community has been frustrated with VisitDallas for years because it gobbles up so much hotel tax, while arts groups struggle to find funding. But what if the new convention center included studio and rehearsal space in its redesign that was available to Dallas artists? Could massive convention halls be designed as flexible spaces that double as sound stages or performance venues that filmmakers, theaters, and dance troupes could use when they weren’t booked? Are there opportunities outside the convention center where VisitDallas could program public spaces?
There are restrictions on what kinds of projects and infrastructure can be funded through the hotel taxes, and the city will eventually have to submit its proposals to the state, which must approve the projects. But the planning process has helped the city move beyond the shortsightedness that has been typical of convention boosters. When I asked Davis, the VisitDallas boss, what he thought about incorporating some kind of arts funding into the convention center redevelopment, he was open to it.
“You can’t show Dallas to visitors without exposing them to our culture,” he says. “So that has to be integrated.”
And, like Washburne, Davis understands that to make development around the convention center work, it has to work for the people who live here. “Yes, we do need a lot more restaurants, nightlife, things like that,” he says. “Things that are also very interesting and usable to Dallas residents.”
It seems like such a simple concept. What makes a city attractive to conventioneers is the same thing that makes a city attractive to the people who live there. It’s hard to understand why it has taken Dallas 65 years to get it.