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Downtown Dallas Is Riding A High. Here Is How To Keep It That Way

Though the last 20 years for Downtown Dallas have been transformational, area stakeholders say there is room for improvement if the city hopes to continue that momentum.

L&B Realty Advisors' Paul Noland, Wildcat Management's Tanya Ragan and Perkins&Wills' Ron Stelmarski at Bisnow's Rediscovering Central Dallas event Dec. 14.

Corporate relocations, an influx of retail and restaurants, the addition of green space and other livable amenities are behind a surge in population experienced in recent years. According to Downtown Dallas Inc., the number of residents increased from around 200 in the late 1990s to about 14,000 today. Since 2018, the downtown area's population has grown by more than 19%.

“My downtown is vibrant, it’s exciting, it’s active,” Tanya Ragan, president of Wildcat Management, said during the Dec. 14 Bisnow event Rediscovering Central Dallas. “There is something about the urban experience that you just can’t fake.”

But downtown still lacks some key amenities, such as a full-service grocery store, CBRE Executive Vice President Jack Gosnell said. To attract more retail, he added, downtown needs to grow to least 30,000 residents, more than doubling its current population.

“We took a significant hit with the pandemic,” he said. “In some sense we are starting over right now, but there is tremendous retail energy trying to figure out how to get downtown.”

Hillwood Urban is responsible for the development of Victory Park, a major catalyst for downtown revitalization 20 years ago. The next two decades are primed to see even more activity, as the pandemic accelerated an existing desire for a downtown experience, Hillwood Senior Vice President Bill Brokaw said. 

“The urban environment is thriving because Covid put a cooped-up factor into people,” he said. “They want an energetic lifestyle.”

An increase in population will mean walkability is critical. Paul Noland, head of acquisitions for L&B Realty Advisors, said Dallas is considered a car-dependent city and has an average Walk Score of 46. But the Uptown/Downtown submarket has an average Walk Score of 91, the highest in the city, which is a big factor for domestic and foreign investors.

“Over the past 10 years, that really has improved to where Dallas now is on par, for some people, with the Bostons, New Yorks and San Franciscos of the world,” he said. “We are not a gateway city, but we have all of the factors that make us a primary or Tier 1 city.”

VIEW's Kyle Smith, CBRE's Jack Gosnell, Hillwood Urban's Bill Brokaw, L&B Realty Advisors Paul Noland, Wildcat Management's Tanya Ragan and Perkins&Will's Ron Stelmarski

Ron Stelmarski, design director and principal with Perkins&Will, said his company is looking to create architecture that stretches beyond the site, considers the space around it and provides easy access to alternative modes of transportation.

“Vehicular storage starts to become something of a burden on the urban experience,” he said. “As we go vertical, we have a chance to see things differently.”

Ease of mobility in downtown is hamstrung by the prevalence of one-way streets. Brokaw said Hillwood intentionally built the infrastructure around Victory Park to be high capacity, and that model should be replicated as downtown expands.

Kourtny Garrett, outgoing president and CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc., said tremendous growth is on the horizon in 2022, with 86 acres of development opportunity and 1,000 residential units expected to be permitted next year. 

“Where we have come in the last 20 years, transforming downtown from a commercial office center to a livable neighborhood is only going to continue,” she said. 

Hoque Global is at the forefront of that development, especially near the southern edge of downtown near City Hall. The company is paying close attention to the street experience and providing mixed-use elements the area has historically lacked, Vice President Arthur Santa-Maria said. 

“[The city has] not put much attention or emphasis on growing south in the last 50-60 years,” he said. “We think that creates a tremendous opportunity for the next evolution of growth in our city, and that starts downtown.” 

Recent examples of innovation downtown include the AT&T Discovery District, which Director of Corporate Initiatives Melissa Phillips said transformed four blocks and has become a hub for technology, culture and entertainment experiences. Since opening, the district has hosted more than 100 events ranging from salsa dancing to group workouts, she said.

“Those types of experiences are what continue to bring people back week after week,” she said.

Old Republic National Commercial Title's Lolette May, Gensler's Steven Upchurch, Hoque Global's Arthur Santa-Maria, AT&T's Melissa Phillips, The Sam Moon Group's Daniel Moon and Downtown Dallas Inc.'s Kourtny Garrett

Another development in the works is The Sam Moon Group’s JW Marriott, expected to open in early 2023. General Counsel and Vice President Daniel Moon said the project was the only new construction, full-service luxury hotel able to close on its financing in 2020 after the pandemic hit.

“We closed right as [disruptions to the supply chain were] starting,” he said. “We were able to get our orders in and had to prepay for those materials. It’s been a challenge — a juggling act every day.”

Investment by companies like AT&T and Sam Moon Group underlines the need for affordability, said Steven Upchurch, co-managing director and principal of Gensler. A 2021 survey by Gensler found that 69% of respondents were considering leaving their central business districts or downtowns, and much of that had to do with the cost of living, Upchurch said. 

“It’s about bringing young people downtown but also keeping people downtown who are already here,” he said.

To keep Downtown Dallas on an upward trajectory, Noland said, it is crucial that the city maintain the benefits that made it an attractive market in its prime. Things like the ease of doing business, the low cost of housing and rent, and the absence of a state income tax are what drive companies to move their operations to Dallas. 

“We will lose our competitive edge if we become too restrictive,” he said. 

Downtown competes with other commercial-heavy DFW cities, such as Plano and Frisco, when it comes to attracting investment. Noland said submarkets competing against each other is a unique challenge for the metroplex.

“We do need some wins of what I consider name-brand tenants,” he said. “We need new buildings to accommodate these tenants at the right time, but I think we are getting close to getting more.”