For a neighborhood that has gone through its share of nine lives, Dallas’s Deep Ellum is an interesting case of starting from the ground up. Its past is checkered, but Deep Ellum has never been void of pride or community investment. A history dating back to the late 1800s is bookended by first a viable cotton, and later, auto industry. Many period buildings have been repurposed into live-work spaces, from Adam Hats to the Continental Lofts. Industry historically influenced the neighborhood’s diversity, out of which came an eclectic music and arts scene from the blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lead Belly to staple cultural venues in the late 80s. Cultural roots remain celebrated aspects as namesake landmarks are coming come back to the forefront.
Such vested interests yield redevelopment patterns with identity in mind. “From a bird’s eye view, adding people and density builds a critical mass that encourages a walkable, 24/7 neighborhood,” stated current head of the Deep Ellum Community Association, Sean Fitzgerald. “Development in Deep Ellum, however, needs to feel like a part of the neighborhood and not perceived as an unfamiliar change.” While this may prove less lucrative, such ideals are signs of a strong community core, one in which architects and developers alike are key to the neighborhood’s future. Simply put by Ron Stelmarski, director of design with Perkins+Will in Dallas, “Deep Ellum is a particularly interesting and constantly-evolving environment that has stood the test of time—it cannot be faked.”
Perkins + Will’s design for Epic Deep Ellum, an office and hotel complex, focuses on establishing a front door for the community. The architecture is simple and functional, with scale driving the contextual response. Stelmarski described the design as “straight-forward and raw as the original buildings, which gives it an attitude consistent with the neighborhood” with little intent to replicate existing historic character. At the heart of the development is the former Grand temple of Knights of Pythias, completed in 1916 by the state’s first black architect, William Sydney Pittman. It will anchor the development with a boutique hotel facing the neighborhood. “The intent to bring back the Pythias has a potential to bridge modern Deep Ellum with the blues and African American heritage of the past,” said Fitzgerald.
Droese Raney Architecture’s recent design for 2800 Deep Ellum transforms a series of vacant buildings within a block bordered by Malcom X Boulevard and Elm Street. Its approach aims to dissolve the current typology of single-story commercial into a neighborhood scale with an interior courtyard and public walkways. Reid Mulligan of Droese Raney views these elements as a means of “providing a new way to explore the block.”
2800 Deep Ellum aims to maintain most of its storefront character, yet maximizes leasable space and frontage. The project exemplifies an evolution of the neighborhood through reverent dialogue and modern function. “Given the buildings’ age and their years of abuse and neglect there has been a huge effort in restoring the buildings—architecturally, structurally, updating the utilities and city connections,” said Mulligan. “Reestablishing critical building systems removes many of the daunting tasks that have intimidated previous building owners and tenants.”
These developments cannot be measured on traditional metrics alone. Both projects display a commitment to Deep Ellum, uniquely addressing growth within a diverse set of circumstances. 2800 Deep Ellum is under construction with restoration and shell work to be completed mid-2016. Epic Deep Ellum is in design and documentation with a completion date to be determined.