Forest Theater reboot could ‘transform’ South Dallas

After years of ‘fits and starts,’ rehab project finally on track: Mayor

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson touted the potential of the renovation of the historic Forest Theater to raise the curtain on a renaissance for South Dallas during a recent tour of the ongoing project.

A revitalized Forest Theater — situated at the opposite end of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from Fair Park — could become a new cultural hub driving development in a neighborhood long overlooked by investors, the mayor said, according to the Dallas Business Journal.

“This area right here is prime for development through this project. $50 million, potentially, being invested in this project alone, and maybe $100 million for the surrounding area to create, really, an arts complex,” Johnson said. “What stands out to me the most is this is an opportunity to really transform this part of South Dallas.”

The plans to turn the vacant 45,000-square foot space into an arts, entertainment and community hub have been underway since 2021, when Forest Forward — the nonprofit formed to revitalize the local icon — announced its capital campaign.

Mayor Johnson said that — at long last — he’s optimistic about Forest Forward’s project, after years of failed attempts at renovations.

“I’m very hopeful. I’m very hopeful. I’ve also, sort of, been frustrated by the fits and starts over the years with different efforts to revitalize this particular property. It is an iconic property,” he said.

The theater became a go-to spot for Black performers and patrons when it opened in 1949, hosting feature films and attracting famous national acts. But hard times fell on the neighborhood and the venue, and the theater closed in 1965. It was threatened with demolition in 2015 to make way for a gas station, but was spared when that project fell through. In 2017, the property was purchased by a philanthropic couple and given to local nonprofit CitySquare, which spun off Forest Forward to helm the transformation into a state-of-the-art performance hall.

The group has formed a partnership with the Dallas ISD and its nearby Martin Luther King Arts Academy, and plans to create music bays, design studios, and conference spaces for the community. There are also plans for a restaurant, green space, and rooftop café.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the Forest Theater,” Johnson said as he toured the property. “It’s beautiful. It’s got a lot of character to it. And it has a lot of great potential.”

The Forest Theater renovation isn’t the only major investment the area is getting.

Developer Larkspur Capital has a lot planned for the Deep Ellum music and entertainment district just off downtown the entrance to Fair Park, which will bridgi in a multifamily community consisting of 5-story to 7-story apartments totalling 240 units.

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— James Bell