A thought has been percolating in my head recently. Having seen more than a few development proposals while stumbling around town for CandysDirt.com, 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.
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.
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?
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.
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 Candysdirt.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.