The gaying of Downtown

Posted on 04 Mar 2008 at 2:03pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones

For years, city leaders have been claiming Downtown is primed for a residential surge. It looks like the claim is finally true


JEWELS IN THE SKY: Bill McKnight, Oliver Roberts and Steve Shepherd have lived at 1505 Elm St. for three years, and love their views, which include the new Hotel Joule in the background.

As a young gay man attending grad school at Southern Methodist University in 1972, new arrival Steve Shepherd naturally gravitated to the Oak Lawn area, which even then was known as the central gayborhood. His first residence, both as a renter and homeowner, was on Bowser Street, which he politely concedes at the time "was in a state of transition."

Times have changed. Bowser and the rest of Uptown are at their peak values for land right now, and Shepherd older, wiser, more financially secure could certainly afford to live there if he wanted. For decades, he and his partner of nearly 30 years, Oliver Roberts, did just that.

But three years ago this month, Shepherd and Roberts did something radical: They downsized, moving to an apartment at 1505 Elm in the heart of Downtown, becoming urban pioneers in the process.

They weren’t the first, although it might have seemed that way for a while. And they certainly won’t be the last. Earlier this month, Dallas mayor Tom Leppert told the Federal Club that approximately 5,000 people now call Downtown Dallas home, "and they are projecting 10,000 in the central business district by 2010," according to Roberts.

And a large percentage of them are gay and lesbian.

"I’ve heard as much as 50 percent [of Downtown residents] are gay," says Shepherd, noting that his building has a high gay population. His downstairs neighbor is even one of his oldest friends, Bill McKnight, who moved into the building two weeks before Shepherd and Roberts.

What accounts for the influx of new residents? Partly it’s availability brought on by significant development, with potentially another 1,000 units opening in the immediate future.


The old Mercantile Building (or "Merc" for short) is one of Dallas’ newest developments to turn an old warhorse building a residential showplace.

"Coming on right now is the Mercantile, and the Third Rail is doing its finish out, and 1600 Pacific is the next done," says Shepherd, who along with Roberts not only resides Downtown but also works in the real estate industry.

Cost is another factor driving people there.

"You get a lot of space for not as much money rental rates and sales prices are lower than what you would expect to pay in Oak Lawn or Uptown," Shepherd says. "When we moved from Uptown and were looking at high rises, we checked out Oak Lawn and Turtle Creek. But we found the square footage price here was so much lower."

Jeff Updike of ReMax Urban says there are currently about five properties with units for sale, and many more that offer leases. The Mosaic, by far the largest rental project already open, came on line late last year.

Roberts and Shepherd say every building has its own personality.

"Ours has a sense of neighborhood to it with a real mix of lifestyles, mostly professionals, while some are known as party buildings," Shepherd says. "The younger demographic is probably in the lofts; condo owners are probably more mature and financially stable."

1505 Elm is loaded with amenities, from a projection screen theater to a gym to personal wine cellars for each unit. Mixed-use development is a cornerstone of urban life.

But that could be true in any densely-populated area of the city. What Shepherd thinks appeals most to gay pioneers is the overall lifestyle.

"It is as open a downtown lifestyle in Dallas as in New York or San Francisco," he says.

"The straight residents don’t avoid us in fact, they seek us out," adds McKnight, who frequently babysits for some of his neighbors. "It’s just not an issue down here."


Urban Market offers all the trappings of a suburban supermarket, but in a concentrated Downtown space.

The area also now has the infrastructure necessary to sustain a growing resident population. Shepherd says he can walk to a CVS pharmacy for prescriptions and sundries. Urban Market offers a complete selection of fresh produce, meats, deli items and supermarket necessities for bigger purchases. Chase Bank on Main Street recently opened what he says is "the first storefront bank in Downtown in 30 years."

And for dining, Downtown is the hottest spot in Dallas right now, with Charlie Palmer at the Joule, Dallas Fish Market, Fuse, Scene, Stephan Pyles and more attracting foodies of all kinds. Roberts, Shepherd and McKnight are regulars especially at Charlie Palmer and City Tavern, which they refer to as "our version of the Cheers bar."

But as seldom as they feel compelled to leave Downtown, access to most of Dallas’ shopping and entertainment is closer than you may think.

Mixed use buildings like One Arts Plaza — which contains office space, residences and businesses like restaurants — make Downtown living attractive to many.

"None of us had ever been on the light rail until we moved down here," Shepherd says. But the Akard Street station directly outside their doorstep gives them convenient access to Mockingbird Station, NorthPark Mall, Target, Central Market and special engagements at Victory Park.

"We are four minutes from any event at American Airlines Center," Shepherd notes, and getting to the Arts District and the Majestic Theater are short walks. The free trolley goes from the Fairmont Hotel through McKinney Avenue up to the West Village before heading downtown again.

"The second they permanently extend the light rail to Victory Park and take it to Fair Park, my car is gone," McKnight states definitely.

And once you give up your automobile, you know you’re truly a city dweller.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice Defining Homes print edition March 7, 2008

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