Owner of Lake Cliff District Home Can't Blame City, Bank For Calling In the Bulldozers

Henry Spruiell does not disagree with the city of Dallas: The house he owns at 500 E. 6th Street in the Lake Cliff Historic District does indeed pose what's known as an "imminent threat to public health and safety" and probably should be torn down. "It's terrible," Spruiell says, "and I'll be the first one to say it. I wish I hadn't gotten into it." But he did.

Two years ago, Spruiell bought the 70-year-old, 2,840-square-foot house, currently on the tax rolls for all of $38,910, out of foreclosure. It's what he does: Spruiell buys houses to fix them and flip them. He says he bought this house, within walking distance of the Trinity River Greenbelt Park, because of the Trinity River Corridor Project and the promises of attendant developments that would lure people to the neighborhood nearby. All he'd have to do is spruce up the house, and, voila, buyers would flock to his doorstep ready to hand over a good return on his small investment.

But the Cedar Hill resident insists he had no idea he'd bought into a historic district, where home repairs slight or significant must be OK'd by the Landmark Commission. He says he stripped "16 tons of concrete" off the side of the house, fixed the foundation, repaired leaks to keep the house from sinking further into the ground. Then, he says, "I found out it was in a historic district, which changed the dynamics of what I could do to it."

Which is how Spruiell ended up here: Originally, the Landmark Commission's Winnetka Heights/Lake Cliff Task Force was going to meet at Spruiell's property at 2 p.m. Sunday to see if it merited a bulldozer's immediate attention. But, according to First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers, that meeting was just canceled; instead, the task force will meet Tuesday at City Hall. (The original memo, which was posted late yesterday and which I saw today leading to this item in the first place, has since been removed from the city's Web site. Update at 7:53 a.m. Friday: At some point last night, the site visit was put back on the City Secretary's Web site.)

But Bowers offers an even more interesting revelation: The demolition permit filed on December 28 came not from the city, which has been pursuing legal action against Spruiell since March 2008, but from City Bank Texas, which says it has foreclosed on the property. Which is unusual, but not unheard of: "There are times when property owners will file for demolition because they can do it cheaper than the city," Bowers says. "And, they worry about the liability if they allow the structure to stand."

Till Unfair Park reached him this afternoon, Spruiell says he had no idea a demolition permit has been filed for his 6th Street house. And even though he agrees with the bank and the city, he says he'll be at City Hall Tuesday to beg the task force not to let them raze the property.

"I know the city doesn't want to knock down homes in historic districts," Spriuell says. "So I'll see if they can give me another six months so it's not an eyesore. I will go, and I will beg."

He says he's tried to fix the house, but you know how it is: Trying to buy and repair and sell homes in this economy is bad business. "We hit a dry spot for two years," he says. Spruiell is hoping that a potential sale in De Soto on a property he owns on Wesley Drive will get him back on his feet, out of his "financial hole." But it's just a start, if that. When I spoke with him this afternoon, he was working in another house in Lancaster, hoping he can repair it and sell it sooner than later.

Spruiell says he's made his case to Andrew Gilbert in Dallas City Attorney's Office, "and the city's tired of hearing my story." Gilbert, who files these kinds of demo suits on the city's behalf, did not return messages today. Instead, Bowers handled the call and says the city did indeed begin pursuing Spruiell in municipal court in March because 500 E. 6th Street was "a substandard property." But he says the city didn't pursue a demolition order from the court till Spruiell stopped showing up to hearings. Spruiell says "that's not true, I showed up for several." But, again, he adds the caveat: "If City Bank asked them to do it, I can't say I blame 'em."

Bowers says this isn't the first time the city's had to take legal action against Spruiell: He's got another home in the Winnetka Heights Historic District, at 407 S. Windomere Ave., that the city also says Spruiell allowed to fall into disrepair. Spruiell says, yeah, "copper thieves got me there," but insists, "I think I'll be able to rectify that one." The city's not so sure: Gilbert asked for and received a permanent injunction requiring Spruiell to make repairs to the house, but, says Bowers, "to date it has not been repaired."

But, for now, it's the East 6th Street property with which the Landmark Commission and City Attorney's Office are concerned. The task force will meet next week and make its recommendation to the entire commission. And, according to Bowers, several of the neighbors asked Gilbert to please tear down the dangerous eyesore. "We believe there is some support in the neighborhood to tear it down," Bowers says. Thing is, the bank, the city and Spruiell agree.

"I was hoping this Trinity River thing was gonna come and be something good, and it's been too little too late," Spruiell says. "I have nightmares about it. It's gotten to the point where I have to come out the best I can. Problem is, if the city knocks it down they'll sue me for the cost, and I'm stuck. But what can I do? I can't shoot myself. So I have to keep going. This wasn't my intention. I put a lot of my own money in there, and then I ran into that wall." And, sooner than later, that wall may be coming down.