Two weeks ago, I wrote a pair of immensely popular columns about Dallas not taking care about how the city evolves. One talked about how views of the classic Dallas skyline had been largely covered by newer, blander buildings that took away from the city’s beauty. The second column concerned a proposed project by developer Mill Creek called the Modera located on the Trinity River at Commerce Street.
Mill Creek’s zoning case was to have been presented to City Plan Commission on October 15. It was removed from the agenda and the project was sent over to what’s known as the Urban Design Peer Review Panel – which occurred last Friday.
So, we finally have images of developer Mill Creek’s intentions. They’re not great images because the city didn’t send or post the presentation, the city’s video system isn’t high-definition, and while Mill Creek representative Kevin Hickman took umbrage at my writing, he didn’t provide any images either.
The project wasn’t as bad as I feared.
Given the shape of the land parcels, there’s really only one shape possible. They called it a “flat iron” (reference to New York City’s Flatiron building) whereas I see a fan blade (this is important later).
It is, as I wrote earlier, a five-story brick/stick building on top of three concrete stories of aboveground parking. As suspected, in addition to the cost of underground parking, the levee makes it impossible. The plan calls for 280 apartments and a few townhouses on Beckley that wrap the garage from street view.
The picture above shows how the plan has changed from June to today. As you can see, the top/back edge (facing the Trinity River and downtown) has become less interesting/articulated. One connected amenity deck is now smaller with what appears to be a cutout. The third/left cutout disappears to create a squarer end more conducive to apartment layouts.
The peer reviewers praised the townhouses and they’re fine. What their existence says is they don’t foresee enough pedestrian traffic on Beckley to warrant reserving these spaces for additional restaurants (or they’d require too much parking). There are two restaurant spaces at the Commerce Street end, one connecting to the future park.
“Back” To The Drawing Board
Mill Creek were happy to show the front of the building with this lone rendering of the back – the Trinity River and city-facing side. The yellow is the location of the proposed restaurant which will be a great stop to enjoy the park views.
Unfortunately we also see exposed parking below the levee level, damaging the views from Commerce Street and the Trinity Skyline Trail. Equally bad, we see a largely unarticulated series of flat walls (where balconies will hang).
But what if the back of the building stair-stepped back from the Trinity (like fan blades)? This would pull bulk away from the trail while providing spectacular terraces for units that would rent at a premium. Yes, Mill Creek might lose a few units in this configuration, but isn’t something more visually interesting on the back better for the project? As one peer reviewer said, the back should be the true “front” of the building.
In the olden days, windows were small because glass was expensive and some municipalities taxed not only glass but the number of windows in a building – those days are gone.
The “tip” of the building should be a glass prow of a ship – while the ground level housing an almost transparent restaurant patio does this, the residential levels offer a focused view when full-blown should be the goal.
All-in-all, I see heavy residential floors balanced on a more transparent ground level. It’s a building whose admitted signature are its views of the Trinity River, coming park and the urban skyline. But what I see is a suburban glass-to-wall ratio for a building facing a water tower – not a park and skyline.
The Seattle Exterior
I’m a modernist and we don’t live in the Pacific Northwest. Mill Creek showed four possible exterior skins. They seem various shades of a “natural” treatment to blend with the greenery of the park and river. However, this isn’t a project in the middle of a forest. It’s a singularly urban landscape bisected by a river. The river is the (beautiful) anomaly, so a matchy-matchy exterior shouldn’t be the goal. It highlights the suburban feel of this building.
All in all, this building should be a statement piece and it’s not. It’s better than I dreaded and I think the envelope has potential, but it needs work.
Does the city want to fund a tower?
You might recall, the proposal before the city included an option for a 14-story tower. It was a passing topic. As I wrote, the cost difference between construction types (brick-stick and steel-concrete) is too great for the neighborhood rents to make feasible.
Unless, as Mill Creek representatives said, the city were to pony up enough incentives to bridge the gap. They said they might even need financial help with this version.
I think this is a big clue that this project shouldn’t be built until the economics make sense.
Mill Creek said they’d been working this deal for 14 months with no construction date mentioned. Their presentation explains why their zoning request required the existing businesses be able to operate until construction begins.
Several times it was said that the coming West Overlook Park would be the catalyst for the area – and then that it might take a decade to build the park. Peer Reviewers said they hoped Mill Creek would be back in months but then it was hinted that construction was years away – especially for the high-rise.
It makes me wonder if this is really “ghost” zoning – where rights are secured years before there’s any plan to actually start building. I think about the lots across Cole Avenue from West Village that were rezoned by Gables years ago for three high-rises that have (so far) never come.
Is this a case of the current owners wanting to cash-out now and Mill Creek having the patience (and bank book) to wait for the area to appreciate enough to support the project (but won’t write the check without new zoning in place)? Is it right for the city to decide any lot’s fate without a solid commitment to build? Today’s rezoning, based on today’s conditions and priorities, may not make sense years later.
West Dallas Plan And Race
There were several contradictory mentions of the West Dallas Plan. Mill Creek hangs their hat on the plan calling for taller buildings along the Trinity and then everyone disses it because it hasn’t been followed so far. It reminds me of the “devout” following only the biblical passages that prove their point.
For example, one complaint was that the neighborhood wasn’t re-installing the grid-pattern of streets called for. This would require disassembling larger lots. The complaint was that when the city drew up the West Dallas Plan in 2011, they didn’t update the area Planned Development Districts’ descriptions – something they couldn’t have done without either landowner approval or an authorized hearing. What owner would say, “Yes, I’d love a road running through my contiguous lot that makes it less valuable for redevelopment.”
What should be understood is the racial angle. The reason these streets got blocked decades ago was to assemble large parcels for commercial/industrial development. Originally this was a minority-owned residential district when city leaders shooed them away in the 1960s using zoning.
Initial plans called for the project to extend one lot south but it’s in the floodplain. That proximity might explain why the building almost looks like water is planned to run under it. One Peer Reviewer asked about storm water runoff. Mill Creek’s answer was … interesting. They said the new building wouldn’t produce more runoff than “what’s currently allowed” – not “what’s currently produced.” I think this is an important distinction.
I had steeled myself for a much worse proposal. The footprint is workable and dictated by the parcel dimensions. There are issues with the front (but particularly back) exterior, its window ratio, parking shielding, integration to the Skyline Trail and the like. But I suspect those issues fixable if Mill Creek and the city want to. But the overriding concern remains – is this the right-sized building for this incredible site that bookends one end of the West Overlook Park and sidles up to the Trinity Skyline Trail? And of course how will the neighborhood transform before whichever plan is even built – and will either fit in when it is?
P.S. Peer Review or Job Interview?
I have to say that when I heard that Plan Commission had sent the project to Peer Review, I was excited by a public airing of the project by members of the Dallas architecture and design community. Having never attended one before, that starry-eyed hope wasn’t quite what happened. It quickly became apparent that this process was less of a critical review and more of the sycophancy of a job interview. One Peer Reviewer even asking Mill Creek what they could do to help – a response that surprised Mill Creek.
The penny dropped fully when one of the Peer Review members recused himself because he was working with Mill Creek and would be delivering part of the presentation. Nothing nefarious, but it does illustrate the inbrededness of having potential employees review the plans of a potential employer.