On holy ground

The fight over St. Ann's snares the city, Hispanics, and the Catholic diocese in a battle that tests Dallas' commitment to preserving its past

The notion that historic preservationists are now using their political clout and the city's own rules to block a real estate deal is a curious new chapter in the history of local development, particularly in Little Mexico.

In Dallas, progress has always come before preservation, and one need look no farther than Little Mexico for proof. It is where city planners, in the name of economic development, used zoning laws to orchestrate the death of a neighborhood former Mayor R.L. Thornton once touted as the city's blueprint for neighborhood planning.

In 1956, Dallas was heralded as a national example of how to rebuild blighted neighborhoods under a new "urban renewal" program initiated by the Federal Housing Administration. That year, Dallas became the first city in the nation to qualify for new federal funds under the FHA program. The money was earmarked specifically for Little Mexico to repave streets, install water and sewer lines, and provide low-income loans to repair the substandard houses that plagued the neighborhood.

Civic leaders and newspaper editors trumpeted the project because of the "spirit of friendly cooperation" flowing between city officials and Little Mexico residents, but the relationship was short-lived. Just four years later, the construction of the Dallas North Tollway was under way, and the city's original barrio was sliced in two. Soon, a new strand of commercial development began spreading throughout the neighborhood.

By 1970, private investors had bought up an estimated 25 percent of the neighborhood, and residents could do little to stop a new stream of requests to tear down homes so new businesses could be built. Residents complained that the "strip" or "spot" zoning requests were made by developers who bought out homeowners lot by lot and intentionally let the vacant houses erode so they could use their unsightly conditions to bolster arguments for new development.

"What these [residents] don't realize is that under the law, anybody can make application for a zoning change...and there's nothing to prevent you or me or anyone from buying a house, tearing it down or leaving it sitting there," then-city planning director James Scroeder Jr. told reporters. "I don't think the solution to proper planning is to bite [a neighborhood] off in bits and pieces."

Despite Scroeder's condemnation of the developers' tactics, his bosses on the city council sided with developers and used every tool they had, from condemning property to abandoning streets, to bury Little Mexico.

Scroeder's comments illustrate the conflict between developers and neighborhood preservationists, whose battles over zoning continue to consume city planners. The best recent example is a request by the Albertson's supermarket chain to change residential zoning to commercial so it can build a grocery store in the heart of Old East Dallas. Residents there shudder to think they are confronted with the very same problem that Scroeder described 30 years ago.

Unlike residents of Old East Dallas, those living in Little Mexico didn't have the grand old mansions that were built along Swiss Avenue by the city's first generation of business and political leaders to use as weapons in the fight to save their neighborhood. Nor did they have members of the city's social elite like Dorothy Savage, the city's former first lady, to lead their cause. Instead, Villasana says, they were poor, second-class citizens who were routinely excluded from the debate over their own future.

"What's unfortunate is that the plan [for Little Mexico] has always cut out the Mexican-American community. They were going to be expendable, and everything attached to their culture was going to be expendable. I think St. Ann's is a real clear example of that," Villasana says. "You're talking about a diocese that for 30 to 40 years now has been trying to move into a position [to] get the Mexicans out of that parish. Now they're getting ready to tear it down, sell it off, and make a big profit."

In other words, Villasana says, the sale of St. Ann's is the last step in a misguided path the city started down long ago.

Early in the debate over St. Ann's, the diocese was tight-lipped when asked to identify the developer who had made the $4 million offer for the property. In fact, the information is still noticeably absent from the thick public information packet the diocese's consultants have prepared in response to the designation process.

But in his controversial letter to Leggio, the diocese's McGonigle confirmed speculations that the developer was St. Ann's neighbor Harwood Pacific.

"The diocese's financial position since the Kos settlements has been very tenuous, and we desperately need the funds from a sale of the property," McGonigle wrote. "Of particular concern to me is that the de facto blocking of the potential sale to Harwood Pacific has resulted in a further reduction in needed social and charitable activities of the diocese."

While the diocese is accused of being greedy for turning down the Guadalupe group's offer, which now stands at $1.5 million, it's little wonder its financial advisors would prefer to deal with Harwood Pacific: St. Ann's is, after all, sitting on a pot of Swiss gold.

Harwood Pacific's president and founder is J. Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, a Swiss transplant who has purchased nearly every parcel of land in the corridor surrounding St. Ann's under the auspices of various companies that operate out of his fourth-floor office in the Rolex building.

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