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Southlake Developer: Downtown Dallas Has No Soul

Frank Bliss is executive vice president of Cooper & Stebbins, which developed the phenomenally successful Southlake Town Square. Even as large as that project already is — the size of downtown Fort Worth in terms of acreage — Bliss said they’re still only about 35% finished with their vision. In particular, they have more office and residential offerings in mind.

When I asked his thoughts about Downtown Dallas, he was quick to answer: “Downtown Dallas has no soul … Dallas never planned for a soul.”

To reclaim its soul it needs a true center. As do many others, he cites the construction of the tunnels years ago as one major mistake, sucking away the street life.

He thinks the Woodall Rogers Deck Park, along with the Arts District, has a real chance to become the city’s center by uniting what we now think of separately as Downtown and Uptown into one neighborhood. He praised much about Uptown, but criticized Victory Park for not creating any housing for “regular folks.”

Bliss is also skeptical about the prospects for development around Cowboys Stadium. “It’s never been proven,” he says, that sports stadiums jump-start development the way that city leaders hope they will when they vote to fund these buildings with tax dollars. “The people who come here” — he said, referring to the Cowboys Stadium in which we sat — “They aren’t the ones who want to stroll the neighborhood shops and restaurants.”

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28 comments on “Southlake Developer: Downtown Dallas Has No Soul

  1. “No soul”, huh? So I’m guessing Southlake is full of flava with all of their diversity and what have you.

    So much I could say here, but I’ll just say that it’s a lot easier to create a “town square” out of 150 or so acres of farmland/dirt/fill-in-the-blank surrounded by a moat of high income residents and than it is to revitalize a downtown of a major city.

    I guess I take my jabs better from other real cities than places with “town squares.”

  2. Ignorance is Bliss. Rock me!

    Seriously? The manufacturer of a pre-fab downtown is slinging arrows about other places having no soul?

  3. @Michael_Davis, while Frank Bliss is by no means a developing guru he does make some valid points. Downtown Dallas has no theme or identity for people to gravitate to. Hopefully the Arts District can start a movement south from Uptown and Victory. Also, the people of Arlington have once again been suckered into tossing away their dollars. Odds they never get publicly credited for hosting the Death Star?

  4. I love Dallas and grew up here, but I have to (generally) agree. Go check out downtown Fort Worth and feel the difference. The Bass Brothers did a great job. We have the potential, it will just take a lot of collaboration to execute it.

    For those ripping on this, just go walk downtown after 9:00 pm on any night of the week. Consider the feel and compare it to other major downtowns.

  5. And I’ve never thought of Corner Bakery, Barnes and Noble or Crate and Barrel as neighborhood shops and restaurants. They’re all just chain stores.

  6. Southlake is basically a glorified movie set with a little better construction material. However, I would agree that if Downtown would just concentrate on its own street level facade, i.e, the first and second floors, it could create a more inviting atmosphere and attract more population.

  7. Sundance Square is the only place anyone would want to hang out in Fort Worth, and they have some of the same issues with respect to business turnover and the like. The size of DT Fort Worth is a fraction of the size of downtown and uptown Dallas. It’s about 3 blocks x 4 blocks (smaller than Deep Ellum).

    We don’t have a Bass family per se, but so what. Many of our downtown assets are coming online within the next 2-3 years. No way I’d want to be in downtown FW versus Dallas.

  8. As repeated so many times before, Fort Worth’s Bass family (and others) GIVE to their city, and invest their own money to make downtown and the arts district the vibrant places they are. In Dallas, the rich (Hunt, Perot, etc.) TAKE from the city, and leave the taxpayers to pick up the pieces.
    But to be brutally honest, what made downtown Ft. Worth successful was Bass’ private cops, and Southlake is also successful because – to be blunt – there isn’t a homeless person asking you for money every 10 feet, and in both of those places you feel safe. Until downtown Dallas can make walking around safe and comfortable for everyone, it won’t work.
    Using NYC as an example: once Times Square was “cleaned up” it became exponentially busier. I feel 100% safe walking all around that area of NYC, but wouldn’t set foot out of my downtown office building after 9PM.

