Back in 2016, I took St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church to task on a bunch of things. The biggest being that while their representative was sitting silent on the Preston Center Task Force they were secretly negotiating with developers to plonk a 250,000 square foot office building on Douglas Avenue. After that scathing take-down, I was surprised when they reached out to me to review their new and improved plans for the site.
You’ve likely read the press release in the DMN from Sept. 6, but I wanted to sit down and get some additional detail. I met with the church’s team fairly quickly, so this delayed column is my fault (busy, busy).
The press release piqued my snark when I noted that in the scant two-page release the Preston Center Area Plan was mentioned eight times … eight … times. When I sat down with the team, it was one of the first things I said … eight times? Their spin was that it showed their commitment. I told them it raised my suspicion meter that there was something to hide. They were surprised at my reaction assuring me there was no hiding … but eight times.
Let’s first look at the 2016 plans for the site (above). We can see the right end of the block was to have been the 250,000 square foot office building with a playground in the middle. The gray building on the left is the existing two-story, church-owned 8100 Lomo Alto. The colored boxes at the bottom are church buildings where they were eying repurposing and additional space (orange and yellow).
At the time of this plan, I said that strategically, I’d offer the same plan. Try to get the density and height increases on the eastern sections first that are zoned MF-1 (36-foot height). The Lomo Alto parcel I’d leave for last since it already has height and density – it’s part of the Preston Center planned development district (PD) 314.
The latest plan above is quite different. The middle playground is gone and replaced by an apartment building. The office building is set back from Douglas in deference to the 8181 Douglas condo owners who’s southern view would be completely blocked (I hear they’re still not happy). A large portion of the lot will be covered in a two story podium housing above-ground parking (two floors underground). The press release states the office building at eight stories while the apartment building will be 12 stories – not including the parking lot podium, so really 10 and 14 stories respectively.
I noted that both buildings are badly placed. First, the residential building should be closest to Douglas to keep it as far away from the Tollway noise as possible and to shorten the office tenant’s access to the Lomo Alto/Tollway frontage road. Church representatives said that since part of the deal includes the church’s use of parking on weekends, the office building needed to be located closest to their sanctuary (I swear, no one in Dallas walks).
Secondly, the buildings are oriented north-south. This ensures neither will take best advantage of downtown Dallas views but will instead turn their glass faces towards the sun, maximizing solar gain and electricity bills. I was told that the buildings’ orientation wasn’t how most people would do it, but it’s what Lincoln Property, the developer leasing the land and managing the project, wanted.
Between the two buildings will be the apartment’s amenity deck atop the parking podium. I noted that the pool will be pretty shady with direct sunlight perhaps between 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a good day.
Then there’s the future. In the image above, the 8181 Lomo Alto building is a question mark. The church says there are long-term leases (seven to eight years) that preclude them from including it in this go-around (I told them to buy out the leases). But what could be built there? When I asked that question there was silence.
In PD-314, it’s zoned for 14 stories but would need to be stair-stepped away from the Tollway just like its neighbors (residential proximity slope). Its height would be the same as the proposed apartment building next door. The resulting in west-facing apartments would be completely walled-off from any view.
Let’s review, people’s homes will face office buildings east and north plus the west’s future is a brick and glass wall (anyone looking at reflectivity so we don’t have another Nasher/Museum Tower problem?). Tenants on the skinny southern side will have a city view engulfed in Tollway noise (if there are south-facing balconies). And the pool will barely require an SPF-1 for the majority of the day. Yippee, I can hardly wait to sign a lease.
And another thing … I was told they’d eventually bury parking on the Lomo Alto lot to maintain the height. What I didn’t think of at the meeting is, if it’s economically viable to bury 100 percent of the parking on Lomo Alto, why at 455,000 square feet of leasable space is there a two-story podium in the first place? It has triple the leasable space as Lomo Alto – the economics have to be there. Think about how much more interactive green space would there be for the neighborhood if the garage was sunk?
SHOW ME THE MATH
You recall that in 2016, the church’s plans were for a 250,000 square foot single office tower on the Douglas Avenue end of the block. Flash forward and the playground is now gone. The church’s PR says that the project isn’t even using all the square footage they have available for the block – and they’re right. Totted up, the block reportedly has rights for 586,127 square feet. The two planned buildings account for 455,000 square feet – almost double their planned 2016 ask (and truthfully, that playground was a placeholder).
The PR message is that the combined buildings are just reshuffling density around the block to make it all work, but that it’s still under the maximum. What is left out is that while the square footage is indeed being shuffled, it’s also enabling 10 and 12 story buildings on parcels zoned for three stories.
In a true reshuffling, that height would come off the 8100 Lomo Also parcel where it’s already zoned, and it’s not. The church still plans to utilize the 131,127 square feet remaining (plus the existing 39,923 square feet in 8100 Lomo Alto) on the block to redevelop that parcel once the leases run out.
The end result is a block packed to the gills on square footage and where height has been enabled for the whole block – something I have no problem with given its location. Frankly, I’m happy to know the full extent of the plans. “A pinch here, a pinch there” may work in cooking, but not in being a good neighbor. It’s good the church’s cards are on the table, but to this author, the hand could’ve been better dealt.
NOT ALL BAD
There are likable components here. First, it’s mixed-use with office, residential and retail/restaurant. The pullback from Douglas enables ground floor retail (likely a restaurant looking for better digs than Preston Center West can offer) and some green space. The pullback also allows 8181 Douglas to retain most of their views (the office building will be oblique to the condos). The church’s farmers’ market will have more and better space which will offer better engagement opportunity for the neighborhood. The wrapped podium parking garage blocks the ugly parking garage of its neighbor.
I was told that green building elements were being looked into and I hope they are. Too often when it’s tenants who pay the utility bills, energy efficiency is left by the side of the road. Certainly, a small solar farm on the roof could power garage, landscape and hallway lighting (that the landlord pays for).
AFFORDABLE HOUSING: THE BEST FOR LAST
I was most impressed by the conversation we had about affordable housing. The church spoke about not only programs that would offer some units at below market rates, but also providing support services like food pantries, daycare and job training. These would go a long way to getting those in need back on their feet and I’d applaud the church for whatever they can do here.
Certainly, if District 13 Council Member Jennifer Gates were to bring together the church with area businesses, there could be a full-service surround for returning people to productivity. There could also be just the simple goodness of folks working in the restaurants and shops of both Preston Centers being able to walk to work. I even asked the acid-test question — “will the church’s planned services come with religious strings, like a time-share pitch?” The answer was a welcome “no,” any services will be free of proselytizing unless asked.
STILL WORK TO BE DONE
I’m hoping there’s some rethinking about their overall plan. Building placements make little sense to me, especially in conjunction with the coming redevelopment of 8100 Lomo Alto and it’s potential to blind western-facing residents (something those in the room seemed to not have considered). Not only is this bad for tenants, but it should also be bad for the landlord who’s trying to rent space for top dollar. There are only so many blind people needing accommodation in Dallas and there is an overabundance of bad locations and views already.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) 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. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.