In the 1980s, Jack Matthews had already survived something of a trial-by-fire, putting his college studies on hold to help his father’s construction firm weather the sky-high interest rates
of the previous decade.
His solution to the resulting slowdown was for the firm to create its own developments on the land it owned instead of depending on someone else, and in the process he discovered he preferred development to construction.
In 1988, he was tasked with expanding Matthews Group to either Southern California, South Florida, or North Texas. Students of the Texas economy will recognize the late 80s as an agonizing time, when the energy bust that started in 1986 eventually took down nine of the state’s ten largest banks and decimated real estate as well. “Dallas was so beat up at the time,” Matthews says. He figured that “if we’re going to invest someplace,” go where there’s plenty of upside, settling on Lewisville and setting up Matthews Southwest. By 1994, he had moved down to live here fulltime.
In 1997, Matthews bought the old Sears Roebuck building on the south side of downtown Dallas, sparking renewal in a neglected corner of the city. Everybody told him it was a bad part of town; lenders were wary of the area. But that might just have been an example of what Matthews says can be the upside to being an outsider to the market. “It’s a strength in that you come in without historical blinders,” he says.
“Sears was a huge building. He saw multifamily as the anchor for a multi-use project,” Garrett says. Noting the worries about crime in the area, Matthews made quite a move when he donated nearby land to build a new headquarters for the Dallas Police Department. After the Sears building opened in 2000 as South Side on Lamar, it was followed by night clubs, restaurants, the NYLO Hotel (now Canvas Hotel), and apartments. Different for Dallas, maybe, but not for Matthews.
“Jack does it better than most. I really respect the work he has done,” Brad Bell says. “As I understand it, there was a clear understanding” when Matthews finally won the competition to build the Omni Dallas Hotel next to the Dallas Convention Center, a prime consideration was workers “in the service groups, and the proximity to housing and public transportation.”
In the Canadian province of Ontario, where London sits about halfway between Detroit and Cleveland on the north shore of Lake Erie, “we had developed office/retail/apartments. All I was trying to do was give people a taste of downtown in areas that didn’t have a downtown,” Matthews says. “People want different things. You need different populations to keep restaurants busy, fill a hotel, fill apartments. Lots of cities went away from that, keeping residential separate from commercial.”
But mixed-use, “done right in the right spot,” bridges all those activities to create livability. The need for affordable housing, also termed “workforce” housing, often comes with government red tape, but that’s not an issue for Matthews Southwest.
“When you grow up in Canada, you get used to working through bureaucracy and getting things done slowly. We don’t have any problem with that. We like bringing in the cities as true partners,” he says.
The finishing touch on South Side on Lamar could be a high-speed rail station. Matthews is an investor in Texas Central Railway, a private venture that aims to build a 200-mph bullet train between Dallas and Houston. “It’s a perfect addition” to the downtown’s south side, Matthews says of the 60 acres designated for the rail station.
“It drops 15,000 to 50,000 people, depending on the day,” into the growing south end of downtown Dallas.
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