Everything You Want to Know About the Preston Center Parking Garage (But Were Afraid to Ask!)

Preston-Center-parking-garage

It’s not pretty, that’s for sure, but the 800-space, two level parking garage smack in the middle of Preston Center (west) sure is handy when it comes to parking. On a rainy day — basically the last two months — I have left the car in there protected from hail. Even left the sky-roof open. I have never parked on the second level. Local kids enjoy the ramp for skate boarding, don’t want to cramp their style. Private buses apparently use (abuse) the garage by treating it as a depot where people can leave their cars while they Greyhound it down to Austin.

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Preston Center parking garage circa 1954

But you may wonder, how did this thing get here? Why is the history of this part of Preston Center so convoluted? One of the most difficult items of real estate development is to gauge present cost against future gain. Who would have known how or where Dallas would grow, or how valuable Preston Hollow would have become in terms of property values? Preston Center was originally part of a dairy, and Preston Road was gravel, just a plain frontier road. It connected Austin with Grayson County, home to a town called Preston. It became Preston Road in 1944 after the completion of the Lake Texoma dam, named after Captain William G. Preston. But it was still in the boonies,  just weed fields north of Lover’s lane, so named because it was where couples “parked”.  In 1955, Dallas was just another sleepy Texas city that was still pretty much an overgrown town. And that’s the year the parking garage was built.

Eric Nicholson really said it best:

Here, at the spot where the Park Cities and Preston Hollow converge with two busy roads and the Tollway to form an unimaginably rich vein of real estate gold, stands a shopping center that is, for lack of a more polite term, a piece of crap.

There was a train track where the Dallas North Tollway now runs. There was no NorthPark Mall. LBJ wasn’t even president yet. Between the Tollway (built in 1968) and Douglas, there were rows of duplexes, which were rezoned by the city during the 70’s to allow for 20 story office buildings. (Remember Frederick Square by St. Michaels?) Dallas was growing, downtown was crowded: like love and marriage, first comes strip retail, then comes the commercial offices. Nicholson says “the daily influx and exodus of workers clogged traffic on Preston and Northwest Highway and helped accelerate Preston Center’s decline from a locus of high-end retail to the site of a Marshall’s.”

True, but there were other factors. The biggest blow came when Foleys vacated one of the largest spaces. It was the end of the great department store era. The Sanger Brothers Department Store at Preston Center store opened in 1958 and was flagship. I didn’t grow up in Dallas, but we had a similar family-owned dry goods department store in my home town — dry goods retail thrived in the late ’50’s and ’60s.

Interestingly, Realtor Bab Suzanne Harrison wrote (in D Magazine, in 1987!) that the department store space was first going to be the Preston Theater; when Sanger Brothers moved in, it was the largest suburban department store in the country. The store became Sanger-Harris in 1961, doubled its size, and sold to Foleys in 1987. By this time, and through the 1990’s, NorthPark Mall (circa 1965) nabbed most of the stores that once gave Preston Center shopping pizzazz, like Benetton, Rodier Paris, and the Neiman Marcus I’m told was also at Preston Center. Update: a vintage postcard, found again by that dogged Eric Nicholson, depicts the 63,000 square foot  Neiman Marcus store which opened at Preston Center in 1951, the retailing giant’s second-ever location.  It operated  14 years before moving a couple miles east to NorthPark mall in 1965.

The only real setback that (Sam) Lobello remembers, and that was temporary he reminds you, was the opening of NorthPark. “That hurt us a lot and hurt business quite a bit,” says Lobello. ’Then we redid our buildings, put in air conditioning, and things got better.”

So we had the head winds changing in retail and real estate while Dallas grew, combined with fractured land ownership:

For starters, it’s much harder for several dozen property owners to agree on anything but the status quo. The fractured ownership also makes it logistically almost impossible for any one of them, or an outsider, to amass enough property for a substantial new development. And many of the owners are family interests (some, like the Lobellos and Ramsbottoms, have been around since the beginning) content to continue collecting rent from tenants much as they’ve always done.

The Lobellos ran a BBQ-hamburger shop where Berkshire Court now stands.

Back in 1955, it seems, back when the land was being parceled out to the Lobellos et al, the buyers were promised in their deeds that the land at the center of Preston Center would forever be used for parking and only parking. The settlement the property owners ultimately signed with the city makes clear that they can waive this covenant so long as they come to a unanimous agreement, but that hasn’t — and might never — happen.

1986: Dallas is crippled by the real estate recession: not a single high rise was built within the downtown freeway loop. Sanger Harris is a Federated branch of the Texas department store. Fifteen Preston Center property owners commission a parking study to determine the quantity and use of available parking and suggest solutions. Among the recommendations: a re-striping of the top level for employee parking and stricter enforcement of two-hour limits.

1989: Office development slowly taking off at Preston Center as Dallas emerges from the real estate crunch of the late 1980’s. The Preston Center Special Area Study examined traffic impact and devised a management plan that would (again) limit second-level parking to employees. The plan was never implemented. But the city did come up with a zoning plan that “broke Preston Center into several tracts, each with its own permitted uses and density.” As Eric pointed out, that plan is the opposite of today’s mixed-use philosophy:

Of the four developments built since the plan was put in place, all have been office towers.

2010: The city of Dallas, which owns the parking garage, thinks it can sell it to a developer to develop it without the approval of all the property owners, in effect by-passing the 100% agreement rule of the surrounding property owners. The city loses; Judge rules that the quitman claims hold and land must only be used for sidewalks, streets, and parking. The city is not responsible for maintenance. The property owners are, but there is no real penalty for not contributing to the maintenance.

2014: Spurred by several local potential developments, City Councilwoman Jennifer Gates appoints a 13 member Northwest Highway and Preston Road Area Plan Task Force to figure out a sensible game plan for Preston Center — finally! Meantime, Crow Holdings buys the Sanger Harris department store building leasing to Ross, Marshalls, Office Depot and CVS. Knowing that the lease on the 1400 square foot Tom Thumb across Preston, near the church, is soon up, the developer seeks out Tom Thumb to put a 50,000 square foot grocery store (about the size of the one at Lincoln Park) on the second floor. Crow first starts talking about building a sky bridge between the store and the second floor of the parking garage for shopper’s convenience.

2015: Crow Holdings files a request for a special-use permit to allow for a sky bridge connecting the second level of the garage to a specific retail building on the west side of the complex. The case is approved by the City Plan Commission and heads to the Dallas City Council for a vote. Crow Holdings claim the 50,000 square foot grocery store in the city will bring in an additional half million dollars in tax revenue.

 

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