The Hill brings a vibrant mix of uses to East Dallas.

Project The Hill
Location Dallas
Client Cypress Equities
Architect LRK in collaboration with Farrell Architects
Design Team Craig Henry, AIA, Carlos Fernandez, David Farrell, AIA, Carlos Mireles, Jason Kaseforth, AIA
Contractor CORE Construction (primary); Schaffer Construction (secondary)
Structural Engineer Hunt & Joiner
MEP Engineer Jordan & Skala Engineers
Landscape Architect/Civil Engineer Pacheco Koch
Photographer Charles Davis Smith, FAIA

Built in 1977, The Hill shopping center is a 236,050-sf mixed-use building complex in northeast Dallas that, until recently, was underutilized and falling into disrepair. In addition to the project needing some attention and upkeep, East Dallasites were eager for new dining and retail options on their side of town after watching decades of new developments emerging in the city’s west. Thanks to developer Cypress Equities and the architects at LRK, The Hill’s renovation is one of the most unique in Texas.

Today, The Hill comprises a mixture of retail, professional businesses, and restaurants. “The internal courtyard became the space to be,” says Craig Henry, AIA, a project architect at LRK, the firm responsible for The Hill’s renovation and new additions. “Since they opened in the middle of COVID, the internal courtyard was so important to restaurants because people wanted to eat outside.” Since then, much of the retail offerings have become spaces for food and beverage, giving the courtyard somewhat of a food court feel.

Henry describes the project as hugely collaborative between Farrell Architects, the owner, and LRK, to name a few. “The owner had the vision to save the shopping center, which was incredible,” says Henry. The shopping center did not close down  during construction, with LRK keeping the existing clients in mind and working with them to ensure they could remain open while the new center took shape. 

When The Hill first opened, its anchor store was the Austin-based green home improvement chain TreeHouse. At 25,000 sf, it’s the biggest tenant space on the site. Lake|Flato Architects worked on the concept for TreeHouse, and when LRK took the reins, it was obvious that green energy was going to be the main driver of design. “It’s net positive, so it adds energy back to the grid,” says Henry. “The south roof slopes to provide shade from the sun, which opens the clerestory windows to the north light. There are photovoltaic panels on the roof, and saving the oak tree was a big influence on the L-shaped design.” TreeHouse shuttered its doors in 2018. Its vacancy would be filled by Movement, a climbing gym that takes full advantage of the enormous space. Maybe Dallas was more ready for chalked-up hands and tiny shoes than green living.

One of the greatest challenges of working with the existing buildings was the compromised brick walls across the complex. To wrestle back moisture within the envelope, LRK covered the existing buildings with tinted waterproofing, but the original 1970s brickwork is still visible. A notable feature is the rounded edges of doors, windows, entryways, and other openings in the brick walls. LRK chose to leave these features visible despite the addition of new cladding on much of the exterior. Another advantage of recoating the brick was the opportunity to showcase artwork, with murals by 12 artists on display. In the center’s comparatively short second life, some of the art has already been changed as the complex develops and grows. 

The largest obstacle to the project, and arguably the most important, was the regrade required. The existing site plan did not allow LRK to execute their proposed design without a major retool of the heavily inclined site. “The regrade made turning the buildings inward possible,” Henry says. “Selling businesses on the idea of a storefront whose signage is inwardly focused instead of facing the highway was a difficult sell at first, but the complex is much richer for it.” Citing The Camp in Costa Mesa, California, as an influence, the design team at LRK chose to flip the traditional formula for shopping centers. The jewels of the site are the mature trees that are scattered throughout, predominantly around the courtyard. Despite construction and the challenging regrade, LRK was able to keep all the trees. Much like with the buildings, a little trimming and pruning went a long way. Though the project’s funky palette and stately trees contribute to the overall character, it’s the inward focus of the complex that makes this shopping center special. 

Not all The Hill’s shopping and dining experiences are housed in brick and mortar. Cypress Equities left space in the parking lot for a farmers market, which is still in planning, and the courtyard hosts other outdoor markets once a month. Although the complex is surrounded by a mammoth parking lot, parking minimums still drive the tenant functions. For example, there is currently not enough parking to add another large restaurant to the lineup. (And if that sounds absurd to any Dallasites reading this, remember to vote in your local elections.)

When I asked Henry about the third spaces in this project, his mind immediately went to the alleys that connect the courtyard to the exterior parking lot. “We created nodes at the ends of alleys that lead you into that green space,” he says. “Visit on a weekend and observe how people use the space. They pose for photos in front of the murals and just hang out there.” Taking his advice, my site visit began by hanging out in the courtyard for a while, using a restaurant’s complimentary Wi-Fi and reclining on a bench under the shade of an oak. I wanted to see if the shopping center was still a comfortable place to be if you weren’t actively being a customer (it was). Then I relented and bought a bowl of sesame noodles from Hello Dumpling. 

The Hill is a successful convergence of sustainability, conservation, user experience, and owner interests: Most of the original buildings were saved; the owner didn’t pay for an entire redevelopment; and the shopping center is indisputably a richer experience than it would have been after a full demolition. The complex is an eclectic collage of different materials and colors, and much of the facade was reused or recycled. “We loved working with the material palette,” says Henry. “It was very enjoyable for my team to use sustainable, low-maintenance materials, and we brought in the artists to ‘activate’ the nodes.”

This redevelopment marries the downtown shopping zones of yesteryear with the contemporary feel and focus on an organic-feeling design that may not be modern but is certainly en vogue. We often see new buildings designed with Fibonacci curves and complex computer-generated skins that imitate the life around them. I would argue that this new organicism — a thriving new development in the shell of a previous retail complex — is a more successful imitation of biology than most new construction. 

Initially, I was inclined to view this project in the same light as other new developments with manicured landscaping, brunch restaurants, and boutiques that stake their claims of walkability on a parking garage and wide sidewalks. After visiting, I think The Hill is more than that. By turning itself inward, it becomes cozy and human scaled. It provides a different experience than any other shopping complex I’ve been to — more like walking on a college campus, or maybe wandering the booths at a festival. I hope that, beyond simply being an enjoyable place to spend time and money in Dallas, The Hill serves as an inspiration to other retail or dining complexes seeking to prioritize conservation and people-focused design. 

Anna Cairns is a graduate of Texas A&M University. She joined Architexas’ Dallas office in July 2023, where she works on a variety of projects with a focus on historic preservation.

Leave a Comment