  9. Per Michael Davis, “Sundance Square is the only place anyone would want to hang out in Fort Worth.”.

    Nothing could be farther from the truth. I live in Fort Worth and Sundance Square is essentially what the West End of Dallas was in the early 90′s, a place where out-of- towners and locals who don’t know any better can congregate. It serves a purpose and is nice for festivals and such, but that’s where the allure ends.

    While Sundance Square does draw a crowd most nights and especially on weekends, it’s basically a collection of chain restaurants and bars. To me, it’s essentially a very small Southlake Town Center in an quasi-urban setting minus 95% of the retail plus several bars.

    There are all kinds of places in Fort Worth worthy of a “hang out”. There are tons of great places on Camp Bowie, on/around 7th Street, the Museum District, in the Stockyards, downtown (outside of Sundance Square), near TCU, near the hospital district, and plenty of other off-the-beaten-path places.

    Also per Michael Davis, “The size of DT Fort Worth is a fraction of the size of downtown and uptown Dallas. It’s about 3 blocks x 4 blocks (smaller than Deep Ellum).”

    Another untrue statement. Sundance Square is about 3 x 4 blocks, but Downtown Fort Worth is significantly bigger than that. Fort Worth has just done a better job of concentrating the nighttime businesses (restaurants, bars, movie theaters, Bass Hall) all within walking distance of each other. The 7th St. corridor would be the rough equivalent of Uptown (much less developed, but improving), though it will never be what Uptown Dallas is.

    Finally, per Michael Davis, “Many of our downtown assets are coming online within the next 2-3 years. No way I’d want to be in downtown FW versus Dallas.”

    I don’t doubt that DT Dallas is improving; and I really hope there might be thriving nightlife there some day. But, as of today, the scene in DT FW, as uncool as it may be, is certainly better than the good bar here, good restaurant there currently strewn around DT Dallas. Until there are about a dozen restaurants and bars that actually draw a crowd during the week and on weekends within a couple square blocks, people are going to continue to gravitate to Uptown.

  10. Whatever else, he is totally right about the tunnels and overhead walkways. They were a major mistake, copied from Montreal where they really have adverse weather and need them. I wish that they could be closed, but it is to late.

  11. Fair enough. I’m very excited about everything that’s happening in downtown Dallas. Just wanted to point out that all of the positives of Dallas don’t have to be coupled with negatives of Fort Worth. Both are great places to live/work/play; they just get to the same destination using vastly different routes.

  12. The basic premise of “having a soul” is way off base. How can Southlake’s pre-fab ‘town center’ have a a soul? It doesn’t, really. What it does have, and so does Sundance Square for that matter, is a place-name. These places are branded: the name evokes a certain place, image, and feeling for what you expect to be there. And, they are good brands.
    The “brand” for Downtown Dallas is very diffuse. It doesn’t bring about a singular message like Sundance Square. I don’t think it would be as easy to understand what someone is trying to convey when they say “let’s go downtown” as opposed to “lets go to Sundance Square” or “let’s go to Uptown”.

    As for the tunnels… spot on. They were a bad idea then, they are a bad idea now. Instead of hiding all the activity and making the street-level a barren moonscape, why did’t we just add shade canopies to the buildings? Its certainly cheaper!

  13. @rw:

    One minor quible about Dallas’s rich “taking” from the city, and never giving back. I’d refer you to Nasher, Winspear, Wyly, Crow, Meyerson (via Perot), the Deck Park, Booker T. Washington, Margaret McDermott, Nancy Hamon, etc.

    The arts district has been financed to an incredibly high percentage by private funds. The DCPA (oops – AT&T PAC – natch)had over 120 individuals who contributed a million or more each. You won’t find that in any other city, including FW.

  14. Just because he developed Southlake Town Square doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to develop an area with a soul.
    He did what he knew would work for Southlake. Why wouldn’t he know what would help downtown?

  15. Umm, Lets talk about soul for a minute. Chain restaurants all over Southlake Town Square with maybe 2 locally owned establishments. That’s not soul. Seriously? Have you been downtown? It’s all local! That IS soul. When the caze of moving to the burbs happened a few years back, true, there was something new to offer people that Downtown was lacking. Once everyone got there they realized that they would have to eat at chain restaurants, shop at chain retailers and that, well, it really isn’t that cool. Now with Downtown bringing a thousand reasons to move back everyone is leaving the burbs for REAL, LOCAL, SOUL. Southlake is a fine place but if soul is what people are after, they will have to come DOWNTOWN.

