The City and Preservationists Strike Tenuous Compromise Over New Teardown Policy

Ever since last summer, the city -- specifically, Development Services and the City Attorney's Office -- have been attempting to streamline the process that allows for the demolition of buildings in historic districts that it considers "an imminent threat to health or safety." Initially, the Landmark Commission was horrified by the plan, which essentially eliminated the commission from the conversation and allowed the Fire Marshal's office to call in the wrecking ball. But several meetings later, the city has a compromise, which will be debuted this afternoon at the council's Public Safety Committee meeting.

In short, if the city wants a property gone, the Landmark Commission still gets a review before a certificate of demolition's granted -- but the time line's significantly shorter, the property owner or contractor has to show significant and continued progress on a monthly basis, and the Fire Marshal can "order demolition of a structure, without Landmark approval, if a clear and imminent threat exists." It's that last part that concerns Preservation Dallas executive director Katherine Seale, who this morning tells Unfair Park that caveat allows for the "possibility of abuse."

In December, in the paper version of Unfair Park, Seale singled out one property the city had hoped to tear down last year: 2807 Tanner St. in the historically designated Wheatley Place district near Fair Park. From the outside, it's little more than a crumbling Craftsman bungalow dating back to the early 20th century, which was severely damaged in a 2005 fire; there are also several tax liens against the absentee property owner, which is why the City Attorney's Office thought little of demolishing it. But Seale discovered it was the former residence of one of the first black state legislators -- and she says she eventually found folks interested in saving the structure, not to mention the property owner living in Oakland. There's talk of it becoming a local nonprofit's outpost in South Dallas.

It's cases like 2807 Tanner Street that concern Seale. Though, truth is, she too is torn: For every potentially historic building in need of saving, there are indeed several more burned-out husks that not only pose a safety and health threat, but are contributing to the blight in historic districts. One need look no further than Park Row across from Fair Park, where some burned-out husks were allowed to stand for years for the sake of "history."

Ultimately, the exists "a fundamental disagreement between the City Attorney's Office and the historic preservation community," Seale says. "We're all on the same page: We both agree blighted buildings hurt neighborhoods. A lot of these buildings sit for years on end, and our hands are tied to do anything about it. We all agree we should work together to fix these buildings. But they're not looking for solutions to clear up things like property titles; they're not looking for property owners or stewards. They're looking to demolish. And, yes, a lot of these buildings should be demolished faster.

"But any builder or architect that has worked with Fire Marshal knows there's a lot of negotiations that take place. And if the city wants a building torn down now, you've only got a very short window to get a plan together and get it approved by Landmark Commission and a very short time to show progress -- and continued progress. The city is making it much more difficult on property owners or property stewards to fix up their buildings than regular city code allows for everyone else. Why are we making it more difficult to fix these up when we know they're historic buildings?"

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky