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Your tax dollars at work: the Pattersons historic home
Tom Jenkins

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Preserve history, get a tax breakis that a bad deal?

It's a beautiful home the Pattersons have. Sits on nearly five acres of land just off a gravel path near Wendover Road in Lakewood. The home--with its six fireplaces, four bedrooms and bathrooms, and three porches, two of them on the second floor--is valued at $1.6 million.

O'Neal Ford, the renowned Texas architect, built it in 1939. Gail and Dan Patterson--he an investment banker, she president of a communications corporation--bought the house in fall 2000 and have spent roughly $700,000 making sure its 6,300 square feet look much as they did in Ford's day.

The Pattersons have to make sure of this. The home is now, after the Dallas City Council's approval, a historic landmark. And as an incentive to maintain this landmark, the Pattersons on June 23 received $64,000 in tax abatement over 10 years from the city council.

"What?" asks Allen Gwinn, the publisher of the news Web site dallas.org.

That's right, $64,000. For a home valued at $1.6 million. A home that will not create any jobs for the city. A home that will not open its doors to the public to be viewed as a museum. A home, in fact, that you can't see from Wendover Road.

There's more. To approve the abatement, the council moved the item up on the agenda. It was supposed to be discussed as item No. 108. It became instead a "companion," upon Councilman Gary Griffith's motion, to item No. 85, which asked for the Patterson home to be deemed a historic landmark.

"Griffith knew [the abatement] was a contentious issue," Gwinn alleges. By taking the item out of order, the council avoided the arguments it was sure to face: At the appropriate time, Gwinn and others had planned to oppose the abatement.

Perhaps in all this it's worth noting the Patterson home is located in Griffith's district. And the couple gave $2,250 to his campaign last year.

According to the city, everything can be explained. First, an entire generation of Dallas architecture has lost out to parking garages and lots downtown and new developments everywhere else, says Councilwoman Veletta Lill. In 1994, to combat this problem, the city passed an ordinance that gave tax abatements to historic landmarks. A landmark can be virtually anything: an old commercial building, a warehouse, even a home. But to receive this historic designation, the building must meet criteria put forth by the city's landmark commission. Basically, something "significant" needs to have happened there, someone significant needs to have built it, or someone significant needs to have lived in it. Griffith says roughly 200 buildings and homes in Dallas have received the city's money through this program in the past 10 years.

When asked how much money in abatements residential homes received per year--and how many residents received the money--Griffith said the city's planning department would have those figures. But the planning department didn't have the numbers, saying it would take an open records request to get the answer. As of press time, the Dallas Observer has heard no response.

Lill, however, says the city annually hands out $700,000 in tax abatements. Yet she concedes the Patterson abatement was "the highest single-family residential we've approved."

Still, "it's not at all uncommon" for residential properties to get the abatements, Lill says. "It's an incentive to preserve our history."

Gwinn scoffs. "If there are thousands of homes eligible for this abatement, why don't [city officials] notify those thousands of homes?"

He continues, "This whole process is subjective. It's a subjective, political process. In comes $2,500 in political contributions, out comes $64,000 on the other side."

Yeah, about that. Councilman Griffith is appalled. "A contributor will never influence the way I vote," he says.

Nor the way he influences a meeting. The abatement item was moved up on the June 23 agenda, he and Lill say, because time was an issue. The designation and abatement items were closely related. "That happens all the time," Lill says. Besides, if Gwinn had really wanted to speak, he would have signed up to do so before the meeting, she says. For those two items--85 and 108--only Patterson and Marcel Quimby, the architect assisting the Pattersons, signed up beforehand, Lill says. So, the council assumed only they had anything to say about the designation and abatement. Gwinn says he thought he didn't have to sign up to speak.

Sharon Boyd, a community activist who edits www.dallasarena.com, says this isn't about protocol. It's about money. "Most people can't make a $1,000 contribution. And the people who can have a great deal of political influence," she says.  

Dan Patterson says he and his wife didn't give to Griffith expecting favors. They're just politically involved. Boyd, of all people, should know that: The Pattersons hosted fund-raisers for her when she ran for city council in 1993, Dan says.

