Can tiny Highland Park Village survive its metamorphosis from hometown hangout to ‘international shopping destination’? Locals and the owners weigh in
by MELISSA REPKO and MARIA HALKIAS
Highland Park Village paper sculptures by ROBERT CHAPA.
Photograph by CHRIS PLAVIDAL/Sisterbrother Mgmt.
THE LOCAL PERSPECTIVE:
When Janie Robertson was a preteen, she’d walk three blocks to Highland Park Village to buy a 7-Eleven Slurpee.
Now, where the 7-Eleven once stood, there’s a Rag & Bone. The shopping center, which opened in 1931with a gas station and a convenience store, now boasts an Hermès, an Alexander McQueen and soon, a Tom Ford. It is a far cry from the shopping center Robertson, 28, remembers. “They’re really connecting Beverly Drive with Beverly Hills and the Village,” says Robertson, the fourth generation of her mother’s family to grow up in Highland Park. “To me, it doesn’t have enough of amix.” But, she predicts, “It’s going to continue going the Rodeo Drive route.”
In the 100-year-old town of Highland Park, the changing storefronts of Highland Park Village have become a topic of debate. Local shoppers and town residents greeted high-end additions with open wallets — but some say they miss the center’s mom and pop stores, such as 70-year tenant Cooter’s Village Camera, or wish it still had a neighborhood ice-cream parlor. So many locals grew up going to Highland Park Village, says Mayor Joel Williams, and “familiarity means that everyone has an opinion.”
Since 2009, owners Heather and Ray Washburne and Elisa and Stephen Summers (the women are sisters), have given the Spanish Mediterranean–style shopping center an upscale makeover. There is new signage, resurfaced parking, more valet access — and a bevy of top international fashion boutiques. New additions have also meant departures. Family-owned Cooter’s closed in 2011. Head offices for the Crystal Charity Ball and Cattle Baron’s Ball, longtime tenants that drew well-heeled volunteers to nearby shops, moved out in June.
The center today is a blend of luxury stores, restaurants and a few mainstays, such as Starbucks, Tom Thumb and Deno’s of Highland Park (it opened there in 1960), where neighbors drop by to caffeinate, stock their pantries and get their shoes repaired. As longtime Highland Park resident Pierce Allman says, it’s “a place where you can get anything from a sandwich to a crepe.” Kimberly Whitman of Highland Park met her husband, Justin, when eating lunch at Who’s Who Burgers. When the couple got engaged, its owners threw a wedding shower and served burgers and fries, along with champagne and caviar. The restaurant has since closed. But Whitman says she and her husband still love the charm of the Village, where they often run into neighbors or watch their 6-year-old son ride around on his scooter. Its tony shops may feel more glamorous, Whitman says, “but because of the scale and the staff, it still feels friendly and warm.” While Allman calls the Village “the downtown of Highland Park” and waxes nostalgic about stores gone by — including its drugstore, gas station and a shop called Martha Washington’s Ice Cream Parlor — he thinks the new owners, who have Park Cities roots, balance stability with style. “How many developers would leave a grocery store in the middle of Hermès and Chanel? That’s a commitment to the neighborhood.”
But change at the Village is palpable, in the era of Summers and Washburne ownership. “Transformation started happening when they bought it,” says John Palms, a Park Cities resident and the CEO of Dallas-based Bibbentuckers, the dry-cleaning chain, which closed its Village location in June. “If we had our druthers, we would have stayed there, but Ray [Washburne] had a different vision.” Among its Village clients, the dry cleaner counted Escada, Chanel and the Washburne family. —Melissa Repko
THE OWNERS’ PERSPECTIVE:
To understand the business model that is Highland Park Village, you have to understand the concept of being unique — but not in the way that the word is tossed out as a compliment. We are talking unique, as in the whole world. As in top fashion brands Tom Ford, Stella McCartney, Ermenegildo Zegna, Alexander McQueen, Brunello Cucinelli and Christian Louboutin picking a shopping center nestled in a neighborhood above all the other choices in Texas.
As in the wife of a New York managing partner in a hedge fund wanting to accompany him on his Dallas business trip so she can shop at the Village. Highland Park Village indeed has a mission to become “a one-of-a-kind place that caters to the needs of a local village while becoming an international shopping destination,” says Stephen Summers, co-owner and leasing director. “It’s a balance and I think after four years, we’re getting there.” The Village’s owners — Summers, his wife Elisa, Heather and Ray Washburne — aren’t finished with their vision. Yes, someday there may be a small boutique hotel; it won’t have traffic-generating event space, but it should have a spa. The basic necessities, though, of grocery shopping, a cup of coffee, shoe repairs, clothing alterations, a movie, a haircut and an affordable place to have dinner with the family will always be present at Highland Park Village, Summers says.
How the town is served has evolved throughout the Village’s eight decades. No one would expect it to house a big-box sporting-goods chain today, but it had an Oshman’s when Summers was growing up nearby. Area residents still call to say they miss the Banana Republic store that closed in 2010, but others are also clamoring for a hotel where visiting family can stay, or where the wedding party can bunk after the big event across Preston Road at the Dallas Country Club. “I return every call and explain our thought processes,” Summers says. “We understand we’re stewards and that the whole town of Highland Park considers this their asset. If there are 10 Banana Republics already in Dallas, people don’t have to come here for that.”
The center’s Banana Republic had sales of $2.6 million in its last year, but generated a sales-per-square-foot figure below the chain’s average. That same space, which now houses Christian Louboutin, Saint Laurent and Diane von Furstenberg, generates annual sales of $15 million. “Those sales numbers,” Summers says, “show us what people would rather have in that space.” A store or a service — for example, a dry cleaner, such as Bibbentuckers, which recently departed — that has multiple locations within convenient reach won’t make the cut. When Centennial closed its Village liquor store, Molto Formaggio added spirits to its wine and cheese shop so the locals can still get a bottle of vodka. “We only have 250,000 square feet,” Summers says. “We’re not NorthPark Center. It’s not that we want über-luxury of everything, but for every contemporary brand, there’s a best in class. We are asking $165 per square foot for our retail space. That being said, we obviously don’t charge our local tenants and services that, as we want everyone in our center to be profitable and healthy. It’s just a cost of maintaining the balance we are looking for, but in the long run that balance makes our center more special. Obviously the Deno’s and the barbershop can’t pay that, so we don’t ask them to.”
As leases come up and new tenants are ready to move in, Summers is juggling existing tenants and carving up spaces. What’s missing from his mix? Makeup and lingerie. He’s working on those. Summers won’t say how much has been spent on upgrades since the power couples purchased the center in 2009 (“I’ll tell you we spent $5 million alone to upgrade the theater that we continue to subsidize”) but the improvements include a clock tower, an elevator in the center building and trees added to the parking lot.
Of course, the luxury mantra was inherited when the families acquired Highland Park Village for $170 million, or $680 per square foot, which was probably the most ever paid for a Dallas retail property. Chanel, Harry Winston and Hermès were already there and had been for years, giving the new owners a huge running start for their vision. According to Summers, the first thing Tom Ford asked was where an Hermès was in Dallas. He then said, “That’s where I want to be.”—Maria Halkias