  16. Interesting. So, where is our soul?

    I ran into Michael Davis at the opening of the green line at Its a Grind Coffee shop http://tinyurl.com/lz53xg The place was filled with friends, there raising money for charity.

    How’s that for soul?

    I met friends for beers at Meridian Room last night, very cool spot. My son plays music at Doublewide on Friday, Fallout Lounge on Saturday, both cool spots.

    My friend Frank Campagna has a great show just about every weekend at Kettle art.

    If you want to really see the city at its best, show up at a Art Conspiracy event. This year, December 13.

    Now, our downtown is still a work in progress. Mostly there are not places I’m interested in, but Deep Ellum, and Expo park and even West Village are places that I really enjoy.

  17. OK this is why we REALLY hate Southlake and other tundra burbs – the people are worse than the pretend custom tract homes built on flimsy slabs by unskilled, illegal labor.

    Oh wait where was I?

    Saying Downtown Dallas has no soul is an insult to the memory of my late Daddy and thousands more. My father worked for a few years for 1942 Mercantile Bank Building then for 32 years at Mobil in the iconic 1922 Magnolia Building (haven’t seen one of those out in the sticks).

    I and many others who grew up in Dallas visited our daddies in those buildings crowned by clocks, pegasus or even a rocket.

    We would get our first real suit at James K. Wilson or Sanger’s.

    We would go downtown on the bus in the late 60s and early 70s and even have lunch at the Zodiac to say hello to Stanley Marcus (my best friend threw his Times Herald). So many of the movies I saw in those days were downtown. The WW prom was at The Sheraton with the obligatory dinner at Port O’ Call. As a student at SMU, I interned at The Dallas Times Herald. During the go-go 80s I attended countless parties and dined at Dakota’s, while ending some nights at The STARCK.

    I could go on and on about the churches,the restaurants, the museums, Farmer’s Market – places I still visit on an almost weekly basis. Just last week I was at the Majestic Theater.

    When I fly into or out of my hometown I strain to see my beloved downtown skyline. It gives me goosebumps. No soul, indeed.

  18. I’m fired up!

    Ex-Southlake Town Square employee here! I began my career there just after the grand opening…remember me, Frank? My maiden name is Penn. You conducted a good portion of my interview in French to prove I wasn’t lying about being “moderately fluent” on my resume. But I’m not bitter.

    Praise to Southlake Town Square – in becoming an avid student of urban development and management since my employment there, now more than seven years in at DOWNTOWNDALLAS, I consider the project to be one of the best examples of a lifestyle center in the country – one of the closest to creating an environment of true urbanity by incorporating the city’s government center into the mixed use development.

    But…SOUL? How can THAT be the motivator behind an attack on Downtown Dallas? If there is one thing we are Downtown it is authentic, real, organic and spirited – isn’t that the definition of soul? Did you forget about the significance of historic architecture? The birthplace of our city’s culture? How about businesses, like the flagship Neiman Marcus, that has been Downtown for more than 100 years? Or the three independent pizza joints on Main Street owned by dueling family members? Or the hot dog vendor and saxophone player on the street corner? Or the now 6,000 residents who gather at City Tavern and plan their next group dog walking outing? Organic. Authentic. Community. Oh, and where is it again that internationally renowned architects are building, and the region’s cultural hub is emerging? That’s right. Downtown.

    Sure, we have our challenges to address – mistakes that have been made in our history and public issues that are inherent to a city’s center. But that is precisely what gives us character, gives us soul, and provides an interesting and rich context for future development. Authentic and humanized urbanity. So, go ahead, bash us for not attracting Banana Republic. Or for not developing an abundance of front row parking spaces, forcing the public to embrace mass transit.

    But please, SOUL? I argue that this word choice is quite ill-conceived. With all due respect, of course, to those who lit the fire of my passion for this business in the first place.

