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Convention Center Rebuild Could Drastically Transform Downtown, Southern Dallas — If It's Done Right

As with any multibillion-dollar municipal project, the plan to rebuild Dallas’ convention center has been met with both support and resistance.

But those who back the effort say it will do much more than boost business at the center — the true purpose of the project, according to those with close ties, is to breathe new life into a forgotten section of the city.

“The heart of downtown has been ripped out over the years,” Charter Holdings President and CEO Ray Washburne said at an Aug. 23 Bisnow event held at Gilley’s Dallas. “What is about to happen at the Dallas convention center is going to turn that totally around and [make it] the most relevant part of downtown.”

HKS' D. Alex John Jr. and Charter Holdings' Ray Washburne

The $2.5B effort to demolish, rebuild and rotate the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center opens up around 50 acres of development potential for the private sector. The vision is to create an entertainment district that will include restaurants, bars, music venues, activated green space, hotels and more. 

“If we get it right, this is going to be the start of a brand-new neighborhood that may redefine what we think of as Dallas,” Visit Dallas President and CEO Craig Davis said. “You won’t know you’re in Southern Dallas and you won’t know you’re downtown because it’s all going to be one. This will psychologically change everything.”

Perhaps the most transformative element of the project is a deck park that will cover the Interstate 30 canyon and connect downtown to the Cedars. Bridging the divide is expected to spur reinvestment activity in Southern Dallas, an area that for decades was neglected by both the public and private sectors.

“The perception was that the convention center was the dead end of downtown — that’s where it ended, and we really turned our back on South Dallas,” said Rosa Clipper Fleming, city of Dallas director of convention and event services. “We had to move away from the idea of creating the convention center as just a solo, siloed project.”

The city has been intentional about partnering with developers to make sure the area is primed for various land uses as well as housing and transportation options, Fleming said.

Several panelists at the event already have projects underway in the vicinity, including Washburne, who purchased the former Dallas Morning News headquarters for $28M in 2019 with plans to redevelop the property into restaurants, bars and breweries.

The goal of his project, Washburne said, is to make the area appealing not just to convention center visitors but to Dallasites in search of an exciting new place to go.

The population downtown has surged over the past 20 years and is expected to continue an upward climb, especially as several office buildings are converted to residential. This should create foot traffic at any forthcoming developments, Washburne said.

Fair Park First’s Brian Luallen, SWA Group’s Chuck McDaniel, Russell Glen’s Terrence Maiden, Omniplan’s Tip Housewright, Visit Dallas’ Craig Davis, Hoque Global’s Arthur Santa-Maria and ULI DFW’s Tamela Thornton

“You don’t want to notice [convention center] people, you want to see the locals, and I think we have the opportunity to do that,” he said. “Between Frisco and Downtown Dallas, there are about 1,000 places to eat and go, but you want a destination that’s cool.” 

Reigniting downtown and Southern Dallas via the convention center venture will be a success only if developers and the city are careful to avoid the same urban planning mistakes made during the development of projects like Victory Park or Texas Live in Arlington, which Washburne said are only busy during games or concerts. 

“You have to continually reinvest,” he said. “You have to program, program, program. You have to give people a reason to come down there.”

South of I-30, several projects that seek to uplift the historically underserved area are also underway. Developers are walking a tightrope of spurring business activity without uprooting legacy homeowners, a process Terrence Maiden, CEO of Russell Glen and co-developer of the $220M RedBird Mall project, describes as “gentlefication.” 

“That sort of investment is going to create change in that area, and sometimes change is healthy,” he said. “You don’t want to displace people but you also want to encourage new people to come into the community. It’s a fine balance.”

Maiden said his team’s approach has been to bring new retail options to RedBird while also addressing gaps in the community, such as quality housing, diverse healthcare and access to food and jobs.

“We start at a very human level, and we believe people are first,” he said. “That drives our strategy.”

Hoque Global is also practicing gentlefication with its Southern Dallas projects, University Hills and SoGood. The former is a 270-acre, mixed-use development that will include homes and apartments, commercial buildings, a town center and green space, while the latter is a master-planned, mixed-use community anchored by a small business incubator.

Hoque Global Vice President Arthur Santa-Maria said his team has actively engaged the community to understand its needs.

“These are communities we are a guest in, that are established communities,” he said. “We need to be very thoughtful about that.”

Downtown Dallas Inc.’s Jennifer Scripps, Todd Interests’ Patrick Todd, Merriman Anderson Architects’ John Carruth, City of Dallas’ Rosa Clipper Fleming, Wildcat Management’s Tanya Ragan and Petros PACE Finance’s Dustin Gabriel

Also underway in South Dallas is a widespread revitalization effort at Fair Park. The goal is to elevate the property into a year-round destination, and one major piece is a $100M community park project on land currently used for parking.

Brian Luallen, executive director of Fair Park First, said his organization has taken steps to ensure the surrounding community is the primary beneficiary of these upgrades. One way they have gone about doing so is hiring local, minority-led firms to participate in the project’s design and construction. 

“There is no success if you don’t ask yourself, how can I be a good neighbor?” he said. “How can I contribute back to the economy and give back to neighborhoods just across the street?”

Both the convention center and Fair Park upgrades will be funded via hotel-motel tax revenue if voters approve a 2% increase to the tax levy this November. 

“Visitors are going to pay for this,” Downtown Dallas Inc. President and CEO Jennifer Scripps said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”