Beyond the academic arguments of how historically gay neighborhoods are changing and specifically how Oak Lawn’s gay epicenter will evolve, there are the buildings themselves.
Tuesday night, Mike Ablon and Caven Enterprises will present to the Oak Lawn Committee. Honestly, the renderings and numbers that’ll be shown (and have been presented elsewhere) offer little to like.
Reusing the arguments from Streetlights’ project on Lemmon and Oak Lawn Avenues, this project claims to be shifting allowed height from one section of their lots to another. However, Streetlights’ attempt was pretty much one-for-one in height movement. In this case there are zoned heights currently adding up to 396 feet but asks for 592 feet in total height – essentially 50 percent more than zoned.
The developer also wants to escape Residential Proximity Slope which controls high-rises from looming over single and multi-family residences – they don’t have the land for the step-backs required. Due to an overly-complicated FAA process, it’s unknown if 260 feet will even be allowed given the proximity to Love Field. Looking at Toll Brothers’ 21-story high-rise a few blocks further away, I wonder.
Regardless of what’s allowed by the FAA, let’s review that Streetlights project. It began at 240 feet tall then shrunk to 199 feet before finally resting at 175 feet. Their parking garage did some shifting, too, resting at five stories above. All considerably less than Ablon and Caven are asking for – and as with this project, Streetlights was able to accomplish this while saving a much-loved existing business beneficial to both – Eatzi’s.
Step Backs and Sheer Faces
Current zoning requires a 25-foot step back for any structure over 36 feet in height. The developer wants that increased to a step back above 75-feet. The reason is that their eight-story, all-aboveground parking garage will be 75-feet tall and the math won’t work if it steps back lower. The above-garage step backs also become the apartment towers’ pool and amenity decks.
If you look at the base of these buildings you see sheer faces of near-industrial facades that will produce a jarring impact on the surrounding area. Returning to the Toll Brothers’ project (also on an interior street), we see a building lined with walk-up units that mask the partly-submerged parking garage. In fact, walk-up units have become the go-to solution to masking ugly parking. I suspect we don’t see it here because there isn’t enough room when using all-aboveground parking (the same reason for the higher step backs).
Instead, Dickason gets a few green push-ins and benches with the looming sheer-face of garage above. You can never undo the harm this will do to the neighborhood facing it. Backyard views will be of an eight-story garage in patterned concrete.
Rendering-wise, outside of an overly-proud waterfall, there is way too little care and detail provided to judge this project in depth – something I find concerning.
The more I look at this plan, the more I see it as a sketch with details to be worked out later.
The Bars, Like Eatzi’s, Are The Problem
Does anyone (apparently except Eatzi’s) looking at the Streetlights project not see that keeping Eatzi’s in its old building rather than integrating it into a cohesive design was dumb? Aside from a temporary relocation during construction, the benefits to all are clear.
Most, if not all, parking could have been underground – shortening the building by five stories. Expanding the construction footprint, or perhaps constructing two buildings – one on either side of the alley would have shortened the overall height even more.
And Eatzi’s would have been able to move back into a modern, likely larger, purpose-built space that might see them better able to compete against the Central Market coming to McKinney and Lemmon.
Ablon’s team is using the same arguments Streetlights used to centralize height on their lots. What they should have been doing is learning from Streetlights’ biggest mistake.
A New Sheet of Paper
Phase 1 is the Cedar Springs block between JR’s and TMC (Throckmorton and Reagan Streets). Knock it all down and either build temporary pop-up bars on the back of the Skivvies lot (phase two) or rent space nearby (S4 in Exile – the old Ghostbar at the W Hotel will likely still be empty). Given the pandemic’s effect on entertainment venues, this shouldn’t be difficult.
As the map above shows, the current bars take up more than half the block’s depth. This is why the proposed building’s parking podium is 75 feet tall and why it can’t step back as it should. If they were able to harness the entire block, they could bury more than half their parking with just two, full-block, underground levels.
And, let’s be honest, there’s nothing architecturally noteworthy on the block. Sue Ellen’s and S4 are relatively new split-face concrete block (hardly the building material of kings). And JR’s has been so bastardized as it expanded over the years, it’s nothing anyone would consider architecturally significant. Their history and importance are in what happened there, not their architecture. Remove any signature items (JR’s bar and tin ceilings) and reinstall them later.
Then set true architects to work designing the whole block as one project – encompassing the high-rise and the new/improved bars. In addition to burying parking, the full-block design allows for a lot more efficient use of space and green space. The result could be the love letter to the struggles and celebrations of the neighborhood that this project fails to deliver.
And as some have mentioned, the fear of new neighbors complaining about bar noise (and ultimately shutting them down) can be addressed in design (maybe a parking level above the bars providing a physical gap from sound penetration into the tower?).
Imagine The Results
On Cedar Springs, imagine wider sidewalks, better trees and landscaping and underground power lines – all resting in front of a new generation of bars. These are amenities and a streetscape impossible in the current design.
Imagine Dickason Avenue with a street feel of townhouses with front stoops running along a reinvigorated residential street. Also impossible with the current plan.
Ultimately, the project would be shorter, more neighborhood-friendly – AND enable more apartments to be built on a more efficient footprint. A big win for the neighborhood and the developer.
And once that first phase is a glowing success, do the same thing for Phase 2 across Throckmorton Street.
The only reason I can think of that a plan like this hasn’t been pursued is because of Caven. Maybe like so many area high-rise projects, they don’t want to risk the bars being demolished and then having the rebuild stall.
Affordable Housing For The Community
In many ways, affordable housing requirements are a blunt instrument – and that’s usually best. But here, there are two different, specific and chronic needs.
Believe it or not, LGBTQ+ youth are still thrown out of the homes of bigoted parents. These kids have higher rates of suicide, drug-use, homelessness and prostitution. One can imagine their life outcomes are often similarly tragic. Why not work with the Resource Center (or whomever) to provide housing to at-risk LGBTQ+ teens?
At the other end of the spectrum, bucking the myth of the suave, wealthy homosexual gentleman is the real need for affordable housing for an aging, often single LGBTQ+ population. The old Braniff training building on Wycliff used to house overwhelmingly gay senior residents.
With its two phases, this project could also offer affordable housing to 55-plus-year-old members of the community who would feel out of place in “straight” senior housing. There is a global issue of harassment in retirement communities – here, here, here, here, here.
So as this project will definitely be required to provide affordable housing, why not tailor it to these community needs?
The gay community is a story of change, struggle, and ultimately reinvention. So use the change to secure the future, struggle to find a place to drink and dance for 18 months … and celebrate the reinvention.
But this can’t happen with the plan currently in place – I urge the community to not “cement a mistake for another 100 years” like another recent proposal.