In Downtown Dallas, Threats and Promises to Vacant Buildings' Owners

Patrick Michels

"What the hell?" asked a bearded homeless man in a wheelchair trying to negotiate his way down the 1600 block of Main Street at 2:30 p.m. "Who the hell are all these people?" He took a puff off his smoke and kept on rolling before we could offer formal introductions. Too bad, as it was quite the scene on the sidewalk: Mayor Tom Leppert, City Attorney Tom Perkins, Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, Dallas Fire-Rescue Chief Eddie Burns, DowntownDallas president John Crawford, various real estate owners and Your Local Media gathered beneath raindrops this afternoon in front of 1604 Main Street. The purpose was to discuss one of Dallas's most "serious problems," as Leppert put it: the some 36 vacant buildings downtown that their owners have "seriously neglected," allowing them to become threats to public health and safety -- and, more to the point, threats to downtown redevelopment.

What the city officials said today was nothing new, if you've been playing along at home: The city wants owners to get their dilapidated buildings up to code, which will entail fixing everything from rotting support structures to exposed wiring to several feet of standing water. Then, the city wants them to either develop the buildings or sell them to someone who will. And if the owners do nothing within 30 days, they'll be fined $1,000 per code violation, and most properties have dozens to their credit.

If nothing's done at the end of those 30 days, the city will follow up with civil action and even criminal charges -- "every tool at our disposal," says Perkins. In an interview with Unfair Park following the press conference, Leppert stopped short of saying the city would consider eminent domain proceedings, and Perkins dismissed the idea altogether.

A scene from inside 211 Ervay, which has California-based owners.

Nonetheless, Leppert said when asked whether eminent domain might be an option with something like the Statler Hilton, among the properties identified, he told Unfair Park: "I don't think so, I don't think so. But you gotta be fair and not eliminate anything. The challenge you have with eminent domain is you have to say, 'What do you want to do with that [property]?' If it was a park, that'd be one thing. Clearly, that's an attractive piece of property."

Well, it could be. After the jump, more from the press conference -- and a photo from inside the Statler, or, as code compliance officer Richardo Sinyard calls it, "the aviary." You'll see why.

As we've noted several times in recent weeks, the city is now taking drastic actions to hold property owners accountable -- but yesterday, Assistant City Attorney Jennifer DeCurtis took a dramatic "first step of many," as Perkins puts it, by sending the owners warning letters in which the city listed each and every city code and fire code violation inspectors found during recent tours of the properties.

Here's the one sent to Hong Kong-based Hamsher International, owner of the poor old Statler Hilton Hotel. Several officials who spoke today singled out the Statler, also known as the Grand, as one of the most problematic properties, citing not only the birds that have taken over several floors, but also bird and even human waste found in several of the rooms. And there's also asbestos to deal with. Chief Burns said his firefighters wouldn't even go in the Statler, should it ever catch fire, without Hazmat suits -- if then.

City code compliance officer Richardo Sinyard says there are "generations of birds" living in the former Statler Hilton.

One property owner in attendance believes this whole push to deal with the vacant buildings begins and ends with the Statler. "The rest," he said, "is window dressing." City officials insist the entire inventory needs to be cleaned up before they detract from -- or even destroy -- the $2 billion in investment sunk into downtown since 2000, Leppert says.

Here's the letter sent to Glazer's Distributors, owner of the 508 Park Avenue property Pat O'Shea said this morning his company has been desperately trying to sell for years but could not because of its proximity to the Stewpot.

Leppert also reiterated something he'd said earlier to Unfair Park: He wants Dallas Central Appraisal District to go back in and re-evaluate the worth of properties downtown, many of which the mayor and other city officials believe are way below market value -- and not generating their fair share of tax revenue. Problem is, say several property owners who've had trouble finding tenants, jacking up their taxes will make them even less attractive to potential new owners.

"We are trying to encourage investment," Leppert says. Gonzalez puts it like this: The city is simply attempting "to turn lemons into lemonade, because the lemons are impeding progress made in downtown." Perkins, he said, is the "bad cop" to the assistant city manager's "good cop," who will offer further incentives to owners and developers.

As for Perkins, he says, "We're going to send the letters and see what kind of responses we get."

And if owners do not respond?

"We'll do what we need to do to get them up to city code," he tells Unfair Park. --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky