Back when he was a prince of private equity, Peter Brodsky worked in the most opulent offices inside Dallas’s most opulent business address—the Crescent. European art lined the cherrywood-paneled walls above marble floors. Now the 52-year-old sits at a conference table in a bland office inside what was once declared a dead shopping mall. There’s a coffee machine and a mini fridge and not much else. On the walls hang an artist’s renderings of what the mall might look like one day, if Brodsky successfully redevelops it.
Only about ten miles separate the old Red Bird Mall from the Crescent, but they sit on opposite ends of the long-entrenched divides along racial and economic lines that exist in many cities, including Dallas. One side is flush with financial and political capital, the other starved of it. In a city of 1.3 million residents, in a metropolitan area of 7.6 million, relatively few know their way around both sides of the Trinity River, which splits much of southern Dallas from the rest. Fewer still are regularly invited to Preston Hollow dinner parties while also managing to get their calls returned by Black ministers in Oak Cliff. Brodsky numbers among those few.
That wasn’t the case during his days at Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, the legendary investment firm known for borrowing billions to buy companies it considered undervalued. Back then, Brodsky rarely strayed from his North Dallas bubble. That was before he bought Red Bird with his own money and embarked on a $200 million redevelopment project. That was before he learned how the world works when you’re no longer a high-flying financier but are instead just a developer on the side of town that rarely seems to attract investment.
Brodsky was extraordinarily well compensated for his work at Hicks Muse—earning enough that he could have spent the rest of his days dabbling in philanthropy and maybe sitting on a couple of corporate boards. So why has he taken on the challenge of resuscitating a shopping mall in an era of online retail? Can a rich white guy build something that is both wanted and welcomed in a lower-income, heavily Black corner of the city? What does Peter Brodsky want?
Raised in an affluent section of Brooklyn filled with brownstones on tree-lined streets, Brodsky studied Russian language and literature at Yale University and didn’t consider living in Texas until he’d decided to pursue a career in finance and landed a job at Hicks Muse, at age 24. Fifteen years later, he was married with three children, but he knew little about Dallas’s civic and political life. “I had been kind of head down, tail up, you know, working, working, working,” he said. To remedy that, shortly before he left Hicks Muse, in 2010, he enrolled in Leadership Dallas, a nine-month program offered by the chamber of commerce that’s seen as a way to turn mid-career executives into local leaders. The program focused on many aspects of municipal government, including criminal justice, health care, transportation, and support for the arts.
Through Leadership Dallas, Brodsky realized that he was ignorant about half of the city. “All I ever heard about southern Dallas was ‘don’t go there, don’t bother.’ I went to the state fair once a year. That was the only time I crossed I-30,” he said. Uncomfortable that he had allowed himself to be confined within such boundaries, he began reading a lot about southern Dallas, as well as spending time there.
By square mileage, southern Dallas is roughly the size of Atlanta. It comprises half of Big D and is home to 45 percent of the population, but it contributes only 15 percent of the property taxes. About 95 percent of the leasable office space in Dallas sits north of Interstate 30. And the differences aren’t only economic. Residents of southern Dallas die of heart disease, stroke, and cancer at higher rates than those to the north. College graduation rates are significantly lower. “I was really struck and upset at the thought of so many people living in this city of incredible wealth and not having opportunities,” Brodsky said. “It didn’t sit well with me.”
He began seeking ways to get involved. He joined the board of the Dallas–Fort Worth branch of KIPP Texas, which operates six charter schools in southern Dallas, including an elementary and middle school across the street from Red Bird Mall. He served for a few months as interim director of KIPP Texas. He also expressed interest in sitting on a city board, hoping for something sexy, like parks. Then-mayor Mike Rawlings instead appointed him to the Animal Advisory Commission, in 2015.
Brodsky was soon studying the roots of a loose-dog problem in southern Dallas, where occasional violent attacks led residents to walk with sticks to protect themselves. He brought in a consulting firm that issued a damning report that prompted the city to overhaul its animal services department. The number of loose dogs picked up by the city—and later adopted—rose sharply.
In Leadership Dallas, Brodsky had met businesswoman Sophia Dowl. She was dating, and later married, Willis Johnson, a longtime radio personality turned political consultant who has helped two of the last four elected mayors win office. He has deep connections to the city’s Black community. The two men and their partners became friends, and Johnson came to trust Brodsky. “I think Peter is committed to seeing the playing field becoming equitable. That’s just the person that he is,” he said. “I’m not making Peter out to be Jesus, but he’s a good man.”
