Monte Anderson thrives on shaking up standard ways of thinking about development in Dallas.
After he sold the historic Belmont Hotel five months ago, a bellwether renovation and restoration project that put his name on the map in 2005, he got right back to work doing what he does best.
“I took all the money from the hotel sale, and we invested it into more ugly properties to turn around, every penny of it,” he said.
Those “ugly properties” are in south Oak Cliff, around South Polk Street and South Beckley Avenue, and Anderson is ready to perform microsurgery.
“With microsurgery, you go into an area that has good bones, like Elmwood southwest of Bishop Arts, and you start by buying one property and fixing it up or building one small building and making it into a good retail or residential space,” he said.
He’s one of the original Dallas pioneers of urban “gentlefication,” moving into distressed neighborhoods and slowly redeveloping in an effort to reduce crime, create harmony, and build community.
This is radically different from gentrification, which usually forces out low-income residents with high-income folks seeking the next hip place. Gentlefication helps long-term residents take back their neighborhoods, stabilize property values, and build safe communities for their families.
It’s also different from what Dallas is doing with its Grow South plan, Anderson said.
“The mayor’s Grow South plan is nothing but superficial marketing—it has no sustainable wealth-building characteristics,” he said. “Find the one deal that has changed somebody’s life that lives in South Dallas. It’s typical Dallas thinking: the rich people in Dallas think it’s got to be big; it can’t be good unless it’s big. Yet all the special places we love are small.”
“Owner-occupied neighborhoods is really the message I have for gentlefication,” he said. “The only way they can get in and own is to get in early…I’ve got so many of these kind of business success stories, everything from pet stores to call centers and yoga studios to insurance offices and restaurants, all kinds of people that own their own buildings now, not to mention the housing.”
Anderson’s great passion is helping small business owners create community-based wealth, and changing neighborhoods organically with planning and intention.
“What makes Bishop Arts or Greenville Avenue or downtown Duncanville great, what’s the secret sauce or the X factor?,” he asked. “The local entrepreneur: that’s where the culture is of a neighborhood and a place. It’s not in bringing in another Macaroni Grill.”
He’s doing the same thing in downtown Duncanville, as part of the Main Street Revitalization project, constructing a 2,700-square-foot building, with two 900-square-foot retail spaces, and two 450-square-foot apartments.
“The hope is an entrepreneur will come along and own that building and have three rental spaces,” he said. “The entrepreneur builds net worth, and the entrepreneur is now a major stakeholder in downtown, which changes the self esteem and everything about that entrepreneur’s life. They’ve got a piece of the action, they’re not renting from ‘the man.'”
Anderson knows this way of development strikes many as “pie in the sky.”
“All of this sounds idealistic and that’s why I work in places that no one wants—that’s why I bought on Fort Worth Avenue in 1999 and why I’m in downtown Duncanville now,” he said. “I can work for a while and create enough protection that by the time the big developers get wind of it, I’ve got a good base of owner-occupied entrepreneurs.”
Another reason he’s in those areas: it’s home. Anderson attended Carter High School in Oak Cliff before graduating from Midlothian High School in 1976. He owns a home in DeSoto and is motivated to affect positive change through social impact business.
“I have proof, over the past 25 years in my work, I can give you case after case that we’ve helped build net worth and be part of building neighborhoods and cities,” he said. “The average net worth of an African American family is $6,000; the average net worth of a white family is $190,000: this is 50 years after civil rights, and they were talking about what I am talking about now. Yet in Southern Dallas, all we’ve done is exploit the minority communities and put in check-cashing stores and convenience stores, instead of teaching wealth building.”
The redevelopment of the Belmont Hotel and surrounding area is an example of what can happen when entrepreneurs become cultural custodians, of sorts, for a neighborhood. Anderson says they can prevent future developers from making changes that negatively impact the area.
“The best thing I did [with Belmont] was that all the people around it are owners,” he said. “They’re not renting from me, the king, which I don’t want to be—they are owners. Those owners serve as neighborhood guards.”
Those “guards” include Metropaws, Bolsa, Smoke, and Manny Rodriguez Photography, “all these little entrepreneurs surrounding it,” Anderson said. He’s still working on the housing surrounding the Belmont, a townhome lot on Mobile Street.
“That’s really my message: in the beginning, when areas are rebuilding themselves, enough different entrepreneurs and small developers have to come early and own the property nearby,” he said. “That is how you protect a neighborhood. An owner of a hotel like that wouldn’t even come in and begin to fight all of those people.”
In addition to south Oak Cliff and Duncanville, Anderson is working with the MidTowne Midlothian development. It’s a 133-acre mixed-use, multi-generational planned development, connected to the historic downtown square.
“We look for neighborhoods that have good street grid systems, with a little commercial or retail in the center, then housing all around it,” he said. “I can come in and put in the coffee shop, the barber shop, the pet groomer, or the architect’s office in the middle of the neighborhood to create quality of life and jobs and wealth for the people who live there.”
This is all certainly different than what Anderson calls the “big silver bullet deals” typical in Dallas development, but he’s happy with that.
“All of this stuff makes really good common sense—it’s not rocket science and I didn’t come up with the idea, but it works,” he said. “It’s not that I’m a good guy, it’s that I’m building a healthy community where everybody is a stakeholder.”