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David Spence makes good space: David Spence has rejuvenated a corner of Dallas through hard work, handiwork and a drive to save the world--one building at a time.

He wanted to save the world, using his hands to rid third-world countries of despair and restore hope. He'd already labored three years in Guatamela, building appliances out of mud, exhausting his knowledge on the locals. This would be his life. Until reality, and a wife with a simple desire, intervened, prompting David Spence to rethink his goal as global savior.

So he scrapped plans for saving the world. He settled on saving a neighborhood in Dallas, helping transform a former eyesore into a source of community pride--all because he saved a few buildings from demolition, turning them into livable places.

"One thing I'm good at," Spence said, "is looking at a sow's ear and seeing it as a silk purse. I'm not afraid of an old building falling in on itself."

Spence displayed that fearlessness from the start. In 1995, Spence, then 34, inherited money from his grandmother Using his inheritance, he purchased a vacant building slated for demolition in the Bishop Arts District in south Dallas, igniting a turnaround that hasn't slowed. He's not the only self-described guerilla developer, but he has played a vital role in the change.

Polishing the Diamond

Since 1995, Spence, who started a company called Good Space Inc., has bought eight other buildings, including three more that he's turned into apartments (ranging in size from six units to 16 units). Also since that time, the Bishop Arts District, located in Dallas' Oak Cliff area, has become a trendy place to live and work, providing an urban setting with a small-town feel as salsa music occasionally fills the air in neighborhoods. It's not a high-rent district; it is a feel-good district.

"We knew we had a diamond here," Dallas City Councilwoman Elba Garcia said. "We just had to continue to polish it and make it shinier. Mr. Spence was the driving force behind it. He's brought to light an area of the city that was beautiful, but neglected and forgotten. It was full of buildings falling apart."

Not anymore, thanks in part to Spence's efforts. In a city known for its shiny new buildings, Spence employed a different strategy, enhancing the area's uniqueness. He restored the buildings to their original 1920s design and feel, while making 80-year-old buildings new again. He buffed their outsides and transplanted their vital organs inside, making them almost completely new buildings.

The result is a restoration of a once-forgotten neighborhood. The Bishop Arts District once thrived as a popular shopping area and middle-class enclave dating to 1904. A trolley served as the major mode of transportation in an area whose roads weren't designed for cars.

But the trolley stopped operating in 1955. Soon thereafter; Bishop Arts and Oak Cliff were placed on life support. Vacant buildings dotted the landscape. And it wasn't until the 1970s that artists breathed some life back in the area by renting warehouses as studious.

Still, neglect led to further problems and few clamored to invest in the area, until the 1990s when people like Spence got involved.

A Change of Plans

The timing was right for Spence, who grew up in Waco, Texas. After serving in the Peace Corps from 1985-87 in Guatemala, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina in a joint law-business program. He planned on returning to save-the-world type work.

However, his wife, Cindy, "liked being able to jog in shorts again." In other words, she wanted life's subtle luxuries that can't be enjoyed in the jungle. Eventually, Spence took a job with Southern Dallas Development, a non-profit group. The Spences settled, more by accident than design, in Oak Cliff.

Spence soon learned two truths about himself.

"I was unsuited for the non-profit sector and I needed to be my own boss," he said.

The corporation agreed, having fired him. But around this time his grandmother died, leaving him enough money to invest. He started Good Space, initially as a non-profit organization until a local businessman convinced him to show his confidence by investing his own money in the area. Spence listened, dropping the non-profit aspect, tie chose to buy a run-down, vacant building in the Bishop Arts section that drug dealers sometimes used as offices. Channing it wasn't.

"It was a very, very gritty and seemingly unsafe neighborhood," said Clint Strong, an architect who has lived and worked in the Bishop Arts District for 12 years.

But, when Spence bought his first building and turned it into 16 units, the cleansing began, or at least accelerated. A storm cloud over some properties lifted as neighbors immediately started tidying up their properties after years of apathy toward their surroundings. Gangs left; pride returned.

