‘Transformational’ news on South Dallas’ historic Forest Theater coming in February

By Keri Mitchell - January 21, 2021

South Dallas

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“I’ve never seen the marquee light up before,” noted Elizabeth Wattley in a September 2019 podcast about CitySquare’s restoration of the historic Forest Theater.

As a child, the theater was an icon Wattley knew well, and even though the Forest was unoccupied in much of Wattley’s remembrance, she still recognized it as “a landmark and a beacon” for the South Dallas neighborhood.

CitySquare purchased Forest Theater in May 2017, and soon afterward, The Real Estate Council (TREC) awarded an initial $1 million grant to the Dallas Catalyst Project, a partnership with CitySquare on the Forest Theater façade, Cornerstone Baptist Church on beautification projects, and St. Philip’s School and Community Center on 12,000 square feet of retail space along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The initial TREC grant contributed $400,000 toward City’s Square’s $30 million project to restore the Forest Theater, specifically for architectural and master planning, construction to the theater’s exterior and marquee, and improved lighting.

Nearly four years later, Wattley is still waiting to see the marquee light up. 

A rendering of the restored Forest Theater, pulled from a promotional video on the Forest Forward web page.

Wattley is now the executive director of Forest Forward, a newly formed nonprofit incubated at CitySquare over the past three years. She declined to be interviewed for this story, but a Forest Forward spokeswoman, Sophia Johnson, says that’s because over the next few weeks, “they’re putting details on a couple of big decisions, and they’re not ready to talk about it.”

Johnson assures, however, that the “series of positive announcements” are “going to be transformational.” She expects to herald good news in mid-February.

“The primary constituent is the Fair Park-South Dallas community,” Johnson says, and because it’s a historically disenfranchised community, she explains, Forest Forward is “sensitive to and protective of” the community, especially considering the Forest Theater’s importance in the neighborhood.

“To honor the community, they should be getting accurate information,” Johnson says. “All you need is one little detail not presented correctly.”

Johnson says she isn’t aware of any misrepresentation of the Forest Theater’s progress in local media. Certainly, however, the construction timeline has changed since CitySquare’s 2017 purchase, when the hope was to reopen the theater in 2019 in accordance with the Forest’s 70thanniversary.

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Some of the most detailed plans for the theater’s future are described in a September 2019 TREC podcast with Wattley and CitySquare founder Larry James. In the podcast, Wattley notes that CitySquare “set a very aggressive goal” to restore and renovate the adjoining retail space in time to open in fall 2020, so that students from Dallas ISD’s recently revamped Martin Luther King Jr. Arts Academy could access the space.

A rendering of future Forest Theater retail space, pulled from a promotional video on the Forest Forward web page.

The next phase, she continues, would be restoring the theater and adding new amenities to the space, with a goal of opening in December 2021 “if all of the stars align and everything goes beautifully.”

The stars didn’t align, either for Wattley or for the rest of the world. According to an April 2020 D Magazine update on TREC’s Dallas Catalyst Project, “the Forest Theater was about to start construction before the COVID-19 outbreak, so unfortunately the project has been delayed. During this time, they are hoping to fundraise for additional infrastructure improvements outside the theater, grow in their partnerships and relationships, and prepare for future construction.” 

TREC’s investment in what they dubbed the “Forest District” was intended to last through 2020, but the philanthropic foundation and its partners extended the project to 2022, says Felicia Pierson, TREC’s senior director of community investment. 

By the end of 2020, TREC had invested $1.9 million, plus $550,000 in pro bono services and more than 3,300 volunteer hours to the Forest Forward, St. Philip’s and Cornerstone projects, she says.

“The beautiful thing about this is, it’s not us driving it. It’s what community organizations are telling us is needed,” Pierson continues. “We’re actually making investments and doing what we said we’re going to do based on what they said the needs are.”

This 1955 photo looks south on construction of Central Expressway right up against the historic Forest Theater. Image courtesy of University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections.

Pierson says community input comes from St. Philip’s monthly community meetings as well as from monthly meetings with the Dallas Catalyst Project managers. Pierson emphasizes that the Forest District project is for current residents of Fair Park-South Dallas.