Brodsky started considering a financial investment in southern Dallas. It was the right thing to do, he thought, and it could prove profitable. He realized something obvious to anyone who lived south of the Trinity. “There’s purchasing power in southern Dallas that is not being met. People want quality amenities that are not being provided here, and so they’re driving long distances to get them,” he said. “That’s why I decided to buy the mall.”
Eugenia Butler moved into the Red Bird neighborhood in 1979, four years after the mall’s grand opening. At the time, many white residents of the area were selling their homes and moving to the suburbs. More African Americans were moving in. “Red Bird Mall was kicking it back then,” she said, in an interview for an oral history project. A movie theater opened, and the food court was often packed. “That was a hangout. Every weekend, you go to the mall, you hang out at the mall, you go shopping. You might not even buy anything, but you go there and see your friends.”
A decade later, the mall no longer seemed so welcoming. Locals complained that the security staff harassed Black shoppers. Several said they were ordered to leave, threatened with criminal trespass charges, or told to sign an agreement not to return to the mall for six months. Community leaders threatened a boycott in 1990 but backed down after the mall’s owner agreed to change security practices. It is unclear whether there ever was a legitimate public safety threat or if mall management merely sought to discourage young Black men from congregating there.
Whatever the case, the mall’s popularity waned, a trend accelerated by the opening of newer shopping centers to the west. Fewer shoppers meant that more stores closed. The original developers sold Red Bird in 1997, and the new owners, hoping for a fresh start, renamed it Southwest Center Mall. The rebranding didn’t work. By 2003 the owners had defaulted on $36 million in debts, and lenders foreclosed. Yet another company purchased it a couple of years later, but its downward trajectory was set. The movie theater closed. Anchor tenants such as JCPenney and Dillard’s didn’t renew their leases. Enticed by lower rents, mom-and-pop stores replaced the national chains. The mall wasn’t exactly a ghost town, but it wasn’t vibrant either.
In 2015 the mall’s owner put it up for sale in an online auction. Brodsky decided that was the opportunity he had sought. For two hours, he bid against an anonymous buyer, and the price slowly crept up. Brodsky kept raising his bid until he reached the most he was willing to pay. He was outbid again. “That’s when I knew that this was what I really wanted to do, because when I thought I had lost it, I was depressed,” he said.
Two weeks later, while at an airport in New York City, he got a call from the broker who’d handled the auction. It turned out that the other bidder had been the mall’s owner, trying to raise the sales price, which apparently was allowed under the rules. Brodsky was the only interested buyer. Did he still want the mall? Yes, he did, and he was willing to pay a price slightly above his final bid. Brodsky has never said publicly how much that was, and he declined to tell me. In interviews with sources close to him, I heard various figures, all around $10 million or $12 million.
Though Brodsky saw potential in the mall’s location, at the juncture of Interstate 20 and U.S. 67, he wasn’t sure how to redevelop it. Malls across the country were closing as shopping preferences shifted to online transactions. In 2020 the National Association of Realtors examined 94 malls that had closed in recent years. Many were turned into something new. Walkable mixed-use projects were common, but so were churches, fulfillment centers, offices, and colleges—including the Austin Community College campus inside that city’s old Highland Mall. Brodsky needed to figure out what his mall should become.
His first step was to meet with members of the community, who he knew were accustomed to pledges about shiny new developments that never materialized. Developers would consider some project in southern Dallas but then give up. “A plethora of promises,” including much-desired grocery stores and restaurants, remembers John Wiley Price, a Dallas County commissioner who represents the Red Bird area and threatened to boycott the mall in 1990.
With Willis Johnson’s help, Brodsky scheduled more than fifty meetings over a few months—at churches, libraries, restaurants. Brodsky began each meeting by saying, “I want you to know that I realize that seeing a white businessman from North Dallas buy up a prized asset in this community does not fill you with excitement. It fills you with dread, wondering how you’re going to get screwed in the process. That skepticism? I understand that it is well-earned and well deserved.” This was generally met with nods of agreement.
Brodsky gathered many allies and converts. “He just listened, and he really heard the community in terms of what the community desired,” said Bryan Carter, pastor of the nine-thousand-member Concord Church, which is near the mall. “He has been deeply invested.”
Part of what Brodsky heard was a desire for the mall to offer more than just retail stores. People wanted jobs, health care, groceries, restaurants, and a Starbucks. Another common request was simple: restore the Red Bird name. Locals associated it with the mall’s better days and had been insulted when the neighborhood’s name was removed by the previous owners.
