Monday, February 22, 2010

Downtown buildings sit idly by as renovation projects stall

Downtown Dallas' 52-story Elm Place building was the tallest tower west of the Mississippi when it opened in 1965.

Now the million-square-foot tower is the largest empty building in town, thanks to the owner's decision to shut down.

Elm Place is one of almost a dozen large downtown buildings that have gone begging in the latest real estate boom.

And now that the recession has pulled the plug on most commercial property projects, their prospects have done anything but improve.

"We have just been through the best financial environment we are likely to see in 20 years," said Ted Hamilton, who with his father has redone more downtown buildings than any other developers.

"My sense of things is progress on a going forward basis is likely to be much slower than it has been in the last five to 10 years," Hamilton said. "Every additional building that gets redone will be very challenging."

Hamilton ought to know. His firm has been working since last year to finance a redevelopment of the landmark Lone Star Gas buildings on Harwood Street. Even with backing from City Hall, the credit crunch has made it hard to move the project forward.

Deals that died

Redevelopment deals for several other large downtown derelicts died with the economic downturn.

The huge Butler Building across from Dallas City Hall, landmark Tower Petroleum building on Elm Street and even the blue-clad 211 N. Ervay tower had been set for renovation and reuse before the financial crash hit.

Now those projects are up in the air, and the buildings remain empty.

"There are a certain number of these empty buildings downtown that may not ever be used for anything," said John Crawford, who heads the economic development group DowntownDallas. "At some point, we will need to decide what to do with them.

"But today – with the recession going on – it's not an urgent matter."

Waiting it out

Crawford said the best plan is to wait until the economy and real estate markets recover and take a fresh look as some of these properties.

"I don't think there needs to be a push to tear down all of these empty buildings right now," he said. "At this point, I think there are still residential applications for some of them and office uses for others."

That's what Katherine Seale, executive director of Preservation Dallas, hopes will happen with most of the buildings.

"Tearing them down is the easy way out – to cast them aside as unusable," Seale said. "The best thing we can do is mothball these historic structures so that when somebody is ready to use them they are still there."


Elm Place

1401 Elm St.

The 52-story former First National Bank Building was the tallest building in Dallas for many years. The owners recently decided to close the office skyscraper because the rental income couldn't cover the operating cost.


1902 Commerce St.

The 19-story former Statler-Hilton hotel was touted as the country's most modern luxury hotel when it opened in 1956. But the almost 600,000-square-foot building has been shuttered for almost a decade, and a series of redevelopment schemes failed to get off the ground.

Butler Building

500 S. Ervay St.

The century-old Butler Building across from Dallas City Hall was once Dallas' largest wholesale distribution center. The 510,000-square

-foot, nine-story building was later converted to office space but has been vacant for many years. In 2007, a California developer planned to turn the project into 400 condominiums, but the deal fell through. The property is now derelict and vandalized.

Tower Petroleum and Corrigan Tower

1907 Elm St.

The 22-story art deco style Tower Petroleum building has long been acclaimed as one of downtown's architectural gems. But the 1931 skyscraper and adjoining 17-story Corrigan Tower on Pacific Avenue have been empty for several years. A developer's plans to tear down part of the complex to create a high-rise residential building and luxury hotel have gone nowhere so far.

Mercantile Commerce Building

1712 Commerce St.

The 22-story Mercantile Commerce building has been empty since the 1980s. The building was constructed in 1956 as the Vaughn Tower and later enlarged with eight more floors. It was once part of the sprawling Mercantile National Bank complex.

Mercantile Continental Building

1810 Commerce St.

The 13-story office building has more than 400,000 square feet of space and once housed part of Mercantile National Bank's downtown headquarters operation. It's been vacant since the 1990s. Cleveland-based developer First City Enterprises plans to turn the building with its iconic cowboy sculpture into residential units.

Lone Star Gas buildings

301 S. Harwood Street

Designed by renowned architect Lang and Witchell, the former Lone Star Gas building constructed in 1931 is considered one of Dallas' architectural landmarks. The 13-story art deco office building and three adjoining towers built later have been empty for almost five years. Developer Hamilton Properties is working on plans to convert the vacant offices into apartments and retail space.

211 N. Ervay

The last of downtown Dallas' big blue buildings from the 1950s, the derelict skyscraper is the frequent object of both scorn and praise. Built in 1958, the 17-story high-rise has been empty since the 1980s. California-based investors bought it a few years ago and wanted to make it into apartments, but the project stalled.

Praetorian Building

1607 Main St.

When it opened in 1908, the Praetorian Building with 15 floors was Dallas' first true skyscraper. The office tower's beautiful classic exterior was junked in a 1960 redo, and it's been empty since 1993. Dallas oilman Tim Headington bought the vacant tower in October and is working on a redevelopment plan.

Old Dallas High School

2218 Bryan St.

The oldest remaining high school building in Dallas has seen better days. Built in 1907, the four-story building sits in front of one of DART's busiest rail stations. Also known as Crozier Tech, the building was purchased in 1998 by a California investor who tried to knock it down. The city obtained a court ruling to preserve the landmark structure. But not much has happened with the property since.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research

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