Yet again, we're back to the subject of redevelopment in downtown Dallas -- if only, for a moment, to visit a block of Elm Street that seems stuck in reverse. It's the section more or less between N. Akard and N. Ervay Streets, which is populated by buildings significantly shorter than the high-rise towers given extreme makeovers in recent years. So happens there's a very good reason they haven't been much touched: City fire code won't allow it.
Some brief background, if you can bear it: Years ago, the city went to property owners along Elm and told them those fire escapes out front were eyesores. Some owners removed them; others refused. At which point the city came back and said all those buildings violated fire code: There was, simply, no way to get out of most of the buildings in case of inferno -- no fire escapes out front, no alleys out back. And so there could be no development period, because owners were prohibited from building out above the ground floor.
"All these buildings fronting Elm Street may have bottom-floor retail," says Karl Zavitkovsky, head of the city's Office of Economic Development. "But there's no way to develop anything on the upper floors."
But in the early part of last decade, the city came up with a solution: connect those buildings using a fire corridor, which would allow inhabitants a quick escape from one building to another should theirs catch fire. The idea's been mentioned in city docs dating back to '03, when there became available bond money (around $600,000) to design the corridor.
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Yet it died a quick death: Some property owners were, quite simply, opposed to linking their buildings with neighbors' properties. But on Thursday morning, the Elm Street Fire Corridor will rise from the ashes like a phoenix: It's one of the few topics of discussion on the City Center TIF District board's meeting agenda, and Jimmy Walker, a longtime property owner on Elm, is thrilled. Finally, he says when Unfair Park called him to ask what took so long.
"Years ago, the city said, 'Fix up the top of the building,' and we said, 'Why? Fire code won't let anyone in or out up there anyway,'" he says. "We have to build our way out of the problem, and the city was nice enough to help us find a way out. So let's get going. It cures fire code and planning issues, and it's good for everyone."
There's still about a million more that'll need to be spent designing the corridor -- that '03 bond money only got the city as far as initial design concepts. And then there's construction costs, of course. But now's the time to move ahead: Walker says he's sold significant hunks of property to Tim Headington, who's planning a Joule expansion sooner or later (see: Downtown Connection TIF board agenda, also for Thursday), and that section of downtown is ripe for redo.
Headington, he says, "is the kind of person who has the money to do whatever he wants to do. We need more people like the Bass brothers who will control a small part of downtown and take care of it. We still need a donut shop like mine and smaller stores -- we still need the downtown feel. But now's the time."