The City's Still Debating How to Tear Down Safety Threats in Historic Districts

If it feels like City Hall's been debating the issue of how to tear down blighted properties within historic districts since forever, well, it's only been ... what ... almost two years now? Which doesn't mean the City Attorney's Office is prepared to give up: At noon today city staff, including First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers, will yet again brief the council's Public Safety Committee on the issue -- making this the fourth time the council's heard about this without taking action since it first came up in the summer of '08.

The issue, though, is far from resolved: City staff wants to expedite the demolition of all "dilapidated structures [that] pose a significant public safety threat" by allowing the fire marshal to swing the wrecking ball even if Landmark Commission says no -- if, of course, "a clear and imminent threat to public exists." But the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee wants to limit the ordinance to residential structures smaller than 3,000 square feet.

"There have been some concerns that this process would be used to go after large commercial structure downtown," Bowers acknowledged this morning. "That's been the fear. And staff has acknowledged that the Landmark Commission needs more time to develop a plan to save larger structures. The staff understands that, and the proposal we have would give the Landmark Commission that time, and, in fact, the Landmark Commission blessed the staff proposal. It was ZOAC that carved out the non-residential structures larger than 3,000 feet."

Katherine Seale, exec director of Preservation Dallas and a member of the Landmark Commission's Designation Committee, tells Unfair Park this morning that the fight is far from over.

"What the City Attorney wants creates a giant loophole," Seale tells Unfair Park. "We grudgingly supported the ordinance the City Plan Commission passed because it limited to residential properties. Mind you every single case the City Attorney has taken to Landmark was well below 3,000 feet. Not only have we met the concerns of the City Attorney, we've given them flexibility. We're allowing far larger structures. It's hard for us to wonder what the heck our top city's litigators are doing arguing for this change. And what are we left with? We demolish these properties that are a haven for nuisance and we have vacant lots left over. We hope the neighborhood returns, and then all we have are vacant lots. Meanwhile, the crime just moves to another house or down the street. And then there's there's even less of a chance a neighborhood like Peak's Addition or Swiss Avenue or Winnetka Heights -- almost al our historic distircts -- can turn around, because it's all empty lots."

Sam's heading to the meeting shortly. But Bowers expects that the council committee will more than likely forward the City Attorney's proposal to the entire council, regardless of today's discussion. "And the full council," he says, "will determine what's in the best interest of the city."

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