Belo Bashing

Belo demolishes Renaissance Place, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Peter Calvin

Belo Corp. delivered historic preservationists a fait accomplis this week, quietly securing a permit to demolish a historic 10-story building in the West End and then announcing its intentions as the wrecking ball was being hoisted into place.

"There's nothing wrong with the building," said Ron Emrich, a member of the Dallas Landmark Commission. The 1920s-era brick structure, which until a few weeks ago was occupied as an office building, was renovated by a former owner with the help of about $1 million in federal tax credits. The 100,000-square-foot structure is listed in the National Register of Historic places as an example of Chicago School architecture with its terra cotta decorations and hulking shape.

"This certainly makes you question their commitment to downtown historic preservation," said Dwayne Jones, the new director of Preservation Dallas, a nonprofit group. Measuring his criticism, however, he added, "This is something we have to talk to them about."

Emrich also said the demolition and the way it was handled by the company should be an embarrassment to Dealey Decherd Herndon, a Belo board member and sister of CEO Robert Decherd.

Herndon, whose Austin-based construction company has done work on numerous public and privately financed restoration projects, is a board member of the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Like I told the trust, I can't get in the middle of this," Herndon said in an interview Tuesday. "It's just not an issue I can get into.

"I don't think it's one of the great gems of the city of Dallas, but I haven't studied the building enough to even describe it," said Herndon, who is working as Governor Rick Perry's appointments director. "I'm sort of 50-50 on it."

Michael McCarthy, Belo senior executive vice president, said the company gave all the notice that is required, which entailed contacting Texas air quality and public works officials on technical matters involving the demolition. Billy L. & Joan Nabors, Inc., the demolition contractor, applied for the permit on March 5, saying it planned to load the building onto trucks and haul it to the McCommas Landfill.

Preservationists say there is no mechanism in place for wider notification that would have covered this case, and plenty of reason for Belo not to let the word out in advance. Although it is listed in the national register, the building was not included in the West End's landmark district, set up in 1976. If a building is not designated a landmark, there is nothing to stop its owner from tearing it down.

Dallas City Councilwoman Veletta Forsythe Lill said she first heard about the demolition last Thursday, when word started spreading in preservation circles. "People heard and thought...Oh," she said. Belo had already secured its demolition permit a week earlier, on March 21. The Morning News published a story on the matter Monday.

Because the permit application already had been filed, nothing could be done--by virtue of state law--to stop the work, Lill said. Usually, she said, endangered historic buildings have a constituency that keeps an eye on developments. Nobody had Belo's building on their radar screen because it was in good shape and in use.

The council has held up demolition of three other buildings--Crozier Tech High School, St. Ann's Catholic school and the Knights of Pythias Temple in Deep Ellum--in the past 10 years, but those efforts started before owners applied for demolition permits. All three fights ended with compromises that included some preservation.

"The process is very onerous to the owner," Lill said, explaining why a company such as Belo has every reason not to telegraph its plans. But even with considerable public support it is difficult for preservationists to prevail because a three-quarters majority of the council is needed to designate a building a landmark.

In her City Hall office Monday, which has a view of the demolition site north of the city's convention center, Lill said her secretary offered to pull down the shades so she wouldn't have to watch. "I'm very saddened by it. You want to save them all."

The building was known as the State General Life Building when it was built and Renaissance Place after its renovation. The former owner added $5 million worth of improvements, which netted about $1 million in federal tax credits. Legal obligations to preserve the building under that program ran their course in the late 1990s. Deed records show Belo bought the building and surrounding land--a complete city block--in 1996.

"The renovation is very 1980s. It's dated," Emrich said of the building's interior. Still, the concrete frame structure appears to be more than sound, he said. "It's built like a bomb shelter."

Some in the historic preservation community said they are curious why Belo is in such a hurry to demolish a solid, occupied building, one appraised by taxing authorities at $1.4 million. "I find it hard to imagine they'd do such a thing without a major reason behind it," said Landmark Commission member Virginia McAlester. "It doesn't seem really in character."

Given that the Morning News has editorialized twice in the past month about an urgent need for a new hotel at the Dallas Convention Center, a few smoke signals have formed suggesting Belo might have the property in mind as a possible site. It's only two blocks north of the complex and is adjacent to other vacant Belo-owned land.

McCarthy declined to comment on that prospect, saying the company plans to use the property for now as a parking lot.

Lill, who is on the convention center's board, said city planners envision a convention center hotel will be attached to the facility, not simply close. So the Belo property currently is not considered a site.

The News last month waxed favorably on its editorial page about a study it commissioned by an urban planner who said Dallas urgently needs new hotels in the convention center vicinity. On Monday, the News printed a lead editorial in favor of newly proposed legislation to abate state hotel/motel taxes as a way to subsidize a convention center hotel. The future recipient of that break, if it is approved by the Texas Legislature, is unknown.

Senator Royce West's bill, introduced on March 12, would apply to hotels built "within 1,000 feet" of a convention center. The Belo site appears to be just within that limit.

By press time Tuesday, the wrecking ball was in full swing.

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