“It’s fine if people come in, but it’s about supporting the people who are there,” she says.

TREC has worked with nonprofits throughout Dallas for 25 years, Pierson says, but in 2017 shifted to a “place-based strategy,” with the idea that focusing investment in a single neighborhood would “leverage activity to bring in additional dollars, services and projects,” she says.

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“It allows you to have a real impact,” Pierson says. “When you focus on one area, it spreads beyond that one area.”

She points to $1.39 million the City of Dallas awarded in October 2020 to Dallas Catalyst partners to redevelop commercial buildings on Cornerstone’s property as well as 1632 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., owned by St. Philip’s.

That $1.39 million makes way for a laundromat, a neighborhood market, a commercial kitchen, a dine-in restaurant and “other businesses that will create jobs, stimulate the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard economy, and (hopefully!) inspire future revitalization efforts in the Forest District,” the Dallas Catalyst Project wrote in an Instagram post.

A rendering of the Forest Theater’s renovated interior, pulled from a promotional video on the Forest Forward web page.

It will take 20 times that amount to restore the Forest Theater, according to 2019 projections of a $30 million project. The community’s attachment to the theater and desire to see progress make the stakes even higher.

The grand goals CitySquare’s Larry James laid out for the theater in a 2017 Dallas Morning News column, soon after its purchase, were “to restore it to its original grandeur, and make it an intimate performance and teaching space so all kinds of groups can come and perform and learn. 

“We hope it’s a public community center and communicates to the area the value and wealth of South Dallas-Fair Park. We hope it becomes an anchor that shouts the testimony that South Dallas is worth every investment we can make in it.”

A recently created web page for Forest Forward states its overarching goal is for the theater be part of reversing the “intentional, discriminatory history” of South Dallas rooted in “segregation, white flight, redlining, and the construction of two major highways.” 

This 1957 photo shows the completed south leg of Central Expressway looking north, with the historic Forest Theater on the west side of the new highway. Image courtesy of University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections.

A recently created web page for Forest Forward states its overarching goal is for the theater be part of reversing the “intentional, discriminatory history” of South Dallas rooted in “segregation, white flight, redlining, and the construction of two major highways.” 

A video on the page points to the S.M. Wright Highway slicing through the neighborhood, right next to the Forest Theater, as “economically devastating,” and shows glimpses of the theater’s interior along with renderings of the proposed restoration.

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In the 2019 TREC podcast, Wattley pointed out South Dallas’ history of “lack of evolvement in infrastructure,” and “very little investment in the neighborhood.” With the TREC grant, she and others examined the question, “What visibility can we bring to the neighborhood?” and directed funds toward exterior façades and streetscape improvements — “things that people can see and know that change is actually coming, instead of ‘Oh, we’re gonna do something,’ and it fall through and there’s no visible change to the neighborhood.”

Early on, Wattley installed an outdoor chalkboard beneath the theater marquee posing the question, “What do you want to see in this space?” Based on chalk messages and input sessions, she described plans for a flexible performance hall with space for 600-plus people, a flexible “motion room” for everything from dance to birthing classes, a podcast room, a resource hub, a WeWork-type space, a digital design space and more.

She described a downstairs eatery and café lobby, saying, “I’m convinced and I’m determined to prove that Black people drink coffee and we need coffee shops in South Dallas.”

She also hoped for a rooftop amenity “to watch movies on the roof and see all of Sunny South Dallas and downtown from that space.” This was contingent on “a thumbs up from a structural engineer,” however.

A rendering of the Forest Theater’s future rooftop amenity, pulled from a promotional video on the Forest Forward web page.

Indeed, the historic character and official historic designation of the theater is both an asset and an expense. 

“I won’t go into detail of the electrical battle we are against,” Wattley foreshadowed in the 2019 podcast, “but it’s going to be quite interesting to restore the marquee of that theater.”

Look for more on St. Philip’s and Cornerstone’s TREC projects in future editions.

This story was co-published by our media partner, the Dallas Weekly.


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