    (I hope all readers will check out more on this at our blog – http://www.downtowndallas.wordpress.com where a couple of our staffers reflect on John King’s recent article in D.)

  19. Big problem: everybody is using different definitions of soul. Bliss is likely talking more about a “city center” and “heart of the community” type of definition than “unique” or “cultural” like many appear to consider here.

    Just to add to the discussion, consider this piece by Mariana Greene last year after MillerCoors chose Chicago over Dallas for its headquarters. I think that Bliss’s definition of “soul” is likely similar to the “vibrancy” that MillerCoors found lacking down here.

    http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/points/stories/DN-greene_03edi.ART.State.Edition1.4d96e8f.html

  20. @ Kourtny @ Dallas Native

    That was my problem with the whole thing too. Everyone has a different definition of soul but it seems like the things that he would see as negative in Downtown Dallas like weird little hole in the wall restuarants, tattoo-covered emo kids skateboarding past an old couple headed to the Majestic to see some light jazz, graffiti, a homeless guy singing a song about being a spaceship captain etc. is what a lot of us believe to be soul. Yeah, downtown can get kind of tumbleweed-ish after dark sometimes but it’s not the post-apocalyptic Night of the Living Dead that a lot of “meh”ers make it out to be.

    As far as the Times Square after the cleanup thing, I don’t know if you have lived in NYC but when I did, Times Square was for the tourists and there were still PLENTY of seedy areas in Manhattan. And most New Yorkers liked it that way too. Go to St. Mark’s Place and ask the average New Yorker what he thought of Guiliani’s “cleanup” of the city. The response will probably be pretty expletive-filled.

    But let’s be honest. I think what he meant to say is that Southlake Town Square is like going to a big city downtown district only without having to worry about looking at poor people or (gasp!) having them talk to you. Which is fine. Some people just love that New Gated Community smell. But acting like the pre-fab glorified strip mall is in any way on the same level as the downtown area of one of the top 10 biggest cities in the country is sillypants.

  21. Kourtny touched on some great points. At the end of the day we should be embracing our downtown, not vilifying it. It’s the center of our city, its beginning, history, culture, museums, and yes, its soul. Parts of it shows a pretty ugly soul (my comment above about the homeless was only half joking, they truly have stolen an immeasurable amount from Downtown Dallas, and I don’t mean physical things), but to say it has no soul is pathetic.

    What does Southlake Town Square have that every other lifestyle center in the country doesn’t, better demographics? It must have, because its tenant mix is no different than hundreds of others just like it. Take a 100 year old retail concept and fill it with the standard upscale mall tenants. Wow, how creative…

    Downtown Dallas has danger. It has edginess. It has 24 hour entertainment (where else will you see a naked homeless man taking a bath in broad daylight in the middle of a public fountain?). There are restaurants in our soulless downtown that are higher quality and more prestigious than anything in NE Tarrant County. There is a true pedestrian atmosphere (they’re too drunk to drive anyway.)

    Frank Bliss can keep the whiny helicopter-mom soul of Southlake. We’ll take the alcohol abusing, homeless dodging, massive arts district, home to fortune 500 companies, loft apartment, largest farmers market in the country soul of Downtown Dallas.

  22. As a soon to be former residdent of downtown, my issue with the lack of soul is that none of the businesses give a crap about the people who actiually live downtown. They want the daily workers and the party people who drive in but not residents. There is virtually no shopping (Urban Market is a joke) excpet CVS and 7-11 and Starbucks closes before I get off work at 6. Jason’s Deli is not even open in the weekend. The noise from all those Southlake people that come to cruise Main Street until 3am honking thier horns and frolicking in the fountains are running the real residents out of downtown. It’s not the homeless. Those pedestrians that are walking around drunk need to take a cab home and stop screaming in my front yard. The only danger in Downtown Dallas these days is the danger of stepping in someone’s vomit or feces. Or maybe getting run over by a valet doing an illegal U-turn on Main Street.

  23. “Those pedestrians that are walking around drunk need to take a cab home and stop screaming in my front yard. The only danger in Downtown Dallas these days is the danger of stepping in someone’s vomit or feces.”

    God, I miss living downtown…

    (Front yard?)