The opening whistle is three hours off, but already Victory Park Plaza puts on its game face.
A huge inflatable basketball shoe tumbles from a Dallas Mavericks Ford Excursion. A rolling bar takes up a spot at the other end of the plaza. A flashy fleet of radio-station vehicles fills the alleyway – Kidd Kraddick’s “Kiss” Explorer, the Hummer from Radio La Kalle, the Rickey Smiley 97.9 Cadillac hearse, their crews unloading their own splashy displays.
Across the plaza, above WFAA-TV’s glassed-in studios, a steady stream of news items runs on a digital board. And along the fronts of the facing metal-skinned buildings that line the plaza, a pair of big screens – each divided into quadrants – offer an ever-changing array of dazzling images and color.
The screens provide a perfect backdrop for this Wednesday night party in the plaza, the destination for thousands of guests and Mavericks fans already rushing up Houston Street and the other byways of Victory Park.
Their march to American Airlines Center carries them through a constantly shifting landscape, a hip – and high-end – urban enclave built on 75 acres that once housed a TXU plant and a Union Pacific railroad yard.
The screens can carry one huge image or four smaller ones, moving in concert or dividing amoeba-like with each crawling its own separate way, captivating whether they’re showing a Lexus commercial or a cutting-edge animated short.
“That’s the coolest thing ever!” says Hector Reyes, 8, who stands transfixed as the screens do their thing.
“Look, look,” says Janet O’Brian, stopping short when she first catches sight of the sliding screens. “How do they do that?”
The fans stream toward the AAC, Victory’s northern anchor, passing the neon-lit House of Blues and the pounding rhythm of construction hammers, the new Terrace condominiums, the Vista apartments, the restaurants and chic boutiques fronting Victory Lane, and the brilliant blue logo of W Hotel, seemingly floating in the skyline.
“I haven’t been down here in awhile,” says James Anderson of Farmers Branch. “Wow, things sure have changed. They’re doing some great stuff around here.”
The Victory development, which eventually will include $3 billion in new construction, remains a work in progress. But the energy on game night shows off the remarkable possibilities.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is particularly impressed with the “active, contemporary feeling” that Victory Park Plaza provides outside the AAC.
The Cowboys’ new stadium under construction in Arlington won’t be quite like this, but Mr. Jones says he’s hoping to capture the same excitement.
“We’re trying to create this kind of feeling with our plazas,” he says. “Many of our fans will enter through the end zones, through these plazas, and that, conceptually, will give people this kind of feel.
“To me, this plaza is a noteworthy way of branding a sports facility and tangibly, architecturally, creating a 350-day-a-year destination in Dallas.”*
That day may come. But for now, it’s the top-draw events at the AAC – including the Mavs’ do-or-die playoff game tonight against the Golden State Warriors – that really generate a buzz.
While many in the Mavs crowd dine on traditional ballpark chow from the arena’s concession stands, some opt for more upscale offerings from Victory’s growing stable of restaurants.
Victory Tavern pulls in a good pre-game crowd with a menu that stretches from $12 burgers to a $32 New York strip steak and a traditional tavern ambiance.
Around the corner and on the other side of Victory Park Plaza, siblings N9NE steakhouse and Nove Italiano push the style quotient, and the prices, far higher.
As a well-dressed man tends the door at N9NE for a steady flow of diners, window shoppers scan a menu with occasional gasps.
“This must be the high-rent district,” one man says, after considering steak in the $50 range on the largely a la carte menu.
But the customers aren’t complaining.
On game nights, the restaurants see two separate crowds – those who arrive early to catch the game, and those who come a little later for an evening of fine dining, says Wade Hampton, director of marketing for the N9NE Group’s Dallas properties.
“And we have the ability with Ghostbar to round everyone up again after the game.”
While game nights are busier at N9NE and Nove than most other evenings, the quieter nights have their own benefits.
“You see more celebrities here on the nongame nights,” says a Texas Highway Patrol trooper, who often works off-duty shifts providing security for the plaza. “They can have dinner here with less chance of being bothered. And then they can head to Ghostbar.”
So far, the N9NE Group is “very pleased” with its Dallas properties.
“We’ve had a great rollout for both restaurants,” Mr. Hampton says, “and Ghostbar has stabilized at the top of Texas bar sales.
“And when you see the energy we had there last weekend, with [Cowboys quarterback] Tony Romo’s birthday party, it’s great. We’re very pleased with Ghostbar.”*
If Victory is to become the 350-night destination that Mr. Jones predicts, it needs to be both a regional attraction and a neighborhood unto itself.
The W Hotel and Ghostbar, which occupy the building’s top floor, have a steady celebrity clientele. So they can be must-visits for the see-and-be-seen crowd.
And with the area’s first homesteaders settling in at the W’s residences, the apartments at the Vista and the Terrace’s condos, Victory gradually takes on the feel of a neighborhood.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest, definitely,” says RayeAnne Coulson, property manager for the Vista, with 129 apartments ranging from 671 to 1,544 square feet and rents from $1,300 to $3,300 a month. “It was slow initially – a lot of people didn’t know we were open. But now the word is out.”
Around Victory, towering construction cranes duck and bob like great blue herons at projects like the semi-cylindrical Cirque tower across Houston Street from the AAC and the 43-story Mandarin Oriental on Victory Lane.
South on Houston, construction crews race to finish their work in time for House of Blues’ May 8 opening, when Dallas-based Erykah Badu will headline.
For other businesses in Victory, particularly the restaurants, House of Blues and its daily concert lineup will mean a steady flow of visitors.
“Concerts have been by far our biggest nights for events at the AAC,” says N9NE Group’s Mr. Hampton. “It’s amazing. Justin Timberlake’s concert was the first night we noticed a huge crowd at the restaurants.
“I thought that would be a younger crowd, judging from the little girls lining up at 9 a.m. for the show. So we think the House of Blues’ nightly rotation will give us quite a few patrons. Plus, they don’t do a lot of shows for younger crowds.
“I’m not sure what the Deftones will do for us. But Live is right down our alley as far as the crowd they attract.”
Not coincidentally, the N9NE properties will welcome House of Blues to the neighborhood with celebrity parties and other celebrations in its opening week, Mr. Hampton says.
But even with the buzz that surrounds Victory right now, many in the neighborhood preach patience, at least for the short term.
“Some days, if you’re as far inside it as we are, you have to remind yourself to step outside and remember that $3.2 billion can’t be built overnight,” Mr. Hampton says. “So we’ve tempered our decision-making to reflect that.
“We think we’ve done things at a pace that won’t be overbuilt before the rest of the neighborhood is done.”
So far, though, visitors such as Mr. Jones like what they see.
“It tickles me, because there was a lot of criticism of Ross Perot Jr., Tom Hicks and Mark Cuban when this thing started,” he says. “But the taxpayers leveraged the money to help create this.
“I think this ought to be the poster child for public-private partnerships that really benefit the community.”