Mayor Tom Leppert wants something done with the old Statler Hilton Hotel -- including tearing it down, if need be. Till a couple of months ago, city officials hadn't even been in the ironically named Grand Hotel, its later incarnation, on Commerce Street, but an administrative search warrant was secured so folks from the mayor's office, economic development and code enforcement could tour the hotel, some of which is flooded with water seeping in from myriad open doors and crevices and some of which is filled with bird shit. And because there's no electricity in the building, it's been impossible to pump out the collected rain water, which is rotting the interior.
And the Statler isn't the only downtown building on the city's to-do list. Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, who's over economic development, tells Unfair Park the city has compiled a list of 38 buildings downtown that are sitting vacant, the Statler among them. And, as Leppert tells Unfair Park, if those buildings aren't rehabbed or torn down, "It will stop momentum downtown, and we need movement. Something needs to happen, one way or another."
As for what that something is, well, that's yet to be determined. But the city is considering myriad options, among them stricter enforcement of code violations and, if need be, lawsuits.
Hong Kong-based Hamsher International, which owns the Statler, is said to be asking $20 million for the Statler -- or $16.5 million more than it's worth, according to the notoriously unreliable Dallas County tax rolls. Leppert says city officials are in the process of having county appraisers up its value, if only so Hamsher would have to pay more in taxes. And, just maybe, that alone will force the owners to sell, rather than pay taxes on a building with which they've done nothing in years.
There's also the issue of code compliance: As far as Gonzalez and Leppert are concerned, not only are those vacant buildings -- many of which, the mayor says, are in the hands of out-of-town owners -- not being taxed properly, but the owners also aren't being held to account for their deteriorating, dangerous conditions. Which is why the city's had code enforcement officials touring the buildings in recent weeks, using administrative search warrants to enter properties to which the absentee owners are not providing access.
"We have spent the last several months discussing ways to improve the overall look of downtown, as well as making it more safe," Gonzalez says. "And with the Grand, or the Statler, we're having our staff, both from a code enforcement standpoint and from a more positive economic development standpoint, see how we can improve and redevelop it. What we're working on as an overall effort is to just see what are the exposures and risks and violations and opportunities. We're trying to see if we can get stuff improved."
As far as the Statler goes, "we’re trying to say, 'What’s the value of it?'" Leppert says. "There are a number of buildings down there that are vacant, and we also want to say, 'If these aren’t structurally sound, you have an obligation to address it.' We can talk about it in terms of stopping momentum downtown, but I also don’t want accidents down there. And are people going in there? Are there illicit activities going on? Are they being taxed property? We’ve tried to put more tools in the hands of law enforcement and city attorneys."
Preservationists also suggest that that the city could take Hamsher to court, if it's deemed the Hong Kong company has allowed what's called demolition by neglect. Leppert agrees.
"We're working on those issues right now," he says, after a long pause when asked if the city is indeed considering taking Hamsher to court. "That’s as far as I can go with that right now."
But there's also this one sticking point: The city can't tear down the Statler till at least February 4, 2010. That'd be exactly two years after proceedings were initiated to designate the building as a Dallas historic landmark. And, as we noted twice in May, preservationists desperately want to save the building, cited in the spring by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. (It also made Preservation Dallas' list of endangered local places.)
But the city's desperate to do something, anything, with the Statler -- especially as it's finally moving forward with the Main Street Garden across the street and as Forest City finishes off its Merc projects one block over. Which is why City Attorney Tom Perkins is trying to see whether the city can get around the two-year delay necessitated by the initiation proceedings.
"They are looking at that option," Leppert says, "but I have not been briefed about it." Developing, as it were. --Robert Wilonsky