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South Dallas Region Redevelops With Delicate Focus: Improvement Without Gentrification

South Dallas is home to one of North Texas' longest-standing entertainment destinations: Fair Park.

Home to the state fair, museums, an outdoor amphitheater, the Cotton Bowl Stadium and Art Deco destinations, Fair Park is the perfect programming catalyst to build the next generation of South Dallas around, area leaders said on Bisnow's The Future of Southern Dallas webinar. 

Fair Park Dallas

But developers, architects and Fair Park leaders say they're avoiding the trap of launching quick, high-end real estate development in the South Dallas region. Instead, they're moving deliberately and trying to strike the right balance between deploying systemic improvements across South Dallas and not chasing lower-income families and minorities out of the community.

"We want to bring community assets and economic development into the neighborhood, but we don't want to displace people," said Elizabeth Wattley, executive director of Forest Forward, a nonprofit group that is revitalizing the historic Forest Theater near Fair Park. "Gentrification is a scary word because it has advantages and massive disadvantages to it."

Wattley said to avoid gentrification, her team and others in South Dallas launched redevelopment projects using the purposeful-communities model, which encourages engagement with neighborhood leaders and ensures projects coming in bring benefits, job opportunities and destinations to the area's existing population.

Her group's redevelopment of the old Forest Theater serves as a type of gateway to the entire Fair Park community, creating jobs and serving as a catalyst for further development nearby. 

Fair Park itself is in the midst of transformation. Fair Park First Executive Director Brian Luallen said the organization is attempting to bring more traffic that goes beyond the typical visitor to the state fair or other special event. His entity has a contract with the city to create a master plan for revitalizing the Fair Park campus, creating more walkability and increasing programming at the site. 

The construction of a $50M new parks project also is expected to add routine traffic to the campus. The focus is on pragmatic development that helps nearby residents and brings them routinely into the campus, Luallen said. 

"Everybody wants to talk about corn dogs," Luallen said when discussing the Fair Park campus. "We have to have a broader appreciation of ways we can be a benefit to the city of Dallas and to our neighbors. We see bigger things happening at Fair Park in the future and hopefully that drives further investment in the surrounding area while also avoiding those other things [that] come with gentrification."

Russell Glen CEO Terrence Maiden

In the same South Dallas region, the $160M redevelopment of RedBird Mall to include housing as well as retail incorporated a similar development plan using input from the community. 

One of the developers behind the project, South Dallas native and Russell Glen CEO Terrence Maiden, focused the mall's future tenancy on end users who can create jobs and a self-supporting community-type destination. This strategy deployed by Maiden and co-developer and mall owner Peter Brodsky led RedBird into becoming the first redeveloped mall in DFW to welcome health care facilities like UT Southwestern, Parkland and Children's Health on-site

The real catalyst behind RedBird is knowing what current South Dallas residents need in the area, Maiden said.

"People are looking for access to quality jobs where they don't have to drive 30 to 45 minutes to get to work," Maiden said. "Our hope is the RedBird area will be a hub for companies to relocate and employ people from the community."

RedBird's bet on health care tenants paid off when South Dallas was hit by the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. 

"2020 was very interesting and very rough for so many people," Maiden said. "Southern Dallas was really impacted by the pandemic, and we saw firsthand how COVID and the lack of quality health care can impact communities."

Since construction was deemed essential work in 2020, RedBird forged ahead with its development plan. 

"We were able to make up some time and go back and reprice some things from a budget standpoint," Maiden said. "We realized our strategy is right on, bring in health systems like UT, Parkland and Children's. Methodist has been in the community for years and years, but what people want is diversity in health care options in the community."