Note to Developers: Give Neighbors and Neighborhoods a Chance

Good, clean design. Something Dallas sees little of.

A thought has been percolating in my head recently. Having seen more than a few development proposals while stumbling around town for, developers always show the same thing: The perfect intersection of mediocrity and profitability.  It’s almost always higher than neighbors want, takes up more space than neighbors want, and is a density increase neighbors don’t want.  And it’s all wrapped in what I’ll gently call a ho-hum exterior.

I get it, you’re presenting an economic wet dream to squeeze the most profit from the least work.

But why can’t you, just once, show up with a drop-dead, dry-my-tears-of-joy plan that pushes the boundaries needed to make such a thing a reality?  Then leave it up to the neighborhood to push back and make it worse? If the neighbors want to cut density by 20 percent, you show them what a 20 percent less building looks like (because it’s more than just cutting units, right?).  Better yet, give the neighbors a checkbox of items they have to remove from the project.

Fantastic light coupled with a simple design. (Not The Laurel)

For example, Transwestern’s Laurel apartments originally wanted eight stories that were knocked down to one three- and one four-story building.  Eight stories would have been a higher-quality concrete and steel building versus the timber frame we’re watching being built today.  Would the outcome have been different if the neighborhood understood the trade-off?

Certainly today, in a post-Preston Place fire world, I have to think they would have. But developers didn’t even try to explain what better construction brought to the neighborhood, and so a decision was made with incomplete information. And with The Laurel having tiptoed through an unctuous, nearly three year approval process, surely there was time.

The apartment gulag. No one’s goal.

Aside from the timber-versus-concrete debate, we risk creating a city of increased density that begins to resemble a gulag of same-height, super-dense apartment blocks. Certainly I see this happening in the area of Oak Lawn, where a misguided group want to lower height by downzoning.  Variety is the spice of life, not acres and acres of essentially the same seven-story box with slightly different window openings and exterior colors. You have to extrapolate, not just act on today’s proposal. Didn’t the Gallery at Turtle Creek offer any lessons?

Of the nine RH Gallery stores, West Hollywood is closest to what’s being proposed in Dallas

Last week, the Restoration Hardware folks presented their first drawings for their new RH Dallas showroom on Knox and Cole.  It was gorgeous and the Oak Lawn Committee knew it.  These are experienced people whose job it is to act as first port of call for developers, and they were impressed.  That goes a long way.

And there’s certainly a disconnect here between retail and residential.  Restoration Hardware has an image to craft and maintain.  Most of us know them as the place for faux faded and distressed furniture … but expensive faded and distressed furniture. In becoming RH and adding more polished lines, they needed to move upmarket.  They needed larger showrooms to peddle product to an audience uncomfortable with blindly ordering $10,000 sofas from a catalog.

Avert your gaze. Another painted stucco box

In stark, odd contrast, multifamily developers seem to feel there’s little incentive to a branded experience that attracts tenants from the street.  Sure, they plaster their name on their projects, but the designs of the structures themselves are far from noteworthy.  In fact, this “brand” of housing is a commodity, like so many bananas. It’s math on a spreadsheet.  Tenants, it’s felt, just drive by every complex in a neighborhood and look. Their streetscape is largely unimportant beyond being tidy.

Sure, apartment buildings plow money into the interior and public spaces. But these are actually the cheap pieces that are relatively easy and inexpensive to update as time goes on, especially compared to the exterior skin of the building.

I understand that it all comes down to money.  RH Gallery retail spaces will generate tens of thousands of dollars per square foot, whereas apartments don’t.  Sure, that 850-square-foot apartment may generate $24,000 per year, but it’s not in the same league as high-end retail.  What’s ironic is that many of RH’s customers will come from these apartments.

I’ve been told by developers that my architectural taste is expensive. It was pointed out that one condo building I’d referenced was selling at over $1,000 per square foot.  However, the building in question was in Miami Beach, where the land acquisition costs were many times higher than even the toniest dirt in Dallas. The actual construction costs were not very different. Busted!

One day, I’d love to see a developer’s grandchild pushing their wheelchair and proudly pointing to a profitable building that was also beautiful. Then he’d point to me in my wheelchair and say, “… and that’s the schmuck that made me do it.”

So my dear developers, give people the benefit of the doubt.  Show them something noteworthy that pushes a few more boundaries and explain why. Then show them something inferior that is closer to existing boundaries, and explain the difference.  You know, a focus group.

I think many potential critics would be swayed by beauty and quality … and be more amenable to working with developers to get it.  It would sure beat starting with a project no one is thrilled about and then asking for favors.

If you want to continue this vein, head over to D Magazine for more from Peter Simek.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email


14 Comment

  • I’m a little surprised you used a photo of Barcelona as an “apartment gulag.” Barcelona actually has a wonderful human scale, and a layout that makes the city a pedestrian paradise. On the contrary, the highrise apartment look good from afar but don’t always have the best street presence. Traditionally, Dallas area developments focus on what looks “prettiest” from an up above view, but not what works best at street level on the human scale.

