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Aloft Hotel in Downtown Dallas Banks on Convention Center Business

By Dave Levinthal, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 27, 2009--It's hardly the size or class of Dallas' contentious convention center hotel.

But the Aloft boutique hotel, nearly complete across Young Street from the future convention hotel's barren plot, will soon rank as the closest lodging to the relatively isolated Dallas Convention Center.

And Aloft developers say the publicly owned convention hotel, construction of which Dallas voters narrowly upheld this month, is a main reason they've gambled on the success of their own facility.

"The convention hotel is to us like an anchor store at a shopping center. It has the ability to attract an audience to the entire shopping center," said Larry Hamilton, whose development company is renovating the long-vacant Santa Fe Freight Terminal warehouse to house Aloft.

The privately owned Aloft, which is receiving about $4.3 million in public tax increment financing incentives as part of its roughly $41 million development, is too small and limited in amenities to become a bona fide convention hotel, Hamilton acknowledged.

But upon its scheduled September opening, the 193-room hotel will rank for perhaps three or more years as the closest hotel to the Dallas Convention Center -- a title Hamilton hopes will attract business and cause the now sleepy corner of Young and Griffin to blossom.

Today, workers are racing to renovate the train depot with niceties unheard of when it was built in 1924: flat-screen televisions, memory foam mattresses, air conditioners that use a fraction of the power that conventional units do. The hotel does, however, retain elements of its original form, such as exposed concrete beams and brickwork.

"Overall, our hotel tends to advance the civilized world a little closer to the convention center. There's kind of a void down there right now," Hamilton said.

While downtown Dallas' Main Street corridor and Arts District are in the midst of renaissance, much of Young Street languishes. The Dallas Convention Center, on the street's southern side, is now primarily surrounded by parking lots and government buildings.

Supporters of a convention hotel say the estimated $500 million facility will dramatically alter the Young Street landscape, lining the street with shops, restaurants, and, of course, a 1,000-room, four-star hotel.

Aloft is proof that such a vision is already materializing, Mayor Tom Leppert said.

"This hotel helps," he said recently. "The owners have to feel good about the convention center hotel going forward because it will bring them business, too."

But Anne Raymond, who led a campaign against the convention hotel, has predicted that such a facility will miss occupancy projections and ultimately lose taxpayers' money. She noted that "any hotel that's just opened is suffering pretty dramatically now in this environment." She also said she doesn't "believe the premise that the convention center hotel will spur much development around the convention center hotel site."

But Raymond, who acknowledged knowing little about Aloft's financial details, said its developers at least did it privately and with "their eyes wide open to the risks."

For Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, whose District 14 includes Aloft, the boutique hotel is worth fostering.

"We need to move forward. The people have spoken," Hunt said. "But we have a lot of work in front of us. We have to work on connectivity downtown. We have to work on our downtown streetcar plan and second DART rail downtown alignment. All of these elements are needed to make this kind of project thrive."

Hamilton, who with his son Ted has redeveloped several downtown Dallas structures, said he expects occupancy rates for Aloft to begin in the mid-50 percent range and increase into the mid-60s when the convention hotel opens.


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