Jon Anderson: Another Project Threatens to Kill The Dallas Skyline (Again)

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Earlier in the week, I wrote a column about Dallas ruining its skyline. It struck a chord with tens of thousands of readers. That column resulted in a tip on a case hitting Plan Commission on Thursday that illustrates my point of Dallas not caring about its surroundings.

Case Z190-226 is a trio of parcels (totaling 2.02 acres) off Commerce Street bordering the west side of the Trinity River between the two Calatrava bridges on Beckley Avenue (yellow triangle above). As you can see, any proposed building there will have breathtaking views of downtown across the Trinity River. It will also set precedent for high-rises along the Trinity River, impacting downtown views from the west and kicking-off a walled blight on the Trinity Skyline Trail and park.

What’s going on?

Currently the area is zoned for IR (Industrial Research) with the existing businesses being various single-story automotive repair uses. Developer Mill Creek wants to change the zoning from IR to MU-2 (Mixed-Use) so they can build an apartment building with possible retail uses on the ground level – and requiring some heavy goosing to the straight MU-2 designation.

If you haven’t been there, this section of West Dallas is hot for apartment builders with new complexes beginning to line any road crossing the Trinity.  So I get that the area’s past as warehouses and light industrial is being swept away. What I’m generally seeing are bland-new five-story complexes with four apartment levels on top of some restaurant/retail space surrounding a giant aboveground parking garage. Again, I have no issue with residential overtaking warehouse land so close to downtown.

Blockage seen from across Beckley (Source: Vivian Vega via GritPhotoArt.com)

The fine print?

The site is currently single story, but it’s zoned for IR that allows up to 200-feet in height but bars residential use. However, IR zoning has an FAR (floor area ratio) of 2:1 at best. This ratio means that for every square foot of lot they can build two square feet of building. So unless we’re talking about a needle building, IR doesn’t get to 200-feet in height.

The developer, Mill Creek is asking for a 95-foot base height with an increase to 160-feet (14 stories) if they add 10 percent of affordable housing. They’re also proposing a base unit count of 100 with the affordable units boosting that number to 350 units total

City staff are recommending to increase the unit counts in two trip levers on affordable (adding up to the same 10 percent) which would bring the maximum unit count to 360. Ten more than asked.

Project shown in relation to new 5-story construction at far left (Source: Vivian Vega via GritPhotoArt.com)

FAR FAR Bigger

The documents are very cagey on FAR for the project. It lists FAR as 1:1 for non-residential use and “no maximum residential floor are ratio.” A quick calculation has FAR at 8.79:1. I get there by multiplying the lot size (87,991 square feet) by 0.8 (80 percent lot coverage) for the first eight floors (counting parking floors). Floors 9-14 are stipulated at 35,000 square feet per floor max (6 x 35,000). That brings a total residential square footage to 773,142 which divided by the lot size (87,991 square feet) nets 8.786 (6.86:1 if three parking levels not counted). Current IR zoning is 2:1 FAR – less than a quarter of what’s proposed.  (Full disclosure: I may be slightly off depending on the shape of the building, but I’m close.)

Put in perspective, the new Truluck’s building on McKinney has an FAR of 7.48:1 with all underground parking. On Cedar Springs Road, Granite’s original building started at 6:1 before shrinking and it also offered all underground parking.

FAR Bigger

The above calculation assumes full boat on height and density. But developers hate affordable units, so another perhaps more likely scenario sees this building as eight-stories with a three level concrete garage and five stories of brick, stick and stucco above. Chopping off the affordable bonuses and you get a 6.4:1 FAR (4:1 not counting garage space).

The other reason this might be the real plan is down to construction type. At eight stories the developer can get away with much cheaper construction. Anything above eight stories would be steel and concrete – adding roughly a third to the construction cost.

Parking

It’s all aboveground. What this does is allow the residential portion to completely harvest city views because the lot is right next to the 2-3 story tall levee (that parking will face). I’m not saying I’d do it differently, but it does push up the building.

