Dallas Demolition Derby

Preservationists win a battle, but the war goes on

When reached Monday to discuss the Landmark Commission's months-long battle with the city over rules regulating the demolition of homes in historic districts, Preservation Dallas executive director Katherine Seale said she was "on cloud nine." The reason, though, had nothing to do with the city council's Public Safety Committee's decision to postpone the discussion till next week. Instead, Seale convinced the Landmark Commission on Monday not to grant the Office of the City Attorney's request to raze the house at 2807 Tanner St. in the historically designated Wheatley Place district near Fair Park.

Seale admits there's nothing particularly special about the house as it stands now: It's little more than a Craftsman bungalow dating back to the early 20th century, and it was damaged in a fire three years ago; there are also several tax liens against the absentee property owner. That's precisely why the city attorney thought demolishing the house would be a slam-dunk. As far as Tom Perkins' office is concerned, it's the very definition of an "imminent threat to public health and safety." Not to mention an eyesore.

But Seale more or less stepped in front of the bulldozers, citing it as the former residence of one of the first black state legislators. Even more important, Seale says, she's had architects and contractors insist the house can be saved—and the property's owner, who Seale found in Oakland, has expressed interest in donating it to a nonprofit seeking an outpost in South Dallas.

"This could be a model for how the city could deal with these properties in historic districts," says Seale.

And it comes not a moment too soon.

Since August, the city's been working to remove the Landmark Commission from the process of condemning and tearing down structures it considers hazardous to your health; it wants to leave the decision to code enforcement and the city attorney, pending final approval in municipal court. Right now, the process is rather complicated, as far as Theresa O'Donnell, director of the city's Development Services, is concerned, as it involves code enforcement, the City Attorney's Office, stops in municipal court or at the fire marshal's office, then final approval with the Landmark Commission. Development Services wants to cut the Landmark Commission out of the loop—as in, "NO CERTIFICATE OF DEMOLITION IS REQUIRED FROM THE LMC"—as it figures the process already "provides adequate review of the need to demolish historic properties" without the commission's involvement.

To make its case, the city insists in various briefing memos that over the past five years, the Office of the City Attorney and property owners have filed 37 applications for certificates of demolition with the Landmark Commission "involving 30 structures in cases where the CAO [attorney's office] obtained demolition order." And the city says that of the 37 applications, the Landmark Commission denied 10 and postponed two—with none of them having been "repaired as result of denial or postponement."

Says the latest city attorney's memo: "Of 10 denials, CAO and property owners have re-filed 6 applications because structure's condition did not improve. Landmark Commission approved all 6 applications that were re-filed. CAO will soon renew request for demolition in other 4 cases."

The Landmark Commission didn't even know the city was trying the end-around till contacted by the Dallas Observer in August, but it caught up quickly—to the point where the City Attorney's Office has met twice in recent weeks with a handful of members from the Landmark Commission to hammer out a revised proposal that would allow for some public comment.

Just Monday, the Landmark Commission voted on a proposal that contains one more revision, which has yet to be hashed out before the city council or city attorney. It says that if the commission doesn't rule on a property's fate within 40 days of the city waving around its certificate of demolition, then "the building official shall issue a demolition permit to allow the requested demolition."

Still, despite the compromises, some preservationists fear that the city's arguments—and the burned-down buildings used to make it—are a little disingenuous to begin with. It's one thing to bulldoze a rotting roadblock to revitalization, but what happens when the Landmark Commission is removed from the process—and, whoops, there goes 508 Park Ave. or the Statler Hilton Hotel, two historic and vacant downtown structures Mayor Tom Leppert's currently trying to shake loose from owners who've claimed they've been unable to sell or renovate in recent years? Leppert says the city's patience has run out, even with the Park Avenue property, where, in June 1937, bluesman Robert Johnson recorded some of the songs that became the foundation for most of the 20th-century's soundtrack.

Last week, Seale, who's also a member of the Landmark Committee's Designation Committee, told the Observer, "The reason why the city council appoints the Landmark Commission is to prevent needless demolitions, and if they're removed from the process, there's no insurance we don't have buildings that just look bad or are vacant that are otherwise perfect candidates for renovation torn down because somebody doesn't understand what they're looking at."

 
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