Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dallas' Design District to gain apartments, shops

Until a few months ago, Michael Ablon's Oak Lawn Avenue property marketing center was a decorative tile showroom.

By next year – if things go as planned – the building will house a restaurant.

Things are happening fast in Dallas' design district.

The quasi-industrial area northwest of downtown is being redeveloped into the city's newest apartment and retail district.

"We'll have almost 1,000 apartment units ready to be occupied by next year," said Mr. Ablon, who's marketing the area for a Houston investor that's bought up much of the neighborhood. "We've been working very hard to move development of the area forward."

Last year, Houston-based Lionstone Group purchased more than 30 acres of land and buildings in the area around Oak Lawn and Hi Line Drive. The purchase includes more than 700,000 square feet of buildings – most of them leased to design firms – plus several tracts of land.

Mr. Ablon's firm, Pegasus Ablon Properties, has teamed up with Lionstone to develop and market the properties.

Construction has begun on two urban-style apartment projects. And another apartment development is about to break ground.

"This time next year, that area will look completely different than it does today," said C. Todd McCulloch, Dallas development associate with Wood Partners, which has one apartment complex under construction in the design district and is about to start another.

Wood Partners is building a 390-unit, four-story apartment complex on Inspiration Drive across Stemmons Freeway from Victory Park. That project is set to open in early 2009.

And at Oak Lawn and Hi Line overlooking Turtle Creek, Wood Partners is about to break ground for another 214 rental units.

"You should start seeing signs of progress there in the next 30 days," Mr. McCulloch said. "We should have units ready in the early summer of 2009."

In the next block from Wood Partners' site on Oak Lawn, Trammell Crow Residential has broken ground on a 355-unit apartment complex.

The four-story modern-style buildings are on the site of an old commercial building that was torn down.

"We plan to open in March of 2009," said Darren Schackman, Crow Residential's senior managing director. "We think the design district is the next close-in location that's going to kick off.

"The projects going in down there will revitalize the area."

Planned street improvements and construction of a new interchange at the Dallas North Tollway and Oak Lawn Avenue will also help the neighborhood connect better with nearby employment centers, he said.

"From there, you are five minutes from Victory and downtown," Mr. Schackman said. "And you are close to the medical center."

Tax increment finance district funding will be used to improve Oak Lawn and Hi Line, which connects to Victory Avenue, Mr. Ablon said.

"With the TIF money, we can start work on the intersections and streetscape," he said.

Those plans include construction of a decorative gateway at Oak Lawn and Stemmons.

Mr. Ablon is marketing the neighborhood as the new "Lower Oak Lawn," with hopes of identifying the area with the nearby neighborhood with apartments and shops that's already caught on.

After the apartments are open, Mr. Ablon plans to convert the project marketing center at Hi Line and Oak Lawn into a high-profile restaurant.

And other retailers are looking at vacant buildings.

But that doesn't mean the design and creative firms will be pulling out.

"The design firms and showrooms we want to keep here," Mr. Ablon said. "Part of what makes this area special and fun is you have these older showrooms and warehouses that have been gentrified. You don't want to lose that."

Lionstone also owns the two largest design firm complexes in the area – the Decorative Center on Oak Lawn and the Dallas Design Center on Stemmons.

"I advised them to work with some of the land, but the good buildings with good tenants and income you are not going to want to scrape," said broker Newt Walker, who has been representing Lionstone in its transactions.

"What's missing down there at this point is restaurants," Mr. Walker said. "And the retail and restaurants will follow the rooftops.

"There are already over 350 shops and vendors down there, but they have all been going home at 5 o'clock," he said. "This will give the area 24-hour activity."

Ablon Pegasus is also negotiating with buyers for several building sites along Stemmons Freeway.

"We've taken a run at an office building deal," Mr. Ablon said. "And we are talking to a high-rise residential developer and looking at a boutique hotel project."

CB Richard Ellis as been hired to manage and lease the existing buildings.

"This area will transform from an industrial district into a residential neighborhood," Mr. Walker said. "It's happening as we speak."

By STEVE BROWN / The Dallas Morning News