Dallas Design District – Preservation in Action

April 17th, 2018 by Jessica MacDonald

Original article by Bobby Geary, Park Cities Historic and Preservation Society Axis Magazine 2018

Mythology, ethos, fabric; these are not common words that you would typically expect a Dallas commercial real estate developer to use when describing their projects, however, that is not the case with Mike Ablon of PegasusAblon, a Dallas based commercial real estate developer. I had the fortunate experience of interviewing Ablon about his endeavors with the Dallas Design District. Ablon is passionate about preservation and has successfully found a way to combine his passion with his business of developing and investing in commercial real estate throughout the Metroplex.

Defining a Neighborhood

To begin our journey of exploring passionate preservation through the eyes of Ablon, one must start by changing ones view of how you typically see a neighborhood or city. These days, many individuals have resorted to describing a city or place with a simple text message such as “good food”; “bad traffic”; or “great vibe.” However, in order to slip into the preservation mindset of Ablon, one must think of a city or neighborhood as a “fluid progression of moments in time that are characterized by the culture, aspirations and beliefs of those individuals who occupy it.” Ablon believes that cities are constantly evolving with “certain parts of a city experiencing growth while simultaneously other parts are slowly dying only to be reborn again.” Each part has its own unique story, a history that it perpetually carries throughout time, which, in the words of Ablon, gives a place an identity or even a mythology. Ablon believes the concept of preservation must start with understanding the history of a place and knowing what makes that place significant and why it matters to those who inhabit it.

Preserving the Integrity of History

Ablon knew at a young age that his professional career would involve working with the preservation of commercial structures. This is what led him to study architecture and engineering, as well as to have the good fortune to work under world-renowned architect, Robert Venturi, and study in Europe through a fellowship for the Paris Prize. In 2007, Ablon was able to put his philosophies into practice through the acquisition of the Dallas Design District, along with his partners at Lionstone Investments of Houston. Ablon had been presented a once in a lifetime opportunity— to have the ability and control to master plan a large contiguous piece of real estate in an urban setting, while preserving the integrity of the historic uses for which this space was previously known.

The land that became the Dallas Design District was originally owned by the Stemmons family. At one time an unusable flood plain, in the late 1920s, Leslie A. Stemmons convinced the city to construct a system of levees to control the water flow of the Trinity River. Stemmons originally intended for this 10,000 acres to become a large industrial park that would have been one of the first in the nation. It was not until after WWII that the sons of Leslie Stemmons, John and Storey, were able to put their father’s original idea into action by building warehouses and light manufacturing plants in the area. Shortly after, several other adjoining landlords replicated the Stemmons’ developments, and this area was soon to become an explosion of commercial development.

Founding the Design District

One individual in particular, a 33-year-old grain salesman named Trammell Crow, realized the area’s full potential and began buying parcels of land from John Stemmons to develop warehouses that would eventually become the backbone to the developer’s global real estate conglomeration. Crow’s approach was simple and innovative. The typical warehouse at that time was a dull, unassuming box with loading docks on the street side and offices in the back, with little to no curb appeal. Crow’s new concept was to break down the structures into smaller units, with offices in the front and loading docks in the rear, along with landscaping and art brightening the overall appearance and creating a sense of “street scape”. As he found success with this model, Crow began speculative development throughout the Trinity River district. This new approach to warehouse construction created the blueprint for the Design District.

A Neighborhood Emerges

Ablon’s idea of transforming this district to a consumer based, mixed-use corridor, versus a to-the-trade only district, with businesses owned and supported by locals, has led to the successful revitalization of the area. Ablon and his partners did a heroic job of maintaining strict guidelines, which prohibited changing facades, certain interiors, and keeping a firm “no national tenants” leasing requirement, which ultimately helped preserve the original street scape of the Design District. The Design District was one of the first parts of town, which set out to organically grow the tenant base by attracting local businesses, such as Oak, Ascension Coffee and Meddlesome Moth. This concept is now being replicated in other parts of town such as Deep Ellum and Trinity Groves.

Ablon successfully maintained the image that the Design District represented decades ago. For example, the next time you enter Ascension Coffee, notice the various styles of tiles on the floor. The space was previously a tile showroom, and preserving the original floor is a great and subtle reminder of what was once there. Notice the street scale and how there has been little to no change of the facades, remaining effectively untouched over the years.

The Design District, the West End, Bishop Arts, Deep Ellum, Oak Cliff, and Trinity Groves deserve our utmost attention and community action to preserve these great parts of town. The fact is, the identity, and awareness of place are what differentiate one neighborhood from the other. As preservationists, we have the duty of carefully measuring the inevitable force of growth with the responsibility of preserving our identity. This awareness sets us apart as a great city.

Dallas is only 170 years old versus places like San Francisco (250 years) and NYC (400 years). We are at a key point in our city’s history where we have the opportunity to establish a strong culture of preservation. Ablon and his partners accomplished this with the Dallas Design District and have helped contribute to part of this city’s culture. Let us use this project as an example for improving our community action to preserve our unique identity, which has made the Park Cities such a great place to live.