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Don’t Cry for the Hard Rock

Preservationists made him Public Enemy No. 1. But Brett Landes says good guys swing wrecking balls, too.
By Trey Garrison |
Image
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

If we have learned anything from the life lessons imparted by the 1984 classic Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, it’s that real estate developers are evil, old, fat white guys who lie and cheat in their quest for profits at the expense of the community. That was certainly the story that played out back in January. Remember when bulldozers rolled on the old Hard Rock Cafe at 2601 McKinney Avenue, knocking down the almost 100-year-old shell of what had once been the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church? In that script, the villain was named Brett Landes. The developer, it was said, lied to the neighborhood, lied to city officials, lied to the press, and lied to the preservationists who wanted the site of the failed rock ’n’ roll eatery designated a historical landmark.

Landes, word even had it, was going to throw up a CVS/pharmacy, a bank branch, or some other boxy exemplar of suburban blight. In a word, he was evil. An absentee landlord with no concern for the neighborhood, no sense of decency, and no honor. In online forums dedicated to urban happenings, such as dallasmetropolis.com, they stopped just short of calling for a bounty on Landes’ head. Alas, with the deadline for a break-dancing contest to save the Hard Rock Cafe having come and gone, all the bereaved could do was fade to black and roll credits on what was definitely not a Hollywood ending. The bad guy had won.

Nice story, right? Except there’s one problem: the screenwriters got it all wrong.

A quick timeline: the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church was designed by Charles William Bulger, who also created a number of high-profile Dallas churches and buildings at the start of the 20th century, including the city’s first steel reinforced concrete skyscraper, the Praetorian Building. Construction on 2601 McKinney Avenue began in 1906 but it wasn’t completed until 1913. In the 1940s, its signature gold dome was removed as the original congregation moved on to another building and leased the property to another congregation. The church changed hands a number of times, finally becoming in 1986 the Hard Rock Cafe. That $13 million conversion project took years and gutted the structure—meaning little of the original architecture was left when the Hard Rock opened its doors. Difficult as it is to believe, the huge stained-glass window of Elvis was not, in fact, part of the original Baptist design.

Flash forward two decades. The Hard Rock closed its doors in March 2007. Within weeks, Landes, president of The Landes Group, was positioning himself to buy the property, which was then valued at $1.86 million. The problem was that the Dallas Landmark Commission was considering having the structure designated a historic landmark. Landes met with the commissioners and told them he wanted the property, but not if it got the historic designation because that would generate red tape should he decide to make any significant changes to the structure.

Eventually, the Landmark Commission shot down the historic designation, and the deal went through. Over the next eight months, Landes spent some $250,000 rehabbing and remodeling the property and marketing it to clients. Something like 60 prospective tenants did walk-throughs, but no one could see a way to make the building work. It was a big, empty box—not really suitable for a proper restaurant, nor laid out right for a nightclub (though that was Landes’ last idea to salvage the building, with plans on the board as late as October). In the end, Landes concluded that the Hard Rock had to come down.

On a cold Saturday morning in January, the demolition crews did their grim work, and by afternoon the building was razed. Landes was pilloried. That’s when I decided to pay him a visit. 

The landes group offices occupy two of the older homes on Fairmont Street long ago converted into commercial space. One formerly housed Heritage Auction Gallery. They sit all of about one block from the former site of the Hard Rock Cafe, so you can scratch the “absentee landlord” accusation off the list. Landes’ personal office is right there on the first floor, with a big bay window looking out toward the street.

Landes made his bones as a principal with The Staubach Company in the early 1990s, co-founding Staubach Capital. You could call him the $6.8 billion man, because that’s about the value of the deals he’s done for CVS/pharmacy alone. He purchases and leases back the land for some 1,800 stores in 38 states. He’s also co-founder and chairman of the Lobo Tortilla Factory. He’s married with more kids than he can handle, and he has the unweathered, easy-going countenance of a man who takes life in stride.

His office is a window into his soul. The back part of the 5,200-square-foot space is his personal retreat, featuring a full wet bar, a media room setup that would make Mark Cuban jealous, and Landes’ massive collection of electric guitars. (He doesn’t play; he just collects.) There’s an outdoor fireplace on the upstairs patio. But the centerpiece is a two-story wine cellar with 5,000 bottles and a one-person elevator. Simply call up the vintage you’re in the mood for on a computer screen, punch in the code, and the elevator takes you to the shelf with that bottle.

