I’ve never put much faith in futurism (the last thing this city needs is flying cars) so I will admit to finding some pleasure in the irony that, over the last year, as pundits were busy opining on the grim post-pandemic future of the city (generally) and the skyscraper (in particular), Dallas managed to resolve three of its longest-standing development challenges, all of them involving towers in the downtown core.
The most visually striking, and most delayed, of these projects is the belated birth of a sibling to Fountain Place, which was promised back when the original was planned in the 1980s. A few blocks away, the long-dormant First National Bank Tower, the pinstriped icon of the city’s petro-fueled 1960s glory days, has been reborn as a mixed-used linchpin of the central business district. And then, in the Arts District, there is the Atelier Tower, the apartment building that promised to bring residential life (and local artists) to Flora Street. The local artists lost out to mammon, but at least the building is finally standing.
So what, exactly, did the city get with these three projects? Let’s take a look.
A striking sequel
As sequels go, the AMLI Fountain Place residential tower is no Godfather II, but in fairness it’s closer to that standard than it is to lower-end franchise reproductions like Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. And let’s acknowledge that Fountain Place is one tough act to follow, the finest tall building on the Dallas skyline.
The new tower is not a twin of the original, as was originally intended, but it’s a sympathetic relation, suitably deferential but not without ambition. “It’s a fearsome thing to build next to a beloved building. It put the fear of God into us,” says Talmadge Smith, the design principal in charge of the project for Page architects. “You’ve got to get it right for the city.”
Most critically, the new tower does not significantly impinge on views of its neighbor. At 562 feet, it is 158 feet shorter than architect Henry Cobb’s prismatic masterpiece, and it is oriented at an angle with its long sides facing true north and south respectively, such that primary sight lines to the original building are largely unobstructed.
Where Cobb’s tower points brazenly to the sky, like a rocket ship ready for liftoff, the new building has its asymmetrical cap sliced at a rakish downward angle, like a wedge of cheese. The geometries are in each case distinctive, but in a complementary rather than competitive manner.
One improvement on the original is the window-washing system. The thin rail along the top edges of the original building are replaced and the entire gondola assembly is hidden under the roof, only to pop out like a jack-in-the box as required. Neat.
The architects of Fountain Place 2.0 had the good sense to imitate Cobb’s impeccable curtain walls of green-blue glass set in sharply delineated grids. There are, however, differences. When a few of the new glass panels were tested out in the original building to make sure the match would be accurate, it was practically impossible to tell them apart. But now that they make up entire façades, their greater transparency is evident; what may be an improvement environmentally is somewhat less dramatic aesthetically.
The smooth façades of the new building are unfortunately broken by balconies — two rows on the side facing the original building, and three on its opposite. To the architects (and developer’s) credit, these are inset, and not projecting, so the surface remains flush. Altogether, 60% of the building’s 367 apartments, all of them rentals, have balconies. That sounds good in marketing, but it is a compromise aesthetically and in practical terms the square footage allotted to those outdoor spaces (which are rarely used) would have been better spent on additional living space.
As it is, the building’s most interesting apartments are its penthouses, which have no balconies. Here, the angled façade planes and structural beams produce pleasantly quirky rooms with extraordinary views of Big Brother next door and the city beyond.
What is most unfortunate here is that this Fountain Place is another podium building, with the tower set up on a square base that is mostly parking. This is least appealing on its Munger Street side, where the parking decks are left exposed.
Better, although still less than ideal, is the treatment fronting the Fountain Place plaza, designed by the legendary landscape architect Dan Kiley. Here, the oasis of trees and gurgling water that gives Fountain Place its name has been unsullied, but neither has it been embellished. Costs prohibited floating the new building in a similar pool, so instead it is surrounded by small stones.
A return to glory
Finances looked like they might be a terminal problem for the First National Bank Building, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. By then it had been vacant for a good seven years and was looking like it might be a permanent civic albatross — 1.3 million square feet of empty space dragging down the real estate market in the very heart of the urban core.
What a change it had been since its heyday. When it opened, in 1965, the 52-story tower designed by George Dahl and Thomas Stanley was the city’s tallest, a debonair statement of arrival. Its marble-lined, hexagonal superstructure was capped by the Petroleum Club, where Murchisons and Hunts lorded over Dallas business culture. It was a point of pride for First National Bank, taller and larger than the punched metal tower of its rival Republic Bank, a few blocks over on Ervay.
A $450 million restoration has returned the rechristened tower, now simply The National, to something of its former stature, but as a mixed-use project with office spaces, apartments, a 219-room hotel, and a bevy of restaurants and retail operators, practically a vertical city unto itself.
Credit developer Shawn Todd, of Todd Interests, for taking advantage of some $100 million in historic tax credits and another $50 million in TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funding from the city of Dallas. Too often, developers eschew these subsidies, either forgoing projects entirely or going ahead with downgraded, less costly alternatives due to onerous applications and the burdens that come with such credits.
