Landmark Commisison Caught Between a Hard Rock and Hard Place

So, we were informed late yesterday that everything is not as hunky or as dory as Angela Hunt led us to believe concerning the fate of the now-former Hard Rock Cafe on McKinney Avenue. (Hunt herself hinted as much in a late-day blog entry on Thursday.) Indeed, from what we hear, this thing's getting more than a little messy -- with the sale (or not) of some pricey Uptown property threatening to derail a potential Victory Park-West End project worth even more.

Turns out, the guy who wants to buy the historic McKinney Avenue building, Brett Landes -- co-founder and chairman of Lobo Tortilla Factory and a former principal in Staubach Capital Partners, which Landes co-founded -- doesn't want it granted historical designation by the city's Landmark Commission. Why not? Because that would mean Landes couldn't touch the building, inside or out, without the commission and the city council's OK. (At least, that's the way the rules are supposed to work.) And no developer wants to deal with government bureaucracy after spending upwards of $2 million for a piece of Uptown property.

Landes is promising not to tear down the building. That's what he told the Landmark Commission on Monday, where the fate of the 97-year-old former McKinney Avenue Baptist Church was to be decided, till it was pushed back to the April 2 meeting. Landes' broker, Uptown and downtown real-estate man Jack Gosnell, told the commission Landes would leave it standing if the city would just back off. (Unfair Park left several messages for Gosnell, who did not return calls.)

But if the city still felt it necessary to go through with designation, Gosnell said on Monday, Landes would be forced to walk away from the deal -- even though he's been negotiating with Hard Rock Cafe for close to a year. (Landes attended the meeting but did not speak, Unfair Park was told by two people today.) A Friend of Unfair Park who attended the meeting said Gosnell threatened to pull out of the deal should the city give it historic designation status, and that he told the commission he knew other buyers interested in the property would, indeed, raze the old church.

"They definitely did not give the impression they were for designation," says Katherine Seale, the executive director of Preservation Dallas. "After all, they spoke in opposition to designation. But afterward, some of the folks from the Hard Rock and the neighborhood were having friendly discussions and hoped something could be worked out. Jack and I also spoke, and they seem open to meeting and to talking about different things. I don't know what this will come down to, but one of the things about historic preseration for a lot of people who've never been involved in a locally designated building, it seems like there could be many hurdles and many restrictions. But the city can actually be extremely flexible when it comes to designating a building."

But according to one source present at the meeting, Gosnell also told the commission that should Landes pull out, that will screw up a major project for the city: He says the Hard Rock Cafe is actually planning to move into Victory Park, but that if the city screws up this deal for the McKinney Avenue property, well, that could endanger the Hard Rock's Victory Park development. (Seale said she didn't hear this mentioned during the meeting, but that she was conferring with colleagues during some of the discussion.)

"It came off very much as a threat," says a Friend of Unfair Park who attended Monday's meeting. "They strongly suggested a delay in the sale of this building would affect their development in Victory." A Hard Rock spokesperson said Thursday she "never heard back from my Hard Rock contacts to inquire about a development in Victory Park," but promised to try again today. Nonetheless, in mid-February, when Unfair Park broke the news of Hard Rock Cafe's demise, the company did issue a release in which it said, "We expect to return to the Dallas market, at the right time in the right location." And, indeed, late Thursday night, a source familiar with the project said the Hard Rock's new owners are looking at a piece of property in the West End-Victory Park area.

As for the fight over the property itself, Angela Hunt told Unfair Park on Thursday that she's "disappointed with the reception we've gotten from Mr. Landes," but she's hopeful the city can work out some sort of "win-win" deal with the real-estate investor.

"I just want to make sure we can protect the character of the building," she says, "and make sure we don't turn McKinney Avenue into Lemmon Avenue."

Believe it or not, Preservation Dallas' Seale is sympathetic to Landes' problems here. After all, the building is nothing like it was in 1910; it's been altered so many times that the only thing historic about it is the majestic facade. And Preservation Dallas doesn't have a plan to restore the building to its original "architectural integrity," as Seale calls it. Nonetheless, she also feels the pain of folks in the neighborhood who don't want to see a beautiful building torn down and replaced with another samey-same strip-mall box store.

"The neighborhood is fighting sameness and what has them revved up is that a 100-year-old community icon could be lost for a CVS or Wachovia or some other box construction," she says. "I think [Landes] is sincere about not wanting to tear it down, but if we don't protect the building now, it would be a shame to have to go through all this work now and then have to do it again in another 10, 20 years." --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky