Public Safety Committee Shuns Preservationists, Approves New Historic Demolition Ordinance

Baffled and outraged preservationists quietly vacated Monday afternoon's Public Safety Committee meeting after the city council committee voted unanimously to adopt a new historic building demolition ordinance without public input. Katherine Seale and Scott Potter of Preservation Dallas stood at the lectern awaiting an opportunity to speak, but the committee refused to acknowledge their presence.

"We were bowled over," Seale tells Unfair Park, adding that the ordinance "completely obliterates" the historic preservation program.

Seale claims she wasn't given notice that the item would appear on the committee's agenda, but after hearing about it through word of mouth, she contacted the City Secretary's Office, the City Attorney's Office and committee chair Dwaine Caraway's secretary with her intent to address the committee. She spent the weekend on a presentation, which is available after the jump, but no one saw it because she was ignored by the committee.

"We were given no indication that we would not be heard," she says.

Seale is frustrated that the city has involved seven attorneys -- led by First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers -- in the process of developing the ordinance, which aims to expedite demolishing a small fraction of the properties deemed urban nuisances by the city. In fact, in the last six years just 34 of the 1,200 such properties were historic, and only two of those haven't been razed.

"We just spent all of that time in there arguing trying to fix blight for two houses out of 1,200?" Seale says.

The main point of contention between the city recommendation approved by the committee and the one backed by Preservation Dallas, the City Plan Commission and the CPC's Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee was that the latter group wanted to restrict the ordinance to residential buildings smaller than 3,000 square feet. Bowers claims that the Landmark Commission supported the city's recommendation, but Seale says that's an "untruth." Landmark Commissioner Lyle Burgin says he hasn't seen the ordinance's final draft and is unaware of how it evolved, so he's unable to comment on his position as it relates to city staff. We're also waiting for a call back from Landmark Commission chair Chris Gonzales.

"We were absolutely squirming at the misinformation that was being discussed," Seale says.

Although this was the fourth briefing about the ordinance, committee members had a hard time grasping the issue, with Dave Neumann describing the presentation as "a little confusing." Freshman council member Ann Margolin was particularly lost, joking that she needed a flow chart and announcing that she was "very confused" after asking for Bowers to explain the ordinance. And Linda Koop seemingly acknowledged the committee's stupefaction before her motion to accept the city recommendation by chuckling as she said, "Do I dare make a motion?"

Delia Jasso prompted Bowers to admit that only one of the 34 historic properties deemed urban nuisances exceeded 3,000 square feet, but Jasso and other committee members failed to recognize that the threshold was a compromise resulting from negotiations with preservationists. Tennell Atkins clearly didn't understand the distinction between residential properties smaller than 3,000 square feet and those more than 3,000 square feet combined with all commercial buildings when he asked: "What is the 3,000 square-foot rule?"

Neumann said the 3,000-square-foot compromise is "ridiculous," claiming the ordinance shouldn't differentiate between blighted properties. Ron Natinsky agreed. "I think the same rules oughta apply to everybody," he said.

Bowers played a KTVT-Channel 11 news report by Bud Gillett featuring the one property more than 3,000 square feet -- an apartment complex in Winnetka Heights that burned down in November 2008. Neumann, who was notified of the fire by Gillett, cited the incident as a reason why residents of Winnetka Heights are scared of how the city handles demolition by neglect. However, Neumann said he did some "constructive arm twisting" to get the neighborhood to change its mind.

The ordinance eliminates the requirement for an engineering report to be performed before demolition, with Bowers citing the $5,000 to $6,000 cost and three to eight month time period as concerns. Natinsky said "I almost fell off my chair" when Bowers told the committee that the city is not reimbursed for the cost of the reports. Seale tells Unfair Park that Preservation Dallas offered to have qualified experts perform engineering reports pro bono, and the City Attorney's Office never responded.

Natinsky mentioned the costs associated with the entire process as "another hole in the budget," claiming it's unfair to citizens for their tax dollars to disappear into "a gray area." But he told Theresa O'Donnell, director of development services, that he doesn't even want to know how much the process costs.

The new ordinance would also give the fire marshal authority to demolish a structure without approval from the Landmark Commission if "a clear and imminent threat to public exists." Committee chair and Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway said he didn't want to lean on Dallas Fire-Rescue, but he urged them to take a more active role, stressing that "some buildings need to come down immediately."

The committee also unanimously approved a separate motion by Natinsky requiring the CPC to give deference to municipal court judges instead of the Landmark Commission when considering appeals. Seale says judges merely rubber-stamp requests from city attorneys, and it's not the role of the court to determine historical significance because they're not experts in history, neighborhood context, real estate, economics or improvement costs.

Jasso said dilapidated properties have no historical significance and claimed there are several examples in the city that have gone "terribly wrong."

"We don't have a good way to demolish these buildings, and the example I want to cite is the Crozier Tech building -- the 10th Street church building that DISD now owns," she said.

Seale refused to address Jasso's comment about Crozier Tech High School and whether Bowers and the City Attorney's Office are carrying out Mayor Tom Leppert's agenda to expedite the demolition of vacant downtown buildings.

"All I can say is it does not make sense that with as many limited resources as we have today, it defies logic for them to be changing our historic preservation ordinance," she says.

While the council's largest advocate for preservation, Angela Hunt, is taking a few weeks off after the birth of her daughter, City Manager Mary Suhm is expected to place the item on the council's April 28 addendum for full council approval. Preservation Dallas PPT

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