When real estate developers talk about their projects, they often focus on size, location, amenities, and other physical details. Mike Ablon, principal of PegasusAblon, talks about connection points. Armed with engineering and architecture degrees from The University of Texas at Austin and a master’s degree from Harvard University, he studied in Paris and once worked as an apprentice under noted theorist Robert Venturi, an architect who helped shape the way people think about the built environment.
These things nurtured Ablon’s thirst for knowledge and influenced his visionary, experiential approach. Even his company website will tell you the firm’s strategies are built around “the idea that cities and developments are made up of layer upon layer of the interconnections and functions of its inhabitants, telling the stories, ideologies, and mythologies of its history.”
After bringing his unique approach to Preston Center, the Dallas Design District, and other high-profile neighborhoods, Ablon is now focused on Oak Lawn—in what could be his most ambitious project yet. Last May, he won approval to build two residential towers on land he purchased along Cedar Springs from Caven Enterprises. (Caven will continue to operate bars that occupy four buildings Ablon acquired—J.R.’s Bar & Grill, Sue Ellen’s, Station 4, and The Mining Co.—as a tenant with long-term leases.)
In Oak Lawn, Ablon hopes to create a sense of place. “It’s the ‘there’ there,” he explains. “It’s a place of familiarity. Allegorically, say we’re in New York City, and I tell you, ‘Let’s meet at the train station.’ You’d know I meant Grand Central Station, and you’d look for me at the clock in the center of the terminal.”
Ablon’s goal is to create an urban connection point that will fortify the neighborhood’s permanence in the longer arc of time. “When you go to the Cedar Springs District, where do you gather?” Ablon asks.
Sure, there are bars and restaurants, and there’s also The Crossroads historical market at the intersection of Cedar Springs and Throckmorton—but that’s not what Ablon is talking about. Oak Lawn remains the heart of the LGBT community, as do the one- and two-story buildings surrounding Ablon’s infill project, but the neighborhood has also been impacted by what city planners would call the halo effect of nearby communities (Old Parkland, Turtle Creek, Highland Park, and Uptown).
When former Dallas city councilman Ed Oakley reached out to him about the Oak Lawn opportunity, Ablon was behind a long list of developers who wanted to tear down a row of beloved bars owned by Caven Enterprises and construct new buildings.
“I was extremely interested, but only if we could together figure out how to preserve those buildings and establishments,” Ablon says. “I was not going to be the person who tore down the gayborhood.”
Instead, he will redevelop parking lots to build towers that are set back from the street. The first multifamily high-rise will be about 18 stories with 250 units. It will frame a canopy-covered “urban room” with fountains and park-side dining. A second phase will have about 18 stories and 200 units.
“You don’t want to create an urban room that’s full of sculptures, where people just look at the sculptures; you want to leave the space blank, so people become the center of the conversation,” he says. “You don’t bring meaning—you understand the meaning there and do everything to acknowledge it, find the beauty in it, fortify it, and maybe add the physical environment for culture and city fabric to come together. The single greatest way to create a great city is not to homogenize it, not commodify it, but find the intrigue and meaning in each place and nail it. If you do that, then the ties that bind take care of it.”
When redeveloping neighborhoods, Mike Ablon says he focuses on the “there” there. Here are three of his most significant projects:
Dallas Design District.
One of his earliest placemaking endeavors, Ablon and The Lionstone Group acquired 40 acres in the district in 2007 and breathed new life into the historic area, bringing people in by adding restaurants, apartments, green spaces, and more.
The Harbor Village.
Ablon repositioned what once was a “broken” retail project in the heart of Rockwall and eastern Dallas communities along Lake Ray Hubbard. He focused on local restaurants and shops, created a “suburban-urban” core in the lakeside project, and added denser housing with walkable retail.
This involved the purchase, preservation, and repositioning of the former Grape restaurant and area buildings. Ablon added a neighborhood bistro (Sister), walk-up bodega (Duro Provisions), and second-story, boutique urban lofts/flats—plus murals by local artists.
Ablon says he feels a great responsibility to get this project right. It’s scary, he says. But, for the neighborhood to survive, new development is needed. The key is to design around meaning. “If you do that, the new building enhances the beauty of the old building, and the old building brings context to the new building,” Ablon says. “Together, they make for funky, interesting places. You keep the mythology—it is essential.”
The developer, who is on track to break ground in late 2022 or early 2023, says he was pushed by some to tear down the Oak Lawn bars or redevelop the front of the buildings and create something “prettier.” But that would destroy the properties’ sense of place. “What in one person’s eyes is ugly has the beauty of perseverance and fortitude in the eyes of others,” Ablon says.
“What matters in that community: Preserve it. Protect it. It’s cool. It’s creative. It is accepting of all. You don’t bring meaning; you always understand the meaning that is there, and you do everything you can to acknowledge it.”