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Revival Hopes for Downtown Dallas' Decaying Statler Hilton by Owners,
Warwick International Hotels, Begins to Take Shape

By Rudolph Bush, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Dec. 12, 2009--More than any other building, the historic but decaying Statler Hilton on Commerce Street has symbolized downtown's longtime stagnation and the enormous challenge of turning it into the vibrant heart the city needs.

Now, after years of inaction, there is new hope the Statler may be restored -- perhaps sooner than anyone thought possible.

Mayor Tom Leppert and council member Ron Natinsky confirmed that the Statler's owners have approached City Hall about drawing up a restoration plan that would preserve the building's well-known facade.

Leppert said engineers and architects are looking at scenarios for the building, and City Hall expects to see plans in early 2010.

The scenarios being discussed include some mix of retail, residential and hotel space. But Leppert said he expects the project to lean heavily toward residential.

Richard Chiu, president of Warwick International Hotels, holds the building along with family members in Hong Kong.

According to Leppert and Natinsky, Chiu, who lives in Paris, is expected to take over full control of the building soon.

At City Hall, there is hope that shift could help shake the torpor that has enveloped the building.

"We have been in contact with both the company and the company representatives. There has been a shift in responsibility over [the Statler] that has come with what we view as very positive conceptual ideas with what they would do," Leppert said.

The building's owners sent two representatives to a recent symposium at City Hall about a city-sponsored program to trade green cards for investments in Dallas.

According to Natinsky, Chiu is interested in using the program to put together an investment group to help fund the Statler's restoration.

Chiu was traveling this week. His office said a company officer would not be available to speak about the project until Monday.

Though movement on the project is in the earliest phase, any sign of life for the Statler -- or the Dallas Grand Hotel, as it is also known -- is seen as a step forward for downtown.

"If any building downtown is the poster child for why we need to redevelop and save downtown, the Statler Hilton is it," Natinksy said.

The building opened in 1956 and for years was a jewel of a downtown rich with oil and banking revenue.

But it has been vacant since 2001 and in decline.

There has been no shortage of plans and promises to renovate and restore the 710-room hotel. So far, all have come to naught.

The building poses enormous problems. Its floors and walls are constructed of poured concrete, meaning its 8-foot ceilings can't be easily raised. It contains asbestos and has out-of-date wiring.

There is also the issue of the old Dallas Public Library, which adjoins the building. It is historically important as well and has at least as many problems as the Statler.

Leppert and Natinsky acknowledge there are challenges.

But there are also reasons to believe the time has come for the Statler to be revived, they said.

The eastern end of downtown is in the swing of a major revival, and the Statler appears to be the last piece of the puzzle.

The long-vacant Mercantile Building is now restored and nearly full of tenants. The city has entered into heavy subsidy deals to see the nearby Continental Building and Atmos complex brought back to life. The University of North Texas plans to restore the Municipal Courts Building as a law school.

And Main Street Garden, the city's most elaborate park, is now open and active just across the street from the Statler.

The building's owners "can see we are fulfilling our commitments. They are the last standing piece on that square and that has elevated their interest in getting something done," Natinsky said.

There are two other reasons renovating the Statler may be more realistic now than ever.

First, City Hall has tried to make it harder on the owners of vacant buildings downtown to just let them sit and decline.

Under a program initiated by Leppert, owners of several vacant buildings, including the Statler, were required to bring the structures up to code or risk losing them in lawsuits with the city.

Also, the creation of the City of Dallas Regional Center -- a federal program that trades green cards for major investments in Dallas -- is expected to generate low-cost capital for redevelopment projects all over the city, but particularly in downtown.

The prospect of cheaper financing makes doing deals in an expensive area such as downtown more feasible, Natinsky said.

"The availability of putting together a CDRC investment group to do the project brings to the table a significantly lower cost of money," Natinsky said.


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