Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Developer aims to 'keep it authentic'

For a budding neighborhood in an old warehouse district on the northwestern edge of downtown Dallas, creating a sense of place is vital.

The Lower Oak Lawn development is centered at Oak Lawn Avenue and Hi Line Drive in the fast-changing Dallas Design District.

It will feature about 1,000 apartments, up to 10 restaurants, a boutique hotel, up to 400,000 square feet of office space, a park and an amphitheater. The first apartments will open early next year. Restaurants will debut by early 2010.

Developer Mike Ablon said the Dallas North Tollway's Oak Lawn interchange, which was expected to open late Thursday, will make it easier to reach the area. Street work and lush landscaping also will help attract people, he said.

Mr. Ablon's philosophy is to "Keep it authentic." He wants to maintain the artsy vibe by building around the existing design focus.

This is the latest transformation of the Design District, which has always had showrooms and antique shops. In the late '90s, the area housed dot-com startups. In the last few years, it's become an art hub with many galleries.

A major development draw is the district's proximity to the Trinity River, which is slated for a $2 billion transportation, flood control and recreational project. The Trinity Loft complex of 92 apartments on Dragon Street opened in June 2007. Dallas-based Harwood International plans to redevelop a business park on Oak Lawn into a residential and retail village.

PegasusAblon and its development partner Lionstone Group won't disclose their investment in Lower Oak Lawn. Dallas County records estimate the property's taxable value at $31.3 million.

The vision

Last year, Lionstone and PegasusAblon teamed up to buy 39 buildings on more than 30 acres wedged between Interstate 35E and the Trinity River. They also own more than 700,000 square feet of showroom space in the Design District, including the Dallas Design Center and the Decorative Center.

"We look for the interesting edges and districts that are emerging," said Lionstone partner Tom Bacon. "In Dallas, this was it."

Lower Oak Lawn is appealing because it's "sandwiched between two trends in American cities:" a resurgence of people wanting to live in an urban core and a revival of parks and other public space, he said.

The development won't have national restaurant chains or traditional retailers such as clothing stores. The developers want to keep a home-grown feel and think the location won't have enough people to support retail.

The plans to raze some older warehouses and redevelop others means that a handful of design companies must relocate within the district.

The Artemide Inc. decorative lighting company will move across the street in a couple of months after being in its Design District location for a decade. The new showroom will be larger, more stylish and closer to other contemporary showrooms, said area sales manager David Simcik.

He's optimistic, even though he said the developers have "flip-flopped" on their plans. "We're hoping that they'll follow through," Mr. Simcik said. "Bringing more residential and retail to this area will only help us. But I'm not sure why people will want to live in this area."

Living and playing

Mr. Ablon, who is armed with degrees in civil engineering and architecture, hopes to attract people who want to live in an artsy, urban area with easy access to transportation, trails and downtown. For marketing purposes, he shortened Lower Oak Lawn to LOL, which means "laughing out loud" in instant message slang, to appeal to a hip, younger crowd.

Three apartment complexes are under construction. Wood Partners is building two: 309 units on Inspiration Drive to open early next year and 214 units at Oak Lawn and Hi Line to open in late 2009 or early 2010. Trammell Crow Residential's 355-unit building at Oak Lawn and Hi Line will open later next year.

Todd McCulloch, a Wood director in Dallas, said people already are calling to ask when the apartments will be ready. Rent will range from $1.55 to $1.65 a square foot, or about $1,600 for 1,000 square feet.

The next phase of development calls for hotel, office, retail or apartment space. Despite the credit crunch, financing is available for urban infill projects, Mr. Ablon said.

Through May, workers will install parkway landscaping, lighting, trails, the amphitheater and gateway art – letters up to 8 feet tall that spell D-E-S-I-G-N at key corners such as I-35E and Oak Lawn and I-35E at Hi Line.

More than $5 million in public funds, including $4.4 million from a city tax increment financing district, is footing the bill for much of the infrastructure.

Plans also include a lighted walkway to nearby Victory Park. That path also would link the Katy Trail to the Trinity River via the planned Trinity Strand Trail at Lower Oak Lawn's northwestern border.

Construction of the 7.5-mile Trinity Strand Trail's first phase is scheduled to start in mid- to late 2009 and open by the end of 2010, said Mike Kutner, chairman of Friends of the Trinity Strand Trail.