Sylvan Thirty will be the first major real estate development near the Trinity River since the city reinstated the river as the object of Dallas’ affections.
Its fans see it as a sign of things to come. Its critics hope it isn’t.
Which of these guys knows what’s best for Oak Cliff?
Two neighbors whose connection to Oak Cliff go beyond the millions they’ve invested in local real estate.
Two visionaries who shared a dream for a new, hip project that would transform our neighborhood.
Two “spiritual” businessmen who once worked side-by-side, but now find themselves in separate corners after a heated public fight.
It sounds like the plot of a TV reality show. But instead, it’s the true story of an important couple of blocks in our neighborhood’s ongoing real estate revival. How did a not-so-long-ago forgotten part of our neighborhood become ground zero in a battle over what the future of Oak Cliff should look like?
Perhaps it all comes down to spirituality.
The spiritual side of real estate
Sitting in his small conference room, where a reclaimed table and aluminum chairs substitute for the typical corporate furniture, Brent Jackson talks about one of Oak Cliff’s signature projects — Sylvan Thirty — and its “guiding principles,” things like sustainability and multi-modality.
He wears a shirt, tie, slacks and tennis shoes, a subtle indication he walked or biked to his office from his Kessler home a few blocks away. Behind him hangs an oil portrait of a lion, a tribute to the mascot at St. Mark’s, the elite North Dallas institution where Jackson spent his high school years, but also a reference to his principles — the painting was rescued from a now demolished office building on the Sylvan Thirty property at Fort Worth Avenue and Sylvan.
Those guiding principles, Jackson says, are “woven throughout every decision that’s made, consciously.”
At some point in the conversation, he even uses the word “spiritual” in reference to Sylvan Thirty — not the norm for a developer embarking on a multi-million dollar real estate project.
When prodded about the reference, Jackson hesitates: “I think it’s critical for me to keep a spiritual lens when looking at anything in life, whether it’s business or relationships with people or real estate or personal matters.”
Monte Anderson is equally “spiritual” when talking about his business, which just happens to be the same business as Jackson’s — real estate.
Just across the street from Sylvan Thirty is Anderson’s creation — the Belmont Hotel, a 60-year-old architectural monument to famed Dallas architect Charles Dilbeck that Anderson says he bet the farm on reclaiming from the scrap heap.
Like Jackson, Anderson believes in Oak Cliff and believes in himself.
“I wanted to be a billionaire by now. I didn’t want to be stuck in southern Dallas. I wanted to be in a high-rise Downtown or have real estate all over the world,” Anderson says.
In the early ’90s, Anderson says he was “sick of trashy neighborhoods, sick of torn-down buildings.” He decided to move to Coppell, where “all the yards are green, all the signs are uniform, and all the people are white and upper-middle income.”
What stopped him, Anderson says, was “a kind of spiritual experience.”
“One night I had a dream,” Anderson says, “and the dream went like this: I moved off to Coppell, lived a good life and sold a lot of real estate. And then one day I died and went to heaven.
“God is behind this big desk, and I’m standing in line waiting to get my job, and I know I’m going to get a good job, because I’m a really hard worker. But God is shaking his head looking at me, and I’m saying, ‘What’s the deal?’
“He says, ‘You know, I had this really great job for you, but I don’t know if I can trust you because when I needed you on earth to stay in southern Dallas County, you left. You abandoned me.’ ”
Anderson doesn’t consider himself much of a religious person, but he does believe that everyone has a purpose. After the dream, he knew that he had been given his. He reversed direction and made a conscious decision to stay in southern Dallas, where he had grown up, to make the communities better for his children and grandchildren.
“From that day forward, if you came to me from North Dallas, I just said no,” Anderson says.
And he says a strange thing happened to him: “When I changed my attitude, I started building wealth.”
The development of their dreams
It wasn’t that long ago when property south of the Trinity River was viewed as forsaken territory. In recent years, however, the city’s focus on the Trinity River and plans to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into improving it for public use has meant that whether Dallasites want to or not — and whether Cliffites want them to or not — people throughout the city are zeroed in on adjacent Oak Cliff.
Longtime neighbors aren’t surprised. In fact, some of them prepared for this day by preemptively lobbying the city for “planned development” or “PD” zoning, telling developers exactly what they can and cannot build on certain properties.
One such PD is 714, which overlays the land along Forth Worth Avenue from Westmoreland all the way to the river. It was created by the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group, an organization founded in the late ’90s to try to curb the piecemeal approach to development along the avenue that had yielded used car dealerships, chop shops, dollar stores and the like.
People who lived near Fort Worth Avenue wanted more. Any longtime group member can still quote the mantra of Randall White, one of its founders: “All I want is a cup of coffee and a New York Times.”
