DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Design District, once a tucked-away hub of drab warehouses and sprawling showrooms, is fast becoming a destination spot, with new upscale apartments and trendy restaurants as lures.
But that's only half the story.
To fully appreciate the radical transformation of the area from a sleepy industrial island to an up-and-coming neighborhood, you must look at it through the eyes of people whose roots in the area are decades deep.
People like Brendan Bass.
He's been drawn to the cluster of warehouses just north and west of downtown Dallas since the '60s, when his father, William Bass, opened a namesake furniture showroom in the district.
Bass, 55, no longer comes to the Design District just to work. He and his wife, Tina, are among the hundreds of new residents who've moved into the area over the past five years.
"This is beginning to feel like a real neighborhood now," he said.
Bass, with a nudge from his wife, recently sold their 4,400-square-foot home in University Park to rent a 23rd-floor penthouse in the district's first high-rise apartments, 1400 Hi Line.
By the time the apartments are built out later this year, about 2,500 new tenants are projected to be roosting in five residential developments that have sprung up since 2007.
The apartments, combined with two upscale restaurants that opened in the last two years and a few prominent art galleries and shops, are turning the Design District into a hipper hub of social and recreational activities — from happy hours to weekend bike rides.
People aren't just visiting, they're hanging out.
"The change has taken off exponentially in the last five or six years," Brendan Bass said. "It feels so strange to be out here at night walking to a restaurant.
"Back in the '90s, you certainly wanted to get out of here by sundown. But now, there's too much movement for the petty criminals to exist or flourish here."
For decades, only a small underground network of designers, artists and photographers lived and worked in the aging warehouses.
Then, in 2004, the district formally was rezoned for residential uses. A year later, the Dallas City Council approved a Tax Increment Financing zone to help spur $1 billion in private investments by 2027.
The plan is coming together steadily, if not seamlessly.
So far, city officials say, more than $166 million in new taxable value has been added with projects ranging from prominent galleries and art studios to upgraded showrooms and retail centers.
The TIF district's assessed 2012 taxable value is nearly $308 million — a 117 percent increase over 2005.
The 1,284 new apartments — including the 1400 Hi Line project set to be completed by the end of this year — and the arrival of the popular Oak and Meddlesome Moth restaurants are helping to foster an urban feel akin to that of the more established Uptown.
Among those leading the charge is Jim Lake Jr., a developer whose father bought Design District property decades ago when it was going for cheap.
Lake, who turned the building his late father bought on Manufacturing Street into an office, got the ball rolling when he started the Design District's first residential-retail project, Trinity Lofts & Work/Live Showrooms, in 2005.
Completed in 2007, Trinity Lofts has 92 units and 28,063 square feet of showroom space.
Lake, who owns a home in the Park Cities, also lives in one of the loft apartments. The live-work space, with its stained concrete floors and spectacular views of the downtown skyline, is attractive to young professionals moving into the area.
"There's not another area like this in the city that has this kind of mix," said Lake, 53, who also has helped develop north Oak Cliff's popular Bishop Arts District, which his father coined.
Lake's company also opened the International on Turtle Creek, which has 157,640 square feet of showroom and retail space.
The slew of new apartments and the infrastructure improvements afforded by the TIF district is creating a new vibe in the Design District, Lake said.
"I'm seeing people walking dogs, jogging and strolling down Dragon Street," he said. "And instead of getting in their cars, they're walking to restaurants."
Most of the apartments being built are filling up fast, he said. A sure sign that the area is ripe for change, he said, is the high-rise apartments going up on Hi Line Drive.
Houston-based PM Realty Group is building the 314-unit high-rise, which will be flush with a rooftop pool, a state-of-the-art fitness center, high-tech amenities and 24-hour security.
Even Lake was taken aback by the ambitious scale of the project.
"I never thought about building a 23-story building out here," he said. "But I think you're going to start to see more development like that."
Kendall Shiffler agreed. The 27-year-old is the marketing communications director for PegasusAblon, a master developer that manages about 700,000 square feet in the Design District, including the new high-rise apartments.
Thanks to a blog she writes about the Design District, she's become one of the area's most recognizable young names and faces.
Shiffler used to live in Victory Park, right across the freeway. Now she works and lives on Hi Line Drive.
"I knew (that) if I was going to be talking about the area and promoting it, I needed to experience it and get in on the ground floor," she said.
She initially lived in another apartment two blocks from her office but recently moved to the high-rise, where she says pool parties are a regular treat.
"The (Meddlesome) Moth is like our Cheers," she said. "It's a place where everyone knows your name. That's the neighborhood spot."
The area still lacks some coveted amenities, such as a grocery store, but developers and city officials say much more is in store.
"But you've got everything you need within a mile," Shiffler said, adding that residents tend to drive over to nearby Oak Lawn to get services not offered in the Design District.
"It definitely feels like an extension of Oak Lawn," she said. "That's where our amenity base is, where you get your groceries, go to the bank."
Shiffler and others said they feel safe in the neighborhood, too. Lake said a spate of copper thefts has been the stickiest crime issue that he and other property owners have faced in recent years.
City officials said the area will continue to prosper as other parts of the Design District's plan come to fruition, such as linking the Trinity Strand Trail (the Old Trinity Trail) with the Katy Trail.
Plans for the area also include a hotel and many more residential units in coming years.
The district has come a long way since the Trammell Crow Co. began transforming the area in the mid-1950s by building the first design-business center. Many more warehouses were converted in the '70s.
The Crow development family has played an instrumental role in the area's turnaround this time, too, including building and selling some residential units.
Crow Holdings, along with Jim Lake Cos., worked with former Dallas City Council member Ed Oakley to help get the TIF district in place, said Pauline Medrano, the council member who now represents the area.
"A few years ago, you'd hardly ever see anyone out walking or jogging in that area," Medrano said. "It's definitely changed."
No one could be happier than Tina Bass, a mental health worker whose husband owns the Brendan Bass Showroom in the Design District.
For empty-nesters, the new 1,600-square-foot penthouse will suit their lifestyle. Their top-floor apartment won't be finished for a few months, so the couple is temporarily living in a sixth-floor unit.
"We love it here," she said. "We don't get in our car much on the weekends. And every Sunday, we're out on our bikes."