Anyone who's attempted to navigate the intersection of Preston and Northwest Highway at rush hour will have had ample opportunity while sitting through multiple cycles of the stop light to contemplate one of North Dallas' most enduring paradoxes. Here, at the spot where the Park Cities and Preston Hollow converge with two busy roads and the Tollway to form an unimaginably rich vein of real estate gold, stands a shopping center that is, for lack of a more polite term, a piece of crap.
Some of Preston Center's shops and restaurants are nice enough, and neighbors tend to embrace the complex as a stand-in for a town center. But set aside nostalgia for the pre-NorthPark days when it served as a luxury shopping mecca and one's personal affection for Hopdoddy's burgers or John Tesar's seafood and it starts to look like what it is: an outdated strip mall surrounding a chaotic eyesore of a parking garage.
Looking down from his seventh-floor office building one afternoon last week, developer Luke Crosland, who's been eying Preston Center as the site of a major development for the past quarter century, grouses that it'd be more at home in Des Moines before deciding after a brief pause that a U.S. capital, even Iowa's, is too generous a comparison. Peoria, he concludes. Preston Center is like something from Peoria.
Highland House, Crosland's most recent effort to begin to remake Preston Center, crashed and burned when its zoning-change application ran into opposition from Laura Miller and her Preston Hollow neighbors. The merits of that particular project aside, Crosland's failure brings up a broader question: Why isn't Preston Center nicer?
Digging into some of the deed records and lawsuits and personal histories involved, a handful of culprits emerge:
The Owners Directly across the street from Preston Center, on the University Park side of Preston Road, is the Plaza at Preston Center. It is modern, orderly, and unapologetically high-end -- everything Preston Center proper is not.
The main difference between the two centers? Preston Hollow East has a single owner. Preston Center West has more than 70, the result of a historical anachronism: the land on the east side of Preston Road was owned by the Caruth family, who sold it off in large chunks. Miller McCraw, the dairyman who owned the acreage to the west, chose to sell it off into small parcels.
The arrangement on the west side nurtured the development of a pretty nice '60s shopping center, but it has plenty of drawbacks. For starters, it's much harder for several dozen property owners to agree on anything but the status quo. The fractured ownership also makes it logistically almost impossible for any one of them, or an outsider, to amass enough property for a substantial new development. And many of the owners are family interests (some, like the Lobellos and Ramsbottoms, have been around since the beginning) content to continue collecting rent from tenants much as they've always done.
The Parking Garage If there's one thing the 70-plus owners can agree on, it's that the parking garage is a mess. A threadbare two stories, with daylight unable to penetrate to the cave-dark bottom floor, it's too small, confusing to navigate, and spits cars haphazardly onto the surrounding streets. What they can't agree on is how to fix it.
The city of Dallas owns the facility (which must be in the conversation for most valuable two-story parking garage in the world) and has signaled that it wants it developed into something more taxable, but when it began the process of platting it for development in 2006, surrounding property owners rebelled.
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The ensuing legal battle dragged on for an excruciating six years before it was settled. Back in 1955, it seems, back when the land was being parceled out to the Lobellos et al, the buyers were promised in their deeds that the land at the center of Preston Center would forever be used for parking and only parking. The settlement the property owners ultimately signed with the city makes clear that they can waive this covenant so long as they come to a unanimous agreement, but that hasn't -- and might never -- happen.
City Planners Between the Tollway and Douglas, the western boundary of Preston Center, there used to be rows of duplexes. During the 1970s, the City Plan Commission rezoned the area to allow 20-story office buildings. The next two decades saw an office boom at Preston and Northwest Highway as Downtown hollowed out and businesses headed for far-flung office towers that were then clustering around highway intersections. The daily influx and exodus of workers clogged traffic on Preston and Northwest Highway and helped accelerate Preston Center's decline from a locus of high-end retail to the site of a Marshall's.
In 1989, in an effort to address the center's decline, the city put in place a zoning plan that broke Preston Center into several tracts, each with its own permitted uses and density. While an admirable goal, the plan is the product of a time when residential, office, and retail uses were kept separate, and it has had the effect of discouraging the types of development that would transform Preston Center into a vibrant mixed-use center. Of the four developments built since the plan was put in place, all have been office towers.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.