Still, the Pattersons are good people. Not in the least pretentious. Gail answers a visitor's call one recent night in a long gray dress and neon green flip-flops. When Dan comes home, he wastes no time switching into shorts and a T-shirt. The black-and-white photos that hang on the wall above the staircase? The only art in the house.

They're grateful for the abatement, but preserving the house has been tedious. Even though they bought it in 2000, they just moved in this spring. Everything needed fixing, and everything, to qualify as a landmark and get the money, needed to look as it originally did, which required the Pattersons to fork over more money.

Yet they could afford to do it, Gwinn says. That's what this is ultimately about. Gwinn has no problem with the Pattersons preserving a great house. "But do they need that money?" he asks. --Paul Kix


As he's done many times before, Joel Gray sets up his equipment and makes this friendly announcement: "If there are any spirits here who would like to make themselves known, please do so now."

Gray has set up shop at the Sammons Center on Harry Hines Boulevard. It seems that this performing-arts venue is the site of some possible ghostly activity. Visitors have reported that the elevator behaves erratically and that they've heard strange voices. Gray takes reports like this seriously. But not too seriously. In the ghost-hunting game, he says, a sense of humor is essential.

Still, Gray is a believer. In 2002, he founded the Dallas-based Society for Paranormal Investigation, an organization seeking a greater understanding of the supernatural.

SPI investigates anywhere that might have a ghostly guest, including Dallas locations such as Old City Park and the Stoneleigh hotel. Often people seek them out, but Gray and partner Jackie LaRocca do some scouting themselves, which is how they ended up in the ballroom of the Sammons Center.

With only the lights from the parking lot shining in through the windows, Gray and LaRocca prepare for their investigation. Five sensors measuring conditions such as temperature and motion face the elevator. On a laptop readings show up as a series of colored lines. Gray and LaRocca look for any dips and spikes in the activity, but after two hours, nothing. "This is what we call a flat-line situation," Gray says, meaning the spirits, if there are any, have decided not to make themselves known. But these ghost hunters aren't discouraged. More time is needed, they say. Plus, they have bigger projects ahead of them. Books are in the works, and SPI is expanding. But right now it's getting late, and there's gear to pack. So the world of the unknown will have to stay that way--for now, at least. --Rhonda Reinhart

Getting the Boot

In May 2003, at the urging of Mayor Laura Miller, the city council passed an anti-panhandling ordinance intended to eliminate homeless folks from begging on public property near street corners. "It's a giant public safety hazard," Miller insisted. "We got people knocking on people's windows, making people afraid."

God knows there's nobody scarier than a fireman.

The ordinance bans charitable organizations from collecting at street corners, which has cut deep into the fund-raising efforts of the Dallas Fire-Rescue. For 35 years they've solicited at intersections for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Lieutenant Joel Lavender says this year's totals fell "well, well, well short" of last year's $360,000.

"We would be extremely lucky to even collect $65,000 this year," Lavender says. "We collected that in seven days last year." Money raised from the "Fill the Boots" campaign, held all over the country in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Fighters, stays within the city and goes toward 3,500 local residents afflicted with MD.

For the first time in 35 years, firefighters were allowed to collect only within the confines of NorthPark Center. "We've always been on street corners throughout the city," Lavender says. "It's become a tradition where people knew we were going to be out there, and they looked forward to it. We handed out stickers to little kids, and it was community outreach as well as a charitable event for the fire department. It gave us a chance to see the people we work with and work for."

Other cities with anti-panhandling laws make exceptions for charities; Fort Worth, for instance, allows for one permit per charity a year, with their efforts lasting no more than two days. Dallas City Attorney Madeline Johnson has said that if the council makes an exception for charities, the streets would have to be fair game for panhandlers, says Councilman Mitchell Rasansky, a member of the Public Safety Committee. But when told of Fort Worth's charitable exemption, and when asked why Dallas can't make the same loophole, Rasansky says, "It's a very good point. I'll bring that up [next week]." --Robert Wilonsky  

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