I’m all for reduced parking, but only in areas that can support a car-free lifestyle. This isn’t one of those areas. But the developer is asking for a reduction in the amount of parking. Multi-family zoning requires one space per bedroom while Mill Creek is asking for one space per unit. Is it realistic to believe that in this area that only one person with a car will live in each unit (or that only one person will live in any unit)? No. It points to either a project with a lot of tiny units and/or streets clogged with resident’s parked cars.

The parking reduction for any restaurant does make sense since as the neighborhood matures, people will walk between complexes.

Many tiny trees

Landscaping

While there appear to be a lot of trees, they’re not trees of any great size. The main front of the building has nine trees of 3-inch diameter. The remaining 40 trees are 2-inch diameter – called “shade trees” I wonder how much shade a 2-inch tree produces? As I’ve stated before, this fun size Halloween candy bar sizing (RE: cheap).

Garbage and Loading

The natural place for loading docks and garbage will be between the building and the Trinity River levee. This means Trinity Skyline Trail walkers will see garbage collection and truck traffic running within the “Trinity River setback.”

Show me the … anything

Mill Creek has provided zero pictures or renderings of their proposal – to anyone. The neighbors have been asking for months – even though they’re tasked with turning in their support/oppose ballot to the city (sight unseen?) City staff and Plan Commission have seen no renderings that are public and yet they’re supposed to vote?   That’s complete BS.  You know who you don’t trust?  Any developer who says, “trust me.”

Looking at the preliminary park between the levees at Commerce (the north-south road in graphic above). It’s easy to understand why this building wants to overlook it. But should it?  If we are prioritizing the Trinity for Dallas citizens, should a 14-story tower be allowed to loom over it – especially when their fire lane requires maintaining an access road to the detriment of the park?  Should two?  Because sure as shootin’ the Trinity will be lined with high-rises soaking up the views.

As a city, we deserve to know what specifically will be there besides a developer’s wing and prayer promises.

Higgledy-piggledy Neighborhood

Why does West Village work? Planning. While not specific to this area, there’s a lot of development in this area and it’s all disjointed with no central plan. If the city desires this to become a functioning neighborhood, there should be a master plan. There isn’t. It’s every developer for themselves.

Net it out, baby

This case does no less than set precedent for any old tall building to canyonize the Trinity River blockading not only city views, but darkening the Trinity River park and trails.

In a redeveloping area where new apartment buildings are five stories, Mill Creek wants to build a potentially 14-story building.

Trinity Skyline Trail walkers get a views of garbage trucks and moving vans.

It’s an enormous increase to existing zoned FAR with no renderings.

Developer’s cha-ching. Both cost-saving aboveground parking and without any apartments having a below-levee view (renting for less).

Parsimonious landscaping with thin trees offering little shade for decades.

Parking reductions will see the project generate continual spill-over on-street parking.

Mill Creek’s Modera Katy Trail

Finally, Mill Creek

Having saved the Trinity from a tollway and with plans for structured park land coming, should adjacent new construction be held to a higher design standard?

Personally, I’ve never seen a Mill Creek building I liked better than an empty lot. And I seriously wonder if this building will look any better than the prison across the river (except with balconies). But that’s me. I invite you to look at Mill Creek’s portfolio. Are these the guys who can bring forth a building worth sacrificing so much for? 

Would any smart city give away development rights on an oversized, under-parked, unseen project in a first-class location bordering a river walk park facing straight into downtown?  How is city staff recommending this project?  How is Plan Commission even discussing it without seeing it?  If approved, how can City Council evaluate the unseen?

Let’s see if Plan Commission and City Council decide to walk into their voting booths as blindfolded as city staff already has for this project.

