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Converting, Refurbishing Dallas Grand Hotel Proving to be Difficult

DALLAS, Texas (Apr. 26, 2005) -- Redevelopment of the Mercantile complex had been considered downtown's most intractable problem -- but it might prove easier than revitalizing the old Dallas Grand Hotel across Commerce Street.

There is growing optimism that a deal may soon be completed to redevelop the Merc. But it was notable recently, when Cleveland-based developers Forest City Enterprises discussed a bold plan to develop nearby buildings as part of the Mercantile package, that the hotel was conspicuously absent.

The Mercantile is bigger and may have a bigger impact on whether downtown can be revitalized. But the Dallas Grand -- which in its heyday was the Statler Hilton -- may be the tougher nut to crack.

There were reports last month that Houston investor Gary Goff was negotiating to buy the 19-story building, with plans to keep part of it as a hotel and develop the rest as condominiums. City officials say they have had little contact with Mr. Goff and don't know much about the plans.

Attempts by The Dallas Morning News to reach him this week were unsuccessful.

Its reinforced concrete floors and 8-foot ceilings make the hotel building hard to convert into modern loft apartments, said Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans.

"The only way to make it attractive would be to punch a hole in the floor and make the room two levels, but the expense of that might be prohibitive," he said. "So another tack might be to make it for moderate-income people."

In a recent public briefing, City Council member Steve Salazar expressed concern that housing downtown has been aimed almost exclusively at the affluent, shutting out thousands of service workers employed in the center city.

"I think if you want to have a downtown that's alive, you have to have families who live there," he said.

Mr. Evans' idea -- and it is not even a concept yet, much less a plan -- is that perhaps some of the hotel units could be converted to housing that such workers could afford.

The idea of using the hotel for other than high-end apartments had already come up in another context.

The University of North Texas, which is seeking legislative approval to open a public law school, plans to use the ornate but abandoned Dallas Municipal Building to house the school. Mr. Evans said there have been discussions of using the hotel building as student housing.

As Mr. Salazar said, "I haven't met a rich law student yet."

Developing affordable housing could give the city up to $15 million in tax credits to work with. But Mr. Evans cautions that reconverting the hotel would be so expensive that it might not be feasible, even with the tax credits.

The idea of affordable downtown housing is nonetheless worth pursuing, he said, because "I think it's important to get some diversity of income level down there."

He adds, "We may do it for the Merc to make the numbers work there."

The Wednesday evening concerts on Pegasus Plaza, a surprise hit last summer, begin their third year next week.

For last year's series, "Our attendance was triple what it was the first year," said Kourtny Penn, director of marketing and events for the Central Dallas Association. "It was really popular."

The first concert in the Main Street Live series will begin at 6:30 p.m. May 4 with Austin artist Bob Schneider.

There will be a concert each Wednesday through July 6, when, as every resident of North Texas knows, the heat becomes dependably unbearable.

A season of lunchtime concerts will resume at noon May 6 with a performance by Brave Combo on Pegasus Plaza and will run on Fridays in May, June, September and October.

Concert information, by the way, will be available beginning this week by tuning in to the Downtown Information radio station, 1680 AM, according to Ms. Penn.

This is a welcome relief if you've ever tuned in to the station and heard only a tape -- endlessly repeated -- welcoming you to downtown and warning you to lock up your car.

Ms. Penn acknowledges that the station has yet to live up to its potential.

"It's a potentially wonderful resource that has been underutilized," she said.

She said talks are under way to upgrade the station's content. Potential uses include parking and traffic information and even news of breaking events.

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To see more of The Dallas Morning News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.dallasnews.com.

Copyright (c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News

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