Shells of Our City: West End Marketplace

We had to tell half a dozen people the West End Marketplace had closed, just while we photographed the exteriors for this feature. There are no chain link fences, boarded windows, or "no trespassing" signs. Instead, the building looms like a sleeping giant, ready to awaken in a new era.

People still take their photo in front of the jovial dragon that sits in front of what was Planet Hollywood. After the restaurant closed -- on September 11, 2001 -- the signage went away, but the dragon stayed behind. The Starlight Room, a special events venue, now occupies the Planet Hollywood space -- and it's the only tenant in the complex. The Marketplace closed down officially in June of 2006. For the last few years, the building has been over 50% vacant.

The exterior shows minor vandalism -- someone colored Elvis' eyes red and dust covered windows have a few obscene messages -- leading our expectations to believe the interior would be worse.

We were wrong.

Comprised of what was, at one time, three separate structures, the interior of the building looks surprisingly well maintained. The support structures remain, and many of the unique elements -- like ovens from when the buildings were owned by the Sunshine Biscuit company -- are still there. The character of the building remains, though the shops and cinemas have been removed.

We toured the building with Tom Persch, Chairman of the West End Association, and a Vice President for Ecom Real Estate -- the group that manages the building. Accent lighting still functioned in the lower levels; we even used the escalators to get to the top of the two four-story wooden buildings that made up the shopping areas. These structures were combined with a seven-story concrete building that eventually held the ten screen cinema.

The first floor was home to many Dallas Alley nightclubs including Paragon and Bobby Sox; Froggy Bottoms sat in the basement level. Completing the entertainment options was Tilt, a massive arcade that took over most of the bottom floor.

Since the closing of the Marketplace, Ecom has maintained the building, all the while trying to find the next tenants for the massive space. They've come close several times before; Persch tells us the Savannah College of Art and Design were in deep negotiations to open a branch in the building, taking over more than just the Marketplace.

"It's just a matter of time until the right tenant comes along," Persch says.

Foot traffic is still a big deal for the location -- folks walking to and from Victory Park through the West End pass under the neon arches of the Dallas Alley, which bridges to a connecting route under Woodall Rodgers. Traveling through that route gets visitors to the newly opened Hard Rock Cafe, the House of Blues, and eventually down to the American Airlines Center.

But most don't get that far. We saw many pedestrians head into the Alley, and, minutes later, turn back the way they came. With the constant stream of foot traffic -- including folks still looking for things to do in the West End -- what finally killed the Marketplace?

Persch thinks it was a combination of economic transitions, retail and entertainment fragmentation, and 9/11 -- when the convention center business seemed to drop significantly. Tourists and other visitors had routinely been the Marketplace's bread and butter, coming for the unique Texas style just down the street from Dealey Plaza. This "encapsulated" market, as Persch termed it, still helps the rest of the West End District, but the fragmentation of independent retailers to suburban "main street" concepts and even entertainment options "closer to home" have made many weekend nights quieter than a decade ago.

Persch and others in the West End are optimistic. "The West End is still thriving. The Marketplace may have closed, but look..." he gestures down the street toward the DART light rail station on Pacific Ave, "the rest is still here."

It's only a matter of time before the neon arches of Dallas Alley and the West End Marketplace net tenants that can awake the sleeping giant in a new era.

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