If you’ve lived in North Oak Cliff more than a few months, you’ve probably listened in on — or maybe even joined — at least one debate about whether or not the Cliff is set to become Dallas’ Next Big Hot Spot. From the new town homes across from Methodist to the small businesses opening around the corner and across the street from Bishop Arts to the eclectic retail stores popping up at the corner of Tyler and Davis, most signs point to a retail and real-estate rebirth in these parts.

With the Trinity River project a “go” and the smell of money in the air, it was only a matter of time before the “Big Boys” of development began jockeying for position in the southern shadow of downtown. Now that investors like Alan McDonald are rolling the dice in NOC, it’s clear that they owe a debt of gratitude to smaller, “local” developers Monte Anderson (Options Real Estate), David Spence (Good Space) and architect Rick Garza (The Homes of Kings Way). CliffDweller sat down to talk with these three men, whose early vision, drive and dedication has set the tone for the Cliff’s current, forward-looking direction.

Local pedigrees

When it comes to development in Oak Cliff, few people are as experienced — or as battle-scarred, depending on whom you talk to — as Anderson, Spence and Garza. Longtime developer Anderson is perhaps best known to CliffDwellers as the man behind the wildly successful remake of Route 66-chic poster property the Belmont Hotel. Spence’s Good Space spearheaded much of the development in and around Bishop Arts, including commercial/studio space like Route 80 Studios and multifamily dwellings like Bishop Terrace. And Garza’s renovations of the multifamily dwellings formerly known as the “Trolley Car apartments” along King’s Highway are widely credited as one of the primary drivers behind the broadening residential renaissance in the Kings Highway Conservation District, the first created by the city of Dallas and the second in Texas.

While the three men have largely taken on different kinds of projects over the course of their careers, they all pride themselves on their records of thoughtful, sensitive restoration and redevelopment. One thing Anderson, Spence and Garza clearly agree about: North Oak Cliff is on track for big changes — but if we’re not careful, those of us who live here could derail the development train.

Poised for change?

“At this particular time, I think there are a lot more eyes poised on Oak Cliff than there have been in half a century,” Garza says. Spence agrees, pointing to a combination of good timing (the Trinity River Project greenlight) and macro trends. “The whole urban, back-to-the-city ethic that’s in vogue now has stood us in really good stead,” Spence asserts. “I wanted to go through this entire discussion without using the words ‘cool,’ ‘hip,’ or ‘community,’ but that’s what people are searching for these days. All across the country, people are looking to the past and taking back the cities. In Dallas, there ain’t much of the city to go back to — and that’s a big part of what’s happening here in Oak Cliff.”

Anderson, one of the leading proponents of the New Urbanism movement sweeping the nation, concurs. He believes that the human scale of much of Oak Cliff, along with the work of early players who’ve successfully proved the market for higher lease and purchase prices, bode well. “The big guys aren’t into proving markets,” Anderson explains. “Somebody has to prove that people will be willing to pay more than a dollar a square foot for property. Somebody has to come in and lay the groundwork. That’s the way it happened at South Side (on Lamar), that’s the way it happened in Uptown, and that’s the way it’s happening here.”

Human scale

Garza and Spence don’t reference the New Urbanism label as much, but they, too, believe the architectural legacy of legendary urban planners like Dallas’ George Kessler will continue to set the tone for the change pending in the Cliff. “It’s not really new urbanism, it’s old urbanism,” states Garza. “People are tired of being pent up and socially disconnected. They want to see residential and commercial spaces on a human scale, where you can walk and interact with the people and businesses around you — and if you look at Bishop Arts and the early days of Kessler Park, which originally had small businesses interspersed throughout, you can see the same timeless principles at work.”

That mix of reasonably scaled residential and commercial space is another prediction the three men share. “You have to have some residential density in the middle of any new development to make it work,” Anderson says, “and, more and more, it’s what people want. I spent some of the best years of my life in Wynnewood — and I still think that not putting residential density in the middle of that shopping center was one of the biggest mistakes they made.”

All “back in the day,” all the time?

That said, all three investors believe the city of Dallas and Oak Cliff’s older neighborhoods — including, or perhaps, especially, its conservation districts — need to expedite the challenging process of balancing the desire for slavish preservation with the need and demand for retail and services. “Don’t get me wrong,” Garza asserts. “Stuff that’s been built properly should be preserved. But not every property — not every structure — is worthy of preservation.”

