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Last year when developers bought the old Dallas Independent School District headquarters east of downtown they didn’t waste any time before knocking it down.
Wrecking crews made quick work of the hodgepodge of old buildings along Ross Avenue. But after all but the central entry building was demolished, work on the project came to a halt.
Top officers at developer Leon Capital Group say they hit pause on the construction to fine tune plans for the one-block project called The Academic.
"The plan right now is to finish up all the design project and start construction before the end of the year," said Leon Capital managing director David Cocanougher. "We are trying to get all the design coordination finalized.
"We’ve been trying to figure out how to lay out the space the best way with the old building."
Leon Capital is using the two-story, 25,000-square-foot entry building from the old school district complex as the centerpiece of its new apartment community. The mid-century modern office wing will be used as an amenity center and grand entrance for the surrounding rental complex.
"It’s a lot of space — we have two floors and a basement to work with," Cocanougher said.
Saving the old building was part of the original plan when Leon bought the property from the DISD.
"It was really only after we won the bid and heard some concerns about the building that we started to understand what it was and the importance of the building to the character of Ross Avenue," Cocanougher said. "We asked what can we do as the developer of this site to preserve some of the character?"
On a commercial street that was long lined with used car lots and mom-and-pop retail shops, the four-acre school district offices were the closest thing in the neighborhood to a historic landmark.
Built in phases over more than 60 years, the DISD complex was left vacant and put up for sale when the school district moved to North Dallas last year. Cocanougher said his company’s bid of $9 million for the property was the sole offer.
Leon Capital plans to build 368 apartments around the old building and two courtyards in the project. Along with part of the school district offices, they are saving a large tree on the site.
"There was a beautiful giant oak tree right in the middle of the courtyard," Cocanougher. "We reduced our unit count to build around it."
The developer has been working with Architecture Demarest on the apartment project.
"We’ll have the first units ready in mid-2020," Cocanougher said.
Leon Capital got its start in apartment building in 2013, when the private investment firm purchased an Uptown development site near McKinney Avenue.
"That was our first multi-family development deal as a company," Cocanougher said. "That was our catalyst into new development.
"We started looking for other land opportunities."
The real estate firm built a small apartment block — 60 units — in its historic Magnolia Station loft apartment community on the edge of Dallas’ Victory Park.
"We originally bought it as an operating property," Cocanougher said. "Once development started to pick back up in Victory Park, we started looking at options on the site."
The six-story apartment block was built on the site of an old storage tank yard in what was originally the Magnolia Oil Co.’s century-old Dallas service center.
Not all of Leon Capital’s project are in central Dallas.
Up on Bush Turnpike near University of Texas at Dallas, the developer is building 415 apartments in developer Hall Group’s Hall Park at Richardson mixed-use complex.
The 30-acre project is at Custer Parkway and State Highway 190. Leon Capital’s seven-building apartment community in the project is called Spur 190.
"We are doing the multi-family and Hall is doing the office space in the project," said Leon Capital’s regional director Carl Starry.
The developer has also apartment projects in Flower Mound and in Fort Worth just south of DFW International Airport.
"We have just started a project in Lewisville off State Highway 121," Cocanougher said. "We have three projects in the Carolinas, a couple in Phoenix and we are looking to secure sites in Denver."
Finding apartment development tracts has become more difficult in the last few years, he said.
"Competition is tough, the availability of good building sites is gone," Cocanougher said. "The opportunities left require a lot of creativity and problem solving."
That’s true along Ross Avenue near downtown Dallas, where developers have already gobbled up most of the large building sites for new rental projects.
The DISD property is one of the largest redevelopment tracts in the neighborhood.
"We are pretty excited about what Ross Avenue has become," Cocanougher said. "We are glad to be a part of it."