DALLAS-With yet another prestigious groundbreaking just a month away, a panel of key figures in the city’s revitalization yesterday brought the brokerage community up to speed on the progress of an eight-year effort that’s had $750 million invested to date into the renaissance.

The next landmark step will be the start of construction on an underground parking facility for the $275-million Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. One year from now, the first buildings in the five-venue cultural portal will begin to rise. “It will complete the cultural component for the Arts District,” Howard Hallam, president of the Ben E. Keith Co. and the district’s coordinator, told the roomful of brokers attending yesterday’s meeting of the North Texas Commercial Association of Realtors at the Hotel Inter-Continental in North Dallas. The meeting is dovetailed with a Downtown and Uptown tour set for Friday afternoon.

The Nov. 10 groundbreaking for the performing arts center, which is 93% financed by private donations, is just one of several recent events that have public and private partners celebrating continued progress in a long-standing campaign to achieve a cosmopolitan ranking. Last week, the city inked a development agreement with Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises Inc. for a $250-million, mixed-use CBD project, with the Mercantile Building as the centerpiece, and next week the vacant buildings will be turned over for recasting into residential and retail space, said Alice Murray, interim president of the Central Dallas Association. Another notable project–the first of three Calatrava bridges–will begin to go up in October 2006.

But if there’s one component that stands out as the linchpin, the panelists agreed it’s the proposed Woodall Rodgers Park, an over-the-freeway connector to link Downtown and Uptown. “The deck has the potential to be like Millennium Park in Chicago,” said Neal Sleeper, president of Cityplace Development. “It has the potential to create that center and make Downtown and Uptown feel like one.” The 5.3-acre park could cost $60 million to build, but it will open the door for 6.1 million sf of development.

“There are still significant tracts of land that are developable,” Hallam said about the Arts District. The one-time predicted commercial development never materialized, but “there’s been more cultural development that we thought there would be,” he says.

With the number of cranes dotting the skyline and more on the way, the NTCAR meeting and tour are aimed at putting all the construction activity into perspective. In the next five years, it’s projected that another 10,000 residential units and 250,000 sf of retail space will be built inside the loop. At last count, there were 2,400 units on the ground, 870 more rising and another 1,500 ticketed to go up next year.

Still, the city’s “Holy Grail” is securing diverse and unusual retailers to provide continuous storefronts along its streets, much like the 175,000 sf in West Village where upscale national and local retailers draw shoppers from around the metroplex. “Dallas didn’t have that before. We had buildings, but not continuous storefronts,” Sleeper says. “It seems like it just happened, but people have been working on it for a very long time.” His five-year plan for the 140-acre Cityplace will add another 200,000 sf of retail and 400,000 sf of residential, hotel and office space to the existing 1,883 residential units and several million sf of office space.

Margaux Development’s CEO Don Silverman says his City Lights project at Live Oak and Latimer streets has been revised to 750 residential units and 150,000 sf of retail, allowing a pod-type development right at a freeway off-ramp. Residential developers and retailers like Starbucks and Subway, including several casual dining chains, are interested in taking down space in the nine-acre infill project, he said. “We’re just trying to figure out how to get under construction as quickly as possible,” he said. And as that plays out, he says he’s got his eye on a couple more infill tracts.

Panel moderator Carl Ewert, executive vice president for Dallas-based Staubach Co., emphasized that it’s the sum of all parts–Victory, South Side, the Arts District and Baylor Medical Center projects–that “are redefining Downtown to make it economically viable.” And, he said, the Woodall Rodgers Park is the key.

Corporations and residents alike are looking at in-town spaces in a different light; several of Ewert’s clients who left the Downtown are now eyeing a return. “For the first time in years, we are being questioned by our clients about ‘hey, what’s going on in Downtown. What is so great in the metroplex is that you now have a choice,” Ewert stressed, “and choices work.”

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