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Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is CandysDirt.com's condo/HOA and developer columnist, but also covers second home trends on SecondShelters.com. An award-winning columnist, Jon has earned silver and bronze awards for his columns from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in both 2016, 2017 and 2018. When he isn't in Hawaii, Jon enjoys life in the sky in Dallas.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Wylie H. Dallas says

    If I am to interpret this correctly, Mill Creek is giving the double middle-finger to:
    – Council Member Chad West & the entire City Council;
    – Commissioner Enrique MacGregor & the entire CPC;
    – Dallas planning staff;
    – the residents of Oak Cliff.

    This is a real insult to Council Member Chad West, in particular, given all the hard work he has done to improve the character of his district.

    If Mill Creek is allowed to proceed unchecked in this manner, literally ripping up the city’s zoning code and spitting on it, the City of Dallas is in for one hell of an ugly ride over the next several years. No neighborhood will be safe.

    • Enrique MacGregor says

      This project is in District 6. Council Member is Omar Narváez and CPC Commissioner Deborah Carpenter, FYI.

      • Wylie H. Dallas says

        Thank you, Commissioner MacGregor. I realized my error shortly after posting. Still, this seems like such a large project that it has the ability to significantly impact the quality of life in both West Dallas and Oak Cliff.

        Thank you for your service.

    • Wylie H. Dallas says

      On closer inspection, this appears to be just inside the boundaries of Omar Narvaez’ district– so this has the potential to really jack up both West Dallas and Oak Cliff.

      What a steaming mess. So this could go, what, 15-16 stories straight up… cheap residential over a cheap above-ground parking decks? What an urban planning disaster.

      If passed, this could really embolden other developers to ignore the planning & zoning codes in their entirety.

  2. scott chase says

    I’m sure my Council rep, Chad West, has received lots of opposition to this and I have sent him my thumbs down. I walk the Trinity trails and would not like to see this.

  3. Bradley Sherrill says

    Dallas is going to have to start building vertical due to the ridiculous urban sprawl. The city is becoming too spread out with cookie cutter business offices and houses. Building vertical is the way of the future so we are going to need to make the best of it.

    • mmJon Anderson says

      You don’t have to tell me, I’m the high-rise guy. My point is that the ramifications beyond this one project should be understood before taking the leap (when I think of this project, I see the picture of New York’s Central Park surrounded by tall buildings – is that the Trinity’s future? Maybe, but let’s make that decision with eyes wide open).

      Also, there is absolutely no shortage of high-rise zoned property in the city already. Maybe use that before we start opening up new areas to convert?

    • mmCandy Evans says

      I tend to agree with you. As the land becomes more scarce, as it is, we have to go up. But as Jon says, go up with caution and planning. Keep in mind that Covid has seared many people’s minds away from multi-family dense urban, at least until a few few passes and we love virus-free. The fastest growth right now is in the suburbs: based on realtor.com surveys of consumers, we learned that home shoppers are looking for more space, quieter neighborhoods, home offices, newer kitchens and access to the outdoors, traits which have revived a strong interest in the suburbs and smaller metro areas.”

  4. Duder says

    Its not like Dallas has some historical skyline thats being destroyed. Seems a lot of nothing. I for one think these sort of developments are much needed in that area, and good for Dallas.

    • mmJon Anderson says

      So you haven’t seen a Dallas postcard in 35 years? And yes, housing is needed. I’m just asking the powers that be to think about the bigger picture before they jump in. I don’t think that’s too much to ask of city officials.

      • Duder says

        Dallas postcard? No, not sure where one goes to buy one of those. Tourist trap in the West End. Skylines are so very unimportant…much prefer the developments to some nonsense about views.

