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.