An Authentic Experience

This instant success triggered a desire to buy a second building nearby. And so on. Now a diverse group lives in this area. In Spence's apartments, which are between 600 and 700 square feet, he said two-thirds are single women, half am white and the other half is a split between African Americans and Hispanics.

The average annual income is $35,000, most are college educated and the average age is 34. It's a mix of upper blue collar workers and junior managers. Most, if not all, could afford a garden-style unit in the suburbs. All chose this area.

"You get people from all over coming to the area who never realized it was them," said Lorna Tate, a transplanted New Yorker who owns the Brooklyn Jazz Cafe in the district. "It's the uniqueness of the neighborhood. It's very much like a Mayberry."

It's a walking-friendly district, where many mingle, shopping at boutiques or eating at one of the dozen independent restaurants. Some of those shops existed before the restoration began, but now they're catering to people who actually live there.

"It's just a whole different place," Strong said. "It's so cool. One time I told some guy where I lived and he said, 'Did you know what it was like when you moved there?' I wanted to slap him. Everyone was so terrified of this part of town.... But it feels like a small town within this enormous metropolis. I would be so unhappy elsewhere."

Spence isn't surprised at that attitude.

"They're craving that authentic experience," Spence said. "The neighborhood is unrecognizable from what it was 15 years ago. The [residents] I have would never have dreamed of living in this area. It's still rough around the edges--it's 100 years old. But it's amazing the investment we've seen."

Hard Work, Lessons Learned

This is where Spence's Peace Corps background pays dividends. In Guatemala, he learned to think creatively It also taught him that old and decrepit doesn't mean bad. It just means opportunity. He might be 18 years removed from those days but the lessons remain.

"That's where I developed the mentality that drives Good Space," he said, "as far as let's fix it rather than abandon or demolish it. That's also where I learned that I was hellaciously good with my hands."

Spence fixes his buildings to resemble the original style. That's not easy: Spence devotes 20 or so hours to researching each building he's purchased, wanting to find the original plans. He'll photograph the property and advertise it in the newspaper, asking if anyone knows anything about this particular building. Twice the ads have fetched responses, including one from a 95-year-old man in a nursing home who was the building's original property manager in 1930.

Restoring a property to that era can be costly, but that's where Spence mixes his business background with his handiwork. He knows how to fix things economically.

Take the windows of a building he just finished called Bishop Gate. The windows, most of them rotting, were 80 years old. Rather than rip out these one-over-one, double-hung windows, Spence and his company disassembled them, stripped them to the wood, repaired them with epoxy. Then they primed, painted and reglazed them, replacing all the glass. Total cost: around $100 a window. Sentimentality played a role in doing it this way, but cost played an equal role.

"I couldn't begin to think what it [would have cost otherwise]," Spence said.

Recycling parts limits other costs. Spence saves as much of the old hardware as possible, including window latches and knobs, most of which are solid brass.

"All that was built more sturdily in 1930 than it is now," he said.

He'll also use as much of the old flooring as possible, providing more savings. Only the bricks on the outside are spared. Everything else is targeted for removal or repair.

"The hardest part about it is that the demolition has to be selective," he said. "You can't just turn loose a bunch of muscle guys with sledgehammers. Because I'm so selective, my demolition costs are twice as high as others who go in with a Bobcat and clear everything out. But it comes back to me in hardware costs and other categories."

Spence also limited his costs by waiting to buy a property until he was absolutely ready to start the rehab process. On his last three projects, Spence lined them up in a row. So when one ended, the other immediately began. In each case, he said, the construction time was half what it would have been.

More importantly, "all were under budget," he said.

And it helps that he doubles as his own construction manager and keeps Good Space a small organization with only two employees, one for the office and a maintenance worker. Spence stays onsite about 30 percent of the time during a job and has learned that it's better to tear out the dry wall and start over rather than patching it up. In the end, everything inside is brand new, just as they would be in a completely new building. The result: he hasn't had to perform any major maintenance work.

The newness inside also helps in other ways.