Anderson wasn’t one of Fort Worth Avenue Development Group’s founders, but he, like the others, believed change was around the corner for this section of Oak Cliff. He had grown up eating with his father and uncle at the Belmont’s erstwhile Hungry Bear restaurant, and he decided to take on the hotel as a rehab project. He reopened it in 2005, the same year the city approved PD 714.
A couple of years later, the avenue began to garner interest from developers. One of them was Jackson, who moved from North Dallas to Kessler Park in 2007. He hoped to turn the southeast corner of Fort Worth Avenue and Sylvan into a grocery store-anchored shopping center with restaurants, boutiques and residences.
This was exactly the type of project that the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group had dreamed of, and one that had been almost unfathomable a few years prior. The group’s members rallied around Jackson.
Until he rejected their PD.
Joining forces, then falling out
As Anderson remembers it, he met Jackson on the back patio of the Belmont restaurant’s current incarnation, Smoke, when it was still the Cliff Café. It was a Sunday morning, and Jackson was there with friends for brunch. He told Anderson that he wanted to put a retail and residential development with an organic grocery store on West Davis.
Jackson says that after he bought his home on Kessler and got to know his neighbors, he kept hearing rumblings about the lack of grocery store options.
“Quite frankly, I was also bothered in how far I had to go to get groceries and healthy alternatives such as Whole Foods and the like,” Jackson says. “There was just a demand that wasn’t being met.”
Jackson, who at the time was asset managing 73 Albertson’s grocery stores in Texas and New Mexico, decided he would be the one to meet the demand. But Anderson, whose Options Real Estate company brokers hundreds of properties south of the Trinity, remembers telling Jackson that morning at the Cliff Café that his project wouldn’t be possible on Davis. Even though the two-lane street lays claim to Oak Cliff’s most popular shopping center, the Bishop Arts District, it still doesn’t see enough traffic to convince a grocer to set up shop.
“The only place you can do that in north Oak Cliff is Sylvan and I-30,” Anderson told Jackson. “Come and do your development over here.”
The numbers made sense to Jackson, and he set his sights on the land catty-corner to the Belmont.
“It didn’t hurt that I was within walking distance of the site, and had driven by, jogged by, bicycled by many times,” Jackson says.
He named it Sylvan Thirty for two of the three major roads bordering the property, and hired Anderson to broker deals piecing together nine tracts of land, including the old Alamo Plaza Courts hotel.
It seemed an ideal business partnership. Jackson profited from a seasoned Oak Cliff broker who had history in the neighborhood. Anderson, in turn, wanted a good neighbor for the Belmont, and the sharp young developer appeared to fit the bill.
While they worked together, Anderson says he shared his dreams with Jackson — bicycles and strollers mixing with cars on the streets, greenbelts along the medians, storefronts opening to the avenue and wide sidewalks with space for trees and patios.
After the land deals wrapped up, Anderson says he saw Jackson only in passing. They never talked business again, until a few months later when Jackson invited Anderson to his office to show him the latest plans.
Anderson couldn’t believe his eyes.
“I saw buildings with their backs to the road, 4-foot sidewalks and a horrible tall apartment building that’s in the parking lot and doesn’t face any street,” Anderson says. “He and I just about had a knock-down drag-out fight in his office.”
The two men haven’t spoken since. The last time they intentionally were in the same room together was a city council meeting last December, when Jackson convinced the council to change PD 714 while Anderson begged them not to.
The fallout created an inevitable rift, not only between Anderson and Jackson, but also between advocates of change along Fort Worth Avenue, who began to choose sides.
‘We bet on people’
Jackson doesn’t like to talk about the turmoil. He doesn’t like to talk about himself, period. He is the face of Sylvan Thirty, but he shies away from that spotlight. The way he tells it, Sylvan Thirty is the community’s project, not his.
“I’m simply a processor or a conduit — gathering information and formulating it and turning it loose,” Jackson says, then stresses his sincerity: “It’s not me trying to be humble pie Joe.”
Jackson continually changes the subject from himself to his investors (“progressively-minded visionaries,” he calls them), and to the city staffers who helped him secure the zoning changes, as well as to the “Sylvan Thirty brand.” It’s tempting to listen to him and think that the charming 37-year-old is a master in the art of marketing.
No doubt it’s true. Almost as soon as Jackson laid claim to the land, he began hosting events that beckoned neighbors to it. Perhaps the most successful was “48 Nights,” when popular Dallas chefs used a now-demolished building on the property to serve prix-fixe dinners at $75 a pop, which raised money for charity and, for the most part, sold out. Those dinners took place in summer 2010, nearly a year before last spring’s announcement that Duncanville-based Cox Farms Market would open its second grocery store to anchor the Sylvan Thirty project.
