In my part of town, East Dallas, the city's first older area to be reclaimed from decay, our assumption has always been that salvation is in restrictions—tougher laws to prevent radical remodeling, re-purposing or plain old bulldozing of old buildings. In East Dallas anywhere within five blocks of the Lower Greenville bar district, neighborhoods have gone vigilante, not to say postal, on parking restrictions. The neighborhoods have insisted that developers purchase expensive land for parking lots. But they also have used political muscle at City Hall to get residential streets posted, making it illegal for non-residents to park there. In part it's an effort to starve the beast.

So it's a surprise to hear Oak Cliff neighborhood leader Rick Garza's explanation of how he thinks Bishop Arts was saved from the wrecking ball. It started in 1992 with Bishop Arts becoming a "conservation district," under city law—a kind of legal island carved out from citywide zoning requirements, with its own local rules, sanctioned by the city but specific only to Bishop Arts.

Where I live in East Dallas, in a similar kind of district, we used very tight architectural rules to control things. You can't even repaint your house the same color without permission.

A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, an urban historian at the
University of New Mexico, has chosen Oak Cliff as
one of five areas in the United States to study for an
upcoming book on the Hispanicizing of American cities.
Sara Kerens
A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, an urban historian at the University of New Mexico, has chosen Oak Cliff as one of five areas in the United States to study for an upcoming book on the Hispanicizing of American cities.

But Garza, an architect who has rehabbed several apartment buildings on King's Highway near Bishop Arts, says the architectural rules in Bishop Arts are slack and were not a big factor in rejuvenating the district.

"Most people would naturally think Bishop Arts has all of these architectural guidelines and restrictions when, in fact, it really doesn't," he says. "Those are pretty lax."

Indeed, the Bishop Arts ordinance contains language that would have been anathema to preservationists in East Dallas: It says an owner who changes the façade of a historic building in the district is "not required" to conform to the architectural styles of the district but is "encouraged" to do so. In the East Dallas historic and conservation districts, encouragement is what we call a subpoena.

Garza says Bishop Arts flourished less because of restrictions than because the 1992 ordinance that created the Bishop Arts District radically reduced the amount of parking that building owners had to provide when they re-developed a building. Instead of tightening the reins, the ordinance loosened them in some ways.

The carrot, then, for keeping an old building in operation was that the owner who kept an old building standing had to provide only half the parking required of another owner who tore down an old building to put up a new one.

"The relaxation of the parking requirements is the single biggest tool that has been used to preserve and revitalize the Bishop Arts District," Garza says. "Can you believe that?"

The relaxed rules may have pushed some overflow parking into surrounding residential areas. But it also meant buildings in the district were not replaced with parking lots. Every time you walk out of one shop in Bishop Arts, you see a row of other interesting shops right across the street from you. You feel like Jerry and Elaine.

The city's parking code for new development and major re-development is a touchstone for what those like Garza and Griggs see when they look at the street grid in North Oak Cliff. They see a community that was designed for trolleys and buses, strangling beneath a silt of post-war, suburban-style zoning designed for the automobile.

Current Dallas law assumes that stores and restaurants will be set back far from streets with plenty of parking out front, as in a strip shopping center. The only way the owner of a 1930s curbside commercial building could afford to meet that requirement would be by tearing down his building and putting up a strip shopping center. By cutting parking requirements in half and making the old buildings in Bishop Arts commercially viable, the city, through its carved-out ordinance, has effectively excavated and revived the old commercial grid, thereby connecting past with future.

David Spence, one of the early developers in Bishop Arts, is emphatic that the same medicine now must be dosed out to a longer reach of Davis Street in order to expand the success of Bishop Arts.

"The idea," he says, "is to use parking concessions to give people a real strong financial incentive to not tear down that 1947 showroom on Davis or that 1937 garage building or that 1953 Humble filling station."

Spence is one of the sponsors of a proposed regional "planned development district" for a large chunk of North Oak Cliff contiguous to Bishop Avenue and Davis Street—roads that intersect at the entrance to the Bishop Arts District. The plan, expected to reach the Dallas City Council in late March or early April, includes a number of developer-friendly provisions similar to the breaks given developers in Bishop Arts.

Michael Amonett, president of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League, wants to keep an open mind. "How do you make an old building more valuable to the developer standing than torn down?" Amonett asks. "That's my biggest thing. How can I work with all these people and make that happen and allow us to retain our character and our culture and our heritage?"

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