By Micah Moore
New life is coming to a vacant building on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. that is meant to spark redevelopment in one of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city.
The Forest District — a newly-minted name for the area Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. between Lamar and S.M. Wright Freeway — has ambitious plans to become a walkable, urban neighborhood that uplifts its residents and preserves the identity of the community.
A 12,000-square-foot building constructed in 1913 will soon be renovated for five tenants within its original red brick exterior. It is located at 1632 MLK Blvd. and already has a restaurant and dentist signed on to lease space. Dallas City Council recently approved a $1 million economic development incentive for the project coming from the 2017 bond program.
The property is owned by St. Philip’s School and Community Center, a nonprofit serving South Dallas for seven decades. For reference, the median annual income in the Forest District is $24,000.
“We are excited for this opportunity to bring forth to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. an opportunity to increase the tax base, opportunity increase the job opportunities in the area, and bring essential services to the community by remodeling a 12,000 square foot structure,” Dr. Terry Flowers, headmaster at St. Philip’s School, told Dallas City Council.
Construction is slated to start Dec. 2021 and last one year. Tenants are expected to open by Jan. 2023. “Our vision is to implement not only a transformational economic development project but also to implement an affordable housing strategy to preserve long-term residential affordability in the neighborhood,” said Julie Saqueton, chief community advancement officer at St. Philip’s.
As with all economic development bond dollars, there are stipulations. The development is required to produce at least 15 full-time jobs with a minimum hourly pay of $15. Minority- and women-owned businesses are expected to make up at least 25 percent of all construction contractors. The developer must submit annual reports to the city.
Everyone is calling the project a “catalyst” from council members to community leaders. The Real Estate Council even named the project its Dallas Catalyst Project.
“There are many partners working diligently to help bring in good growth,” said council member Adam Bazaldua, who represents District 7 and the Forest District. “We have retail strips that have been vacant, dilapidated, that can act as a catalyst to the new future.
Additional Projects Help Build Momentum
There is momentum growing across the neighborhood, too. Another nonprofit is building a fresh grocery store in the middle of a food desert.
City Council contributed $390,000 in 2017 economic development bond dollars for Cornerstone Baptist Church’s Community Development Corp. to expand a facility at 2839 S. Ervay to offer a bevy of affordably priced fresh foods and eight slots in a community kitchen open to entrepreneurs and small businesses.
The Oct. 28 City Council meeting marked a big day for Bazaldua and District 7, home to both developments. “There aren’t very many Wednesdays that I have such an exciting agenda for South Dallas, and this is one to remember for sure,” he said.
Like St. Philip’s, Cornerstone is giving residents a leg up in life. Generations of southern Dallas residents attended St. Philip’s school, including council member Tennell Atkins, who now represents far South Dallas and shepherded the project through the council’s Economic Development committee.
“If we are going to grow our city, we have to grow the southern part of Dallas,” Atkins said. “We have to use all the tools in the toolbox to grow the city.”
Atkins worries, however, that crime and code violations could keep the neighborhood in blight, despite the council’s investment. He views dirty streets, overgrown lots and dilapidated buildings as setbacks to progress. Crime, too, must be properly policed, he said.
“We need to maintain our equity. We need to use all our resources to protect our assets in these projects,” Atkins said during the Oct. 28 meeting. “These projects will not grow unless we protect our assets.”
Other council members see addressing food insecurity in the area as a way to combat crime.
“This is a huge victory for this neighborhood. We know that food stable communities have lower crime rates,” said council member Omar Narvaez. “This is how we begin to reimagine public safety.”
TxDOT’s S.M. Wright Redo
Local leaders have also started funding infrastructure projects to transform a neglected neighborhood to a bustling residential and mixed-use area.
TxDOT is working towards removing the 10-lane S.M. Wright Freeway, that sliced and diced the neighborhood apart when originally constructed in phases through 1950 and ‘60s, according to TxDOT. It will be rebuilt as a low-speed, six-lane boulevard lined with trees. TxDOT envisions pedestrian-friendly pathways and gateway monuments, too.
The city recently allocated $3 million in water and other infrastructure upgrades to support future development. Meanwhile, MLK Blvd. may be getting the Complete Street treatment after the Regional Transportation Council chipped in $500,000 to fund engineering of the street renovation.
“Our shared vision is a bustling, walkable Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., lined with mixed-use retail,” said Saqueton. “We believe equitable economic development is a key to igniting positive change in our community.”
Many organizations have worked on the project, including CitySquare, St. Philip’s, Cornerstone, Matthews Southwest and The Real Estate Council.
At the opposite end of MLK Blvd., the Fair Park Master Plan, which is meant to attract visitors to the park and restitch surrounding South Dallas neighborhoods, was also approved Oct. 28. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., originally named Forest Lane, runs from Fair Park to Lamar Street.
“This is the start of something great,” Bazaldua said. “These wins don’t come by accident, they come because you have movers and shakers on the ground doing the work, day in and day out putting in the sweat equity to be sure we see wins like this.”