Since the announcement, Jackson has held a series of “Taste of What’s to Come” farmers markets, introducing the curious to Cox Farms and to other confirmed Sylvan Thirty retailers — Matador Meat & Wine, a Plano-based “artisan butcher”; popular Henderson Avenue coffee shop Pearl Cup; and a “culinary incubator” headed by renowned local chef Sharon Hage, whom Jackson met during 48 Nights.
These events, and many others, mean that hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people have visited Sylvan Thirty despite the fact that no actual construction dirt has flown. (Reports at press time indicated that groundbreaking would likely take place later this summer or fall.)
Jackson isn’t holding these events just for the fun of it. He’s building a following.
And yet, to reduce him to a slick salesman would be a mischaracterization. He is a self-described wallflower who never seems quite at home in front of a microphone. He’s in his element, not in front of a crowd but one-on-one.
And that is how Jackson has built Sylvan Thirty — one relationship at a time. He says he spent years getting to know his investors before they became his business partners and that his relationship approach is what has generated interest from potential and confirmed tenants.
Jackson tells the story of how he and Mark Cox, the owner of Cox Farms Market, spent six months chatting about their backgrounds and their interests “in other things besides groceries and real estate and produce” before getting down to business. He takes pride in the fact that their deal was “consummated on a peach run” to a nearby grove during the wee hours of a weekday morning.
Relationships are “the most important litmus test for selecting tenants,” Jackson says. “A brilliant developer once told me, ‘You don’t just lease to somebody to fill a lease. You consciously decide who your tenants are going to be.’ That’s kind of our mantra here at Sylvan Thirty — we don’t bet on concepts; we bet on people.”
‘My mission is clear’
While Jackson likes to remain mum about his personal life, Anderson is an open book. He freely admits that he acquired the Belmont because he purchased land at the top of the hill behind the hotel in 1999 with intentions to build a high-rise condo where he would live. He figured the Belmont, which came on the market soon afterward, would be a nice place to knock back drinks and smoke cigars on the patio.
“I didn’t know anything about the restaurant and bar business,” he says. “I had to sell properties and liquidate assets to keep the Belmont alive.”
It wasn’t until Anderson recruited the owners of Bolsa to reopen the Cliff Café as Smoke that the hotel “quit taking my money,” he says.
After the spiritual experience that redefined his life, his new mission to invest in South Dallas propelled everything he did — purchasing defunct landmarks such as the Belmont, the Texas Theatre and the former Bishop Street firehouse (now Gloria’s); rehabbing properties like the Thorn Tree Country Club in DeSoto; and joining the board of the North Texas chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a group that promotes walkable, neighborhood-based development.
“You can’t be around me and not know how I feel about things,” Anderson says. “I am what I am, and my mission is clear.”
He says he was transparent with Jackson as they worked together and now says he feels “totally betrayed.” The worst betrayal, he says, was the city council’s, which refused to let Anderson finish his five-minute speech last December before voting unanimously to approve Jackson’s rezoning request.
“[PD 714] was written by community activists who thought about view corridors to Downtown and sidewalks and buildings facing the street. It was done with a lot of love and care at a time when we had nothing,” Anderson says. “As a developer or a homeowner, when I invest or buy, you think, ‘OK, well, I’m protected. The city’s going to protect me with these rules and laws.’ Then all of a sudden a big developer comes along.
“If you’ve got enough money in Dallas, Texas, you can pretty much do whatever you want to do, no matter what the rules say. In Dallas, it’s economic development at all costs. That’s the way we’ve always been.”
Anderson was criticized during the zoning fight for purporting to stand up for what was right while actually looking out for his own interests. One of his issues with Sylvan Thirty is its height, which would obstruct views of Downtown from his own Bar Belmont.
He argues, however, that it wasn’t a personal vendetta. Zoning is complicated, and “when fighting a zoning change like this, you have to grab hold of something people can understand,” Anderson says. “I could tell you in one minute, ‘Do you realize he’s blocking the views from Bar Belmont?’ Because to some, that’s sacred ground.
“But it’s not about the Belmont. It’s about everything around it. Bar Belmont is no more important than the bank building across the street or the people who live around the corner. It was the thing that appealed to people emotionally the easiest. I don’t know if I’ll have damages — we’ll see when it’s built — but Bar Belmont does not make or break us. I’m not that shallow. I may be hardheaded and obsessive, but I’m not shallow.”
What Anderson wants, he says, is for Jackson, for Dallas, for all of us to build projects that will last.
“Great cities are built over hundreds of years. They’re not built overnight. My granddaughter’s great-granddaughter — that’s who I’m thinking about right now,” Anderson says. “When we change the earth, it’s kind of a higher calling. We should be held accountable.”
A shift in Dallas’ design
Brent Brown, head of Dallas’ new City Design Studio, concedes that Sylvan Thirty was a compromise. The project launched a couple of years before the city, via the studio, decided to take a leadership role in Dallas’ design, says assistant director David Whitley.