Spence agrees. “I think we’re going to have to loosen up the preservation strings a bit,” he states. “I’m not saying we should give folks free rein, but it’s almost like we’ve been spoiled by neglect here. With no big developer interest, we’ve been able to dictate the terms of what’s gone on. Now we have a new generation of people coming in who may or may not be as fastidious about preservation — and if things are going to happen here, we’re going to have to figure out some areas of compromise.”

Garza believes neighborhoods could address many emerging development questions simply by prioritizing conservation efforts. “I really think this just takes common sense and a good level of sensitivity,” he explains. “Saving everything that’s old isn’t the answer. Simply because a building or home was built a long time ago doesn’t automatically give it a special architectural significance or sustainability.”

Black? White? Gray?

Old vs. new isn’t the only question facing the Cliff’s neighborhoods. Moving beyond the conservation question, Anderson and Spence posit that NOC homeowners need to rethink the hard stop between residential neighborhoods and retail and other commercial space. “The idea that there is this line of demarcation…is going to have to be addressed,” Anderson explains. “The old argument that ‘we don’t want to be like Lower Greenville’ is outdated. It assumes that everything on Davis would become a restaurant or a club. Nobody wants that. You need a mix of art and retail and small-office services like copy shops so that people will want to walk along and use all the services. It’s about the need for mixed use, and the Greenville Avenue argument doesn’t address that need.”

Spence underscores Anderson’s argument — pointing out that times have changed over the years since Oak Cliff’s first historic and conservation districts were formed. “You look back at what areas like Kidd Springs and Bishop Arts were dealing with back then, and you understand that they needed that kind of neighborhood ferocity,” he says. “Given where we are now, though, it’s time for things to change. If we’re not willing to change, we can wait around another 30 years for the next wave of developers.

“The vigilance that was needed in a place like Winnetka Heights in 1975 is outdated — and it’s despairing to see the neighborhood associations go after a town home developer the same way they’ve learned to go after crack houses. Not doing something because Greenville Avenue might come to Oak Cliff is like deciding not to build a home because of the 500-year flood plan. There are better-placed cautionary tales.”

Lessons for the “Big Boys”?

The three Oak Cliff veterans are loathe to “advise” the new wave of developers as they break ground here in the Cliff, but they do have some “tips” for the neighborhood’s “freshman class”:

Spence: “You’re going to have to get used to doing things on spec. The depth of market may not be here quite yet.”

Garza: “Be patient. Most developers want to be in a place short term, but they need to be prepared to stick in for several years.”

Anderson: “Fair warning. Some people want to see you fail so they can say, ‘I told you so.’”

Parting sports metaphor?

Finally, in the grand Texas tradition, the three men revert to the lexicon of sport when asked to assess the future of development here in NOC:

Spence: “I don’t want to hear any more about ‘home runs’ in Oak Cliff. It’s going to take a lot more base hits and doubles to make this wave sustainable.”

Anderson: “That’s right. Twenty base hits would be sustainable.”

Garza: “Speaking for myself, I don’t mind base hits as long as there are four in a row.”

1. A group of investors, including Oak Cliff resident Dick Sieb, have purchased the 22-acre site of the Colorado Place apartment complex at the southwest corner of Ft. Worth Avenue and Hampton Road. The plan is slated to include $100 million in construction investment with a finished product that could include a movie theater, quality retail and restaurants and housing.

2. Alan McDonald and INCAP Fund have identified nearly a dozen multifamily apartment buildings in North Oak Cliff as prospects for their development plans. The red brick units located on Davis between Rosemont and Marlborough are high on the list, with a plan to level the existing buildings and rebuild with high-end town homes and condominiums.

3. Phase two of the development at the Belmont Hotel includes the construction of the Villas of Dilbeck Court. The plan includes the construction of 34 town homes and garden homes with a great view of downown. The road for the development has already been built and construction on the homes is set to begin in 60 days.

4. The vacant tract of land across the street from Methodist Hospital at the corner of Bishop and Colorado is to become the site of Bishop Arts Plaza and Lofts, including 12,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space and 16,000 square feet of residential units on upper levels. The project is expected to cost the developer $4 million.

5. Now that construction has been completed at Lake Cliff Tower, efforts can turn to the vacant lots across the street on Zang Blvd. behind 7-11. Once projected to include Larry North Fitness, plans for the retail-oriented development are still loose.