After a slow start, the metamorphosis of the rebranded Shops at RedBird is well underway. A new three-hundred-unit apartment complex was built on what had been parking lots, and a Marriott hotel will follow. There is now a one-acre grassy plaza outside the mall’s main building, flanked by a row of newly built stores, including a Foot Locker, and sites for future construction. A Starbucks opened on the road leading to the mall, and its main building has changed considerably. Two health-care providers, Parkland and UT Southwestern, took over space where there once had been a Dillard’s and a Sears. On the mall’s second floor, Chime Solutions, a call center operator, employs two thousand workers and hopes to add another five hundred after a recent expansion.
Just as the project was picking up steam last fall, following COVID-related delays, Brodsky faced a personal tragedy. His eldest son, Jacob, died while away at college. Peter and his wife, Lael, wrote in his obituary that he had fought a “lifelong battle with anxiety and depression, for which he sometimes self-medicated.” Jacob purchased from a dealer what he thought was Percocet but turned out to be fentanyl, Brodsky said, and he overdosed. Brodsky copes with the loss by trying to keep busy. “Days,” he told me, “are easier than nights.”
The mall’s redevelopment also faced setbacks. Brodsky offered to spend more than $5 million to turn the second floor of the former Macy’s into a public day-care facility if Dallas Independent School District agreed to pay rent to reimburse the cost of construction. DISD put off a decision for months, and Brodsky finally pulled the proposal, convinced the district’s board never intended to vote on it. “This is such a shame. Kids and families lost. This would have been terrific,” he said. The district didn’t respond to questions about the matter.
Luring a grocery store that offers fresh fruits and vegetables, along with a meat counter—one of the top priorities expressed by the community—has proved difficult. H-E-B considered the location but was interested only in building one of its Joe V’s Smart Shop budget stores. Brodsky turned it down and continues seeking another option. Meanwhile, H-E-B bought an empty building a mile away. It declined to discuss its plans with Texas Monthly.
By the end of the year, major construction of utilities and outdoor lighting will be finished. Some plots of land will still need developing. Thirty tenants from before Brodsky’s purchase remain, including a few clothing and jewelry stores. Their futures are uncertain.
Brodsky had vowed to stick with the project until it is substantially completed. “Right now, this is my life,” he said. “It’s my biggest asset—by far—and I’m just not going to entrust it to anyone else. And I’ve also made a lot of promises to a lot of people, both investors and the community. And I want to make sure they’re being fulfilled.” He’s not planning to develop any projects beyond RedBird, but he hopes its overhaul will spark further investments in southern Dallas.
And after that? Once the redevelopment is complete? Between his nonprofit work and an investment in a once-defunct mall that could yield thousands of jobs, “he is putting together a perfect résumé to run for office,” said Brian Mayes, a political consultant in Dallas. Price, the Dallas County commissioner, agreed, saying, “We all know what he’s going to do.”
Dary Stone, a Dallas real estate developer who has known Brodsky for years, said the interest in the greater good that led him to buy Red Bird is the same interest that may lead him to consider a run for mayor. They are “two different fruits of the same ambition.”
Brodsky was more circumspect. I asked him if he was interested in running for mayor, and he sidestepped my question. I pointed out that he didn’t answer. “That’s correct,” he responded, smiling slightly. (Months later, he told me definitively that he’s not running for mayor in 2023, but, he said, “I do have an interest in public service.”)
On my last visit to RedBird, I sat outside the new Starbucks, which the chain calls a “community store” because its layout incorporates space for hosting job training programs for young people who aren’t in school or working. The line at the drive-through was six cars long. Inside, a group was meeting, and another half dozen customers were sipping drinks while working on laptops. The Starbucks, which opened in 2018, was the first sign of the new RedBird. The neighborhood had asked for one, and there it was, proof that Brodsky’s promises weren’t—like those of so many other would-be developers—empty.
A few hours earlier, I had chatted with Nakia Johnson, who works at Chime. When callers ask to speak to a manager, she gets on the phone and tries to smooth things out. “It is exciting to see what’s planned,” she said. She grew up in Fort Worth and Oak Cliff, and she’s pleased that RedBird is delivering a mix of jobs, restaurants, and shopping. They’re the kind of amenities that many mixed-use developments offer in wealthier areas. “It is going to make the community different,” she said. “It is not just going to be a mall.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Rebirth of a Mall.” Subscribe today.