“That’s a shift,” he says.
Whitley should know. He joined the studio after working in Dallas’ planning and zoning department and, more recently, with the Trinity River Corridor Project. Brown, on the other hand, is from the private sector, an architect known for his Building Community Workshops, which focused on urban planning and design. He was tapped by city manager Mary Suhm to take the design studio post nearly three years ago after the Trinity Trust Foundation donated $2 million to the city toward the effort.
For a century, Brown says, the river has been a “a symbol for separation,” but the Trinity project became a way for us “to realize its potential as a unifier.” The goal of the studio, therefore, is “to think about those communities adjacent to it, to see how they’re connected to one another and to the river,” he says.
That’s why Brown doesn’t think much of Dallas’ traditional “plan by PD” approach, which addresses tracts of land individually rather than collectively. The city has more than 800 PDs, and the problem is that “they get so complicated,” he says. “It’s a one-size-fits-all, and then you turn around and no shoe fits for real development.” This is true for PD 714, he says, which “has not spurred any direct development since it was established.”
The studio spent its first couple of years focusing on West Dallas. After more than 40 community meetings, held everywhere from living rooms to McDonald’s, it created a West Dallas “guidebook.” Brown argues that zoning should not be so difficult for developers, “unless you come in and it’s not in keeping with what people want — not what the city wants, the studio wants, but what people in that area desire,” Brown says. So the purpose of the guidebook is that any developer should be able to pick it up and know immediately whether a project fits a piece of property, he says.
To reward developers who come to the city with projects in tune with the guidebook, the design studio attempts to expedite those projects. It may be telling, then, that the studio did not fast track Jackson’s Sylvan Thirty development.
What it did instead was work with Jackson to create a new PD. The main problem with the project, Brown says, was how it “interfaced” with Fort Worth Avenue and Sylvan. The design focused inward rather than outward. For example, the project needed to be “walkable” — even according to Sylvan Thirty’s own guiding principles — and “when you’ve got a 3-foot sidewalk and an 8-foot wall, that’s not really conducive, and it’s hard to make an argument that it is,” Brown says.
Preserving PD 714 wasn’t the studio’s goal. Whitley says that the West Dallas guidebook and PD 714 are, “from an intent perspective, very much in sync, and after that there’s 1,000 ways to skin the cat.”
“We shouldn’t entitle a 50-years project that may not happen until we’re dead,” Brown argues.
Whitley agrees: “Because then we’re sitting around waiting for the 50-year project and not what can happen today.”
Suburban or world-class?
When Anderson talked to Brown soon after the Sylvan Thirty zoning change, he says he told Brown: “You took the cornerstone and put bad cement in it.”
Anderson realizes he holds an unpopular opinion. He can recite the criticism: “Why are you guys fighting this? You haven’t had anything in 30, 40 years. Something’s better than nothing.”
Anderson disagrees. Years have been spent laying the groundwork for Oak Cliff to become a truly urban neighborhood, he says, with city blocks that are just as friendly to cyclists, joggers and parents pushing strollers as they are to cars. Sylvan Thirty’s design is, in his view, suburban — more Firewheel than Bishop Arts, the kind of project with an interior public square rather than one that emanates a public square.
Jackson calls Sylvan Thirty a “world-class project,” and he says great care was taken to be sensitive to the land and the people around it. He believes that “if you truly want to build something that is sustainable and lasts, it must adhere and adapt to the needs of the consumers, and the only way to do that is to have an open forum.”
That’s why he maintained an open-door policy throughout the planning process, gathering input from both Cliffites and West Dallasites, from curious folks who wandered into his office, and also from his critics.
“I met with the folks who disagreed on numerous occasions,” he says. “The sign of any good discussion is to avoid drawing lines in the sand and to be willing to truly listen to the other side, not to just what they’re saying they want, but to also ask them why they want that. Understanding the why is much more helpful to be able to meet them in the middle.”
People will believe in Sylvan Thirty once they see it, Jackson says. He points to Lake Flato, the award-winning San Antonio-based architectural firm that designed the project: “They build projects to have a 100-year life cycle, if not longer,” he says.
At the end of the day, Jackson says, “the greater good has been kept in mind and is overlaid in the future of Sylvan Thirty.”
Ultimately, the Sylvan Thirty zoning battle wasn’t between good and bad or right and wrong, but between passionate people who love their corner of Dallas, want it to be the best it can be, and have differing ideas of what that looks like.
In the closing of Anderson’s speech to city council, which he wasn’t able to finish, he asked: “Why do we even have zoning and plans? Why do you waste our time and money?
“What is the point?”
The conversation is the point, Brown says.
“You can change a PD. You can change zoning. There’s nothing that ultimately protects anyone — expect being involved in the process,” Brown says. “Strong neighborhoods and organized groups that are informed are the best ways to structure the city.”
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