    • mm

      I meant Barcelona no slight. But Barcelona has narrow streets that can feel closed-in away from the main drags. Unlike Dallas, it’s also a pre-automobile city where the cars are optional. Dallas isn’t building classic buildings in areas of mixed-use walkability (they should). Dallas is building blocks and blocks of cheaply-build apartment walls. Taller buildings require higher-quality, longer-lasting building materials.
      I agree curb appeal is critical regardless of height. Height needs to be variable to improve natural light. Older cities are wonderful, but unless you’re on the top floors, apartments are dark. Light doesn’t often reach the ground because those quaint, walkable streets are too narrow.

  • Really like the sales per square foot comparison between RH and an apartment development. Know it is apples to oranges but, without knowing the details, the $500+/sf in economic activity that the RH expansion would likely bring makes it seem like a no brain slam dunk to me. It is like the immediate area, which I have always disliked, has been crying out for a destination project like this for literally decades.

  • I want to reinforce Matt’s thoughts. The Example district in Barcelona has a wonderful scale and creates a great pedestrian experience. We need more of that here. Let’s continue to encourage density (and good sidewalks) in Dallas.

    • mm

      Yes, in some parts of town. We do not like our sidewalks in Preston Hollow or Hillcrest Estates. In fact, that is a good future story. There are some parts of town with acreage that nod back to the Dallas of yesteryear, and we pay dearly to have a “country-like” feel. There are even some horses!

      • mm

        I suspect a lack of sidewalks was more of an outcome of the original developers’ budgets. Comparatively, my end of Preston Hollow cries out for sidewalks and wants to make them mandatory for new development. No horses here.

    • mm

      Agreed, but as we agree, Dallas isn’t building that here. The point of the picture wasn’t to argue the merits of mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly spaces (we all get that).
      Look at the other picture of “The Verdant” (which is anything but)…do you want blocks and blocks of that? That’s Dallas. Superimpose that over Barcelona pic. That’s my point.

  • I am going to add my voice to the chorus of folks noting what a bone-headed move it was to single out the Eixample neighborhood in Barcelona as an “apartment gulag.” Eixample is one of the finest urban neighborhoods in the world. Who cares what it looks like from above; from street-level, it’s wonderful. Few European cities look interesting from above. They are concerned with life on a more intimate level. What many Dallas residents rightly seem to fear are Asian/Vancouver style canyons of 10-20 story apartment buildings – soulless on a scale that is extremely difficult to remedy. That Restoration Hardware, excuse me, RH store is nothing more than a concrete box on top of a concrete box. It’s genteel suburban to the core. Furthermore, talk about an enterprise that epitomizes bland, knock-off products of questionable quality, sold at a “premium” price with a bit of “historical influence” rubbed in.

    • mm

      Add away. Bone-headed it may have been. But let’s be clear. I never mentioned Barcelona. It was a picture chosen to illustrate a point, it could have been in Timbuktu. I’ll be more careful considering the well-traveled readers.
      I’ll disagree on the 20-story high-rises. Dallas is begging for more residential high-rises…in the urban core. You can’t tell me townhouses in Farmer’s Market wasn’t a bone-headed move.
      Everyone can enjoy their opinions on RH.

  • Really, all we have to comment on is a stock image… ok, well lets zoom into the image and look at the streetscapes… wide and filled with trees, I’d take that!

    I would also like to thank you for the image of “The Vendant” 🙂 and say that it is exactly what Dallas (or anywhere else) does NOT need…

    Speaking of there’s a zoning case up today at the City Plan Commission meeting for this very building type (Case #167-201) trying to be plopped down just east of White Rock Lake. A half-hearted attempt at density that completely maximizes buildable area with destruction of existing buildings and vegetation to boot.

    Until Dallas deals with it’s transportation issue(s) density is problem. I think your ask of developers is fantastic and totally necessary “…Show them something noteworthy that pushes a few more boundaries and explain why…” I would go a step further and ask the developers along with the city (and anyone else really) to work together to bring mass transit about, the quicker the better! (The argument that we love our cars or no one uses public transportation isn’t sustainable with the forecasted growth.) Like maybe a development fund that all new development pays into for serious investment into alternative modes of transportation and pedestrian bicycle accommodation. Incentives for developers to build in the current economic climate is lunacy, but we all know that, right?!?

  • Excellent article. I have lived in Dallas all of my 57 years. Ever since they built the first “train station” looking apartments in Deep Ellum I have been depressed about our apartment architecture. When I travel, I am always so impressed at their variety! Thank you for bringing this important situation to light.

  • Impressive point of view and spot on!