Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Downtown’s landmark Dallas High School, in need of TCEQ’s blessing, to go back on the market

The old Dallas High School as it looked in 2010, a century after its opening. It has since been cleaned up, but remains vacant. (Courtney Perry/Staff photographer)
Just two years ago, the Dallas City Council was told that Wynne/Jackson, the developers behind Plaza of the Americas, were going to rescue the landmark Dallas High School moldering at the foot of the Pearl/Arts District Station on Bryan. Whopping tax abatements and a few million dollars in city incentives, combined with a partnership with boldfaced name brands CB Richard Ellis and the Trammell Crow Company, were supposed to lead to the creation of 510 class A multi-family units spread across the historically designated building and three new ones sitting on five very valuable acres of downtown land.
“Hats off to you,” council member Jerry Allen told Clyde Jackson in March 2012. “Thanks very much for doing this.”
Click to enlarge the now-dead plans to resurrect the old Dallas High School
But the deal’s off and has been for a while: City officials say Jackson, CBRE and Crow couldn’t make the financing work for a project guesstimated to cost $50 million and have officially backed out. Realtor Newt Walker says the building will likely go back on the market within the next 60 to 90 days, after the city’s first public high school, designed by Otto Lang and Frank Witchelland built in 1908, clears some hurdles with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality concerning what the state agency refers to as “soil and groundwater contamination.”
“The Jacksons are done with it,” says Walker, who reps the property on behalf of California-based owner Robert Yu. For those who might have forgotten, or weren’t around for the courtroom drama, Yu bought the property from the Dallas Independent School District in 1998 for $6.1 million, hoping to scrape the site and replace the shuttered school with a mall. Veletta Lill, then on the city council, stood in front of the wrecking ball. A court battle ensued. Yu lost. Dallas High School became a city-designated historic landmark, which meant it couldn’t be demolished. Yu then sat on the property for years — out of spite, some believed.
But Yu was in town last week, meeting with Walker and city officials — a very rare occasion. “In three years, it was the first time I ever met the owner,” says Walker. Yu told everyone he wants to sell the building. He hopes to be rid of it before year’s end. But he knows better than most that when it comes to Crozier Tech, nothing is easy.
“It’s complex,” says Walker. “It involves a historical building. You have to have someone willing to beat their head against the wall because it’s an arduous process. You have to have a little bit of a bohemian bone in your body to undertake something like this. There are people that really love the process and are willing to endure it. You have to have the right equity behind you that understands and likes a deal in downtown involving a historic structure. It’s not for the faint of heart. A lot of people will say, ‘I have a lot better things to do.’”
Especially given the environmental issues that come with rehabbing a long-shuttered historic structure.
Terry Clawson, spokesman for the TCEQ, says the building also known as Crozier Tech was accepted into its Voluntary Cleanup Program in July 2012.
“An affected property assessment report was submitted in February 2013, and the report documents soil and groundwater contamination (chlorinated solvents and metals),” Clawson says via email. Walker says those issues were remediated, and Clawson says that a Municipal Settings Designation application (“that certifies that designated groundwater at the property is not used as potable water”) was submitted in November. It’s still under review. Once the building gets its certificate of completion, which Walker expects within the next two to three months, it will go back on the market.
The value of the land’s increased significantly in recent years: In 2012 the Dallas Central Appraise District said it was worth $6.8 million; today it’s at $9.26 million. It’s not yet clear what the new asking price will be.
Walker says he received more than the occasional nibble on the building, and believes it’ll sell quickly once it goes back on the market. But city officials acknowledge: It’s a “difficult site” — not just because of its historic designation, but because it sits in an area of downtown that has yet to show it’s a “proven residential area,” says Karl Zavitkovsky, director of the city’s Office of Economic Development.
A more recent photo of Crozier Tech taken from the Dallas Central Appraisal District's website
“You’re on the outer fringes, and to make the economics work that had to have a large number of units,” he says, pointing out that for now, at least, it also doesn’t sit in one of the downtown tax increment financing districts tapped to help finance almost every other redo in the CBD. “A financial partner is saying they’re not sure what the rents would be in that location, and that was causing issues given the cost of the land.”
Right now, says Zavitkovsky, Crozier Tech isn’t exactly “the most prime site” in downtown — not yet, anyway. It sits near the Arts District, on a DART stop and the edge the proposed 8.7-acre Carpenter Park, which finds itself caught up in the debate over tearing down Interstate 345. But he and Walker use the same words to describe its future function: as a “linking site” between the Arts District and the Dallas Farmers Market and even Deep Ellum.
“I think right now it’s sort of an outlier site,” says Zavitkovsky. “It’s sort of out there. It’s a project we’d like to see done, but understand the kinds of challenges that come with it.”
“When we sold the Wilson Building, that was Robert Shaw and Post Properties, and they got through it,” says Walker, referring to historic properties and the heavy baggage they carry. “The Ted Hamiltons of the world eat ‘em up. Shawn Todd did it with the post office. There are a handful who have done it. These are people that are experienced and capable of it. You just have to have the right party interested and motivated and want to be part of the resurgence of downtown and having a cool building like that, and there aren’t many of them.
“With Crozier Tech, I am hopeful we can get it closed and in production by the end of the year. I look forward to getting it sold and having the building turned on.”