    • Cory Smith says

      You may not personally appreciate our skyline but many others do. And as with most any city, the Dallas skyline is indeed historical- its buildings show the history of the city’s founding and its very evolution. From the north, the Cathedral Guadalupe or the Old Red Courthouse (1891) to Republic Tower (1950) to Bank of America Tower (1985). Its west facing elevation shows Dealey Plaza, sadly, the setting of the assassination of a president, 1 of 4 in history. Dealey Plaza wasn’t always there, as there were several buildings demolished to make way for the plaza, then the ‘front yard’ of Dallas. In fact, the Trinity river was moved to make way for the burgeoning city. Storey Stemmons moved the freeway to make way for the Furniture Mart and later the Trade Mart, Apparel Mart, and World Trade Center. The neon-lighted Pegasus, placed in 1934 on the then-tallest building in Dallas has remained a symbol of the city. The city’s skyline grew to include the Mercantile (1942) and the Magnolia Oil building.

      Hotels have played a significant role from the demolished Baker to the Adolphus, the Cabana (partly owned by Doris Day. To be a hotel again soon), the Sheraton (then Adams Mark, now once again Sheraton), the Statler (which was groundbreaking in its cantilever design and for televisions in every room) .

      In modern times, the city’s skyline was front and center for the opening of the TV series ‘Dallas’ with yet another hotel: the then-new Hyatt Regency and Reunion Tower front and center, becoming icons in their own right as the city became world-renown due to the series’ success and the notoriety of its villain, J.R. Ewing. Dallas city hall and other buildings were the backdrop of a dystopian future in the 1984 film, Robocop, with alterations by way of CGI, a then-new method. The Crescent, Caroline Rose Hunt’s hotel, office, retail complex, designed by Phillip Johnson, was at the time a huge gamble and was the catalyst for what became Uptown and State Thomas. At the time it was the largest limestone-clad building in the world. In 2011, the Omni hotel’s LED façade began sharing images, messages and more.

      Modern era additions include Renaissance Tower, One Main Place, Chase Tower, Comerica Tower and numerous others.

      The skyline beyond downtown includes Fair Park, housing the largest number of art deco buildings outside of Miami (1936) and the view towards West Dallas and Oak Cliff and the two Santiago Calatrava bridges over the Trinity.

      There are more buildings designed by Pritzker award-winning architects in the Arts District than in any other area in the world.

      That’s only a cursory look at it. The AIADallas.org website takes a deeper dive. The AIA also hosts lectures at the DMA (though they may be on hold due to Covid)

      There are cities with far less attractive vistas. Our skyline is diverse, bold, and ever changing.

      • mmJon Anderson says

        Ummm, I think you missed the point. It’s the new dreck that’s hurting views of many of the buildings you mention without adding any interest/beauty of their own.

  5. Melanie Vanlandingham says

    Many cities with great rivers recognize the natural asset the river is to the city – – and PROTECT it by enacting development master plans and ordinances that preserve view corridors and standards that guide development. The city COULD have standards that place lower buildings nearer the river and progressively increase height the further the distance from the river. This MAXIMIZES the development potential AND protects the natural character of the river. The city COULD have standards that require substantial tree planting, wide walkways, benches, pedestrian lighting to be installed BY developers.
    The city COULD have standards that require (not suggest) that stormwater and street oils are not merely dumped into the river, but filtered naturally before making its way to the river. The edge of the river is a very sensitive border – and this development is a sad reminder of weak city standards. Dallas is at a critical point of being to LEAD such insightful planning along the Trinity, rather than the usual boot licking of every developer who has ruined most of any historic, natural, cultural, or neighborhood asset the city has. The Trinity can be such a powerful asset. The strong examples and insightful planners are out there to help and guide the City of Dallas – will the city protect the Trinity as a natural asset to its full potential? THIS development is a bad sign the city has no clue.

  6. Anna stephens says

    No need fir 14 story buildong in West Dallas. Taking away our beautiful skyline. Already not enough parking on w commerce st apartments.its strange there no low income housing being built in West Dallas wonder why ?In 10 to 20 years from now they will be the inner city slumbs. They keep saying affordable units. The average old West Dallas family would have to have 4 incomes coming in to afford just a 2 bedroom apartment. This is all about greed.

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