"My [residents] behave terribly well," he said. "It wasn't until August of last year that I had to paint a wall when someone moved out. Most [residents] treat the buildings like little museums. There's something about a lovely restored building that makes you behave.

"I always tell people in the end that the best policy is to slavishly adhere to the original line and style of the building. Your renovation will look right if you do that."

Too Much of a Good Thing?

But rising costs are a problem. Spence bought his flint building for $4 a square foot. In December 2003, he bought a building in similar shape (read: bad) that cost $24 a square foot. For his first building, his renovation expenses were 10 times his acquisition cost. Now they're 50-50. Insurance costs have tripled. Last year, one of his properties cost 80 cents a square foot to insure, up from 25 cents when he first started, in some cases hours of pleading and shopping have reduced his rate to 55 cents a square foot.

Once upon a time, Spence used to buy his buildings without using a bank, staying debt free. Not anymore.

"It's making it hard for me to do what I like to do," he said, "which is a very thorough renovation job. I want to put these buildings back in operation for another 80 years."

If that happens, he will have accomplished his goal of saving a portion of the world. It didn't occur where he once thought; it's welcomed nonetheless.

"It takes someone who really loves the city," Garcia said, "and really has conviction and knows that together we can make a difference. That's what David has done."

RELATED ARTICLE: Involvement personified.

Through neighborhood activities and anti-crime measures, David Spence proves he is committed to community.

He's not just a property manager. David Spence organizes neighborhood activities, serves on boards and hosts parties that attract tourists. It's no wonder those in Dallas' Bishop Arts District have given him an unofficial title.

"The Mayor," said Lorna Tate, who owns the Brooklyn Jazz Cafe in Bishop Arts.

For Spence, it all makes sound business sense.

"To borrow a sports metaphor, the best defense is a good offense," he said. "This helps me on both the revenue and expense side. The apartments require less maintenance and are subject to less vandalism."

By nature, Spence likes to get involved and help people. Hence his three-year service in the Peace Corps in the 1980s. But he also knows his communities can only be helped the more he does for Bishop Arts. And it's quite a lot.

Spence estimated that 20 percent of his time is spent on neighborhood matters. Since becoming a part of Bishop Arts in 1995, Spence has helped put together a crime watch program, organized a Cinco de Mayo parade and a Christmas festival. He's also helped create new signs for the neighborhood. And, he encourages others to get involved. It helps, too, that Spence speaks Spanish, owing to his Peace Corps stint in Guatemala, in a heavily populated Hispanic area.

"There's been virtually no vandalism when the neighborhood is helping," he said. "The other thing is, when it comes to renting an apartment, if the place across the street looks like hell it doesn't matter what my places look like. I am more involved than most [owners] can practically be, but I would think even a modest amount of time would come back to your bottom line. Why would I not go to neighborhood meetings if I have the biggest investment on the block?"

Last year, Dallas instituted anticrime measures for apartment communities, requiring property managers to be more involved in crime watch and posting signs. Spence's company, Good Space Inc., already did those things.

He and his two workers also devoted hundreds of hours to the Bishop Arts District's mural contest this past summer. High school art students created and painted murals celebrating the 100-year history of this district, including their Hispanic culture and its now-extinct trolley line.

There's more: Spence is active in the local Oak Cliff chamber of commerce, hosts parties at cafes, brings tour groups to the area and once served for two years on the zoning commission.

"And I'm a frequent dialer to the code enforcement office," he said. "If I see work that is being done on a building that doesn't have a permit, I'll report them. If there are more people living in a building next door than permitted, I won't hesitate to call. I'm a fixture at meetings to make sure the neighborhood transitions judiciously and strategically."

He also finds time to attend school functions for his children (Parker, 10, and Sarah, 8). And squeeze in 20 miles of jogging a week. He's energy personified. He's also the personification of involvement.

"Other people are involved," Bishop Arts architect Clint Strong said, "but Dave is one of the leaders."--J.K.

John Keim is a freelance reporter who lives in Centreville. Va.
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Author:Keim, John
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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