Landes is one of those successful guys who hasn’t been much of a public face. CVS/pharmacy property deals aren’t the sexy stuff of business section front pages, and even his tortilla operation isn’t exactly headline material. What he’s done with the Hard Rock Cafe and what he plans to do with the site, are his first forays into the limelight. It’s been more like a prison camp searchlight, though.

“We got called every name in the book, but I’m not worried. When we’re done, people will be proud of what we’re going to accomplish,” he says. He’s dressed in designer jeans, driving moccasins, and a long-sleeve t-shirt. He says he wants his development along McKinney Avenue to be a legacy and a gift to the neighborhood where he offices. He wants it to be the kind of place where, when he knocks off for the day, he can call his wife, Lori, and have her come down and spend the evening walking around. “It’s going to bring a touch of Greenwich Village to Uptown. It’s going to be cool.”

Landes is adamant that while he had every intention of trying to keep the original structure, not once did he promise not to demolish the Hard Rock Cafe. The Dallas Observer, primary source of the claim Landes lied, wrote this on its blog Unfair Park March 9, 2007:

“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.”

I listened to hours of Landmark Commission meetings from March and April 2007, and that assertion just isn’t true. Landes said nothing of the sort. Landes also spent many nights in neighborhood meetings, where likewise he made no such promises. A couple of reporters from Park Cities People, D Magazine’s newspaper cousin, attended these meetings, and their notes and stories bear this out. Even off the record, Landes didn’t make any promises. Though, it is true, he did talk at length about his plans to rehab and use the existing structure. And it does appear that his leasing agent at the time, Jack Gosnell of United Commercial Realty, did overstep, leaving the strong impression the building would stay vertical.

But promises from the guy who actually owns the property? Not a one.

“When I was asked, ‘If we designate this building a historical landmark, will you close on the purchase?’ my answer was no. At some point, I knew that whether it is 10 days or 10 years, the building would have to be demolished,” Landes says.

As for the future of the site, if everything comes to fruition, it will be exactly what Landes does promise: it’ll be cool. He plans to build a $40 million, 16-story, 141-unit quasi-Brutalist apartment tower softened by an egg-shaped, four-story protrusion with a swimming pool over a clubhouse and leasing office space. The project will be built with sustainable design and green materials. It will offer preferred parking for alternative fuel vehicles. At night, fiber-optic and LED-lined shades on the egg protrusion will feature works of local artists, triggered to change by pressure sensors in the sidewalk along the front of the building. The economics of the tower should make Councilmember Angela Hunt happy. This is her district and she was near apoplectic when the Hard Rock Cafe was demolished. Affordable housing in downtown and Uptown has long been on Hunt’s agenda, and these units will be affordable—not subsidized like some units downtown. They’ll be smaller apartments, drawing that “creative class” urban Dallas says it so desperately needs.

But that’s just the start of what Landes envisions. He is hoping to purchase property catty-corner to the apartment building, which he would then demolish. There he wants to build a grocery store with a hip, Splitsville-style bowling alley above it. There will be a restaurant and bar with an open area where local musicians can play—simply by signing up on reservation sheet. There will even be a 24-hour grill for after-hours bar-hoppers, insomniacs, and night-shifters. A few condos will line the back of the property, and it will feature underground parking and a public basketball court. As much as it sounds like an oxymoron, it looks like a well-planned Bohemian enclave.

 “This is going to be a place you’ll want to live and hang out and have fun,” he says. “I want it to be profitable, but this is about putting my signature on something.”

Landes says he has the financing for both projects set, and several grocery store companies are interested. The apartment tower should be finished by late 2009, and the rest will follow shortly, he hopes.

Of course, even Landes admits that “intend” and “will” are two very different words for developers. Still, the project is moving ahead, and critics of the demolition who have seen the plans have started to warm to Landes’ vision. He might be in for a protracted struggle with council members and permit and inspection types at City Hall who still feel slighted by the January demolition. But in this story, the good guy just might win. We could have a Hollywood ending after all—with no need for break-dancing.