But the added financing made this project possible, and it is all the better for it. The sensitive restoration, undertaken by Merriman Anderson Architects, stands out by looking back to the building’s roots in the 1960s, at a moment when so many older office towers are remodeling their public spaces into a generic brand of corporate minimalism — call it Apple Store lite.
Respect for the original design begins on the exterior, plainly evident in the restored marble base of the building, with its peripteral skirt of attenuated arches. It is a pleasure to walk beneath that white travertine, which was drawn from the same Greek quarry as the marble used for the Parthenon. More than 17,000 panels of that stone were removed from the building, shipped to China for cleaning, and then returned to the building.
A failed previous attempt to redevelop the building would not have taken those steps, instead wrapping the marble podium with video billboards — a grievous architectural crime. “Let’s leave it the way it is,” says Todd. “To change it would have been apostasy.”
The building exterior gets a renewed shot of visual drama at night from upgraded LED lighting (replacing the original fluorescent system) along the marble “pinstripes” that run up the sides of the tower.
Within, the main lobby space has been pulled back to its Mad Men-era origins, with dark wood paneling offsetting stone, steel, and glass. Among the more dramatic spaces is an enormous ballroom — 14,000 square feet, with 20-foot ceilings.
The chic design reaches its literal and figurative apex with Kessaku, a Japanese sushi-and-saki bar that seems like it was yanked out of the film Lost in Translation and slipped into the National’s top floor. With lacquered chairs, velvet sofas and a wallpapered ceiling, it might just be the most flat-out seductive space in Dallas.
Filling in the Arts District
Would you believe there’s another reflection problem in the Arts District? No, the recently completed Atelier Tower isn’t shining more heat rays onto the Nasher Sculpture Center, like its Museum Tower neighbor. But if you happen to be on Flora when the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe rings its church bells, you might want ear-plugs, because the sound bouncing off the Atelier is loud. You think we might have learned.
A gonging would be a more appropriate response to the building’s arrival: It is a disappointment, and not just because it is undistinguished on its own architectural terms. The issue is that it could have been so much more than it is, and indeed there were promises made over the course of its development that it would be.
The 41-story tower sits on a precious site, a former surface lot fronting Flora between two of the city’s great institutions and architectural landmarks — the Nasher and the Meyerson Symphony Center.
From the outset, the intention was that it would be a mixed-use project, bringing needed retail to the street along with subsidized studio residences for artists — hence the name, Atelier. But as with Museum Tower —the building that literally attacks its namesake — the naming here is pure exploitation. Yes, the building has a few loft-style apartments, but all 370 units in the building are market rate. So much for supporting artists.
As architecture, the building, designed by Stantec, is not particularly ambitious or creative: a tower stacked on top of a podium with retail on the ground level and parking above. The tower façade rising over Flora is its most active feature, staggered at a slight angle and given definition by inset balconies. From the rear it is less appealing: The architects left a massive blank wall facing Klyde Warren Park.
This is especially unfortunate, as it mars the view corridor running from the park to Flora along Pearl Street, and this stretch is slated for beautification and rechristening as the Avenue to the Arts as part of the greater Dallas Arts District Connect plan, which was passed earlier this year.
If you want to be generous, you might say that it’s fine for the building to be unremarkable, in deference to its distinguished neighbors. But this tower doesn’t do much to engender generosity, so let’s just call it what it is: underwhelming.
Whose downtown is it?
However positive it is to see these three development challenges resolved, their joint arrival also elicits a sense of disappointment. Together, the three account for the addition of 1,061 apartments to downtown at a time when the city is in dire need of affordable housing. Yet almost all of those units are market-rate, this despite various promises and city incentive programs that could (and should) have required those accommodations. (At The National, 10% of the apartments are reserved for residents with incomes at or below 80% of the area median family income, a marker that is already too high.)
It would be easy to point the finger at the development community for this alarming trend, which extends well beyond these projects. But developers are not solely to blame. Real estate is a for-profit business, and projects must “pencil out.” It’s up to the city to make sure that they do, especially when special incentives and give-backs are required.
That lesson is becoming all the more critical, as a series of massive new proposals head to City Hall for approval. These include Hoque Capital’s 20-acre “Newpark” development that would bring more than 1 million square feet of office space and an equally large educational campus, to the area directly behind City Hall; Hunt Realty’s plan for three towers (of 80, 52 and 49 stories) that would bring 3.77 million square feet of office, retail and residential space to the area between Victory and downtown; and the Hillwood Group’s “Gateway” Project, which would put an additional 520,000 square feet of office space in a 600-foot-tall downtown tower.
That’s a lot of new building for downtown, which might be a good thing, although one can’t help but wonder how much commercial space the area can sustain. If these new buildings mean new tenants and new business in the city, that’s a boon. But if they’re just cannibalizing the city’s extant stock, then that’s a problem, the architectural equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
That may work if you’re Paul, but in this case Peter ends up being the citizens of Dallas. Which is to say, real estate development is a business, but city planning isn’t. When the music stops, everyone needs a seat.
CORRECTION, 3:28 p.m., June 10, 2021: This story was updated to note that 10 percent of the apartments in The National are reserved as reduced-rate affordable housing.