This Evening, Talk of Designating Two Downtown Buildings as Historic Landmarks

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Noticed something interesting on the Landmark Commission Designation Committee's agenda for today's 5:45 p.m. confab: the re-initiation of historic designation proceedings for two downtown buildings, the Mercantile Continental Building on Commerce Street and the Dallas National Bank Building on Main Street (otherwise known as The Joule). That's re-initiation -- as in, both buildings were, at one time, being vetted to see if they deserved designation and should be afforded the attendant protections and stipulations that come with such a title. But the initiation proceedings were terminated -- by the very folks who initially approached the Landmark Commission about starting 'em up in the first place.

Katherine Seale, executive director of Preservation Dallas and a member of the Designation Committee, says that three years ago, the owners of both properties approached the Landmark Committee about designation. Forest City Enterprises, of course, owns the Continental, which sits just across the street from their Merc re-do, while Tim Headington is the oil man who  sunk a small fortune into the circa-1925 Gothic revival skyscraper known as the Dallas National and rebranded it The Joule.

The Designation Committee found both more than worthy of historic designation -- each met at least eight of the 10 criteria -- and recommended moving forward. But representatives for both owners yanked their request for designation, Seale says, because officials with the city's Office of Economic Development told the owners they wouldn't be eligible for historic property tax credits, since both were receiving tax increment financing district money for their respective redos. (Forest City, which has promised 140 residential units in the Continental Building, is set to receive $10 million from the Dallas Connection TIF; The Joule, $8.5 million from the City Center TIF.) Messages have been left with Karl Zavitkovsky, head of Economic Development.

"So the property owners asked the nominations to be withdrawn," Seale says.

The Designation Committee will vote on re-initiating designation proceedings without the owners' consent. In fact, representatives at Headington's office were unaware such a vote was scheduled for today until reached by Unfair Park, though no one's been available to comment about the meeting. And at least one Forest City rep to whom I spoke today knew nothing about the re-initiation of designation proceedings.

As Seale reminds, all the Designation Committee does is say whether or not a property's deserving of designation. "[We] analyze a property for integrity and contribution," as she puts it, while acknowledging both buildings' "contribution to downtown." Should the Designation Committee recommend both as city-designated landmarks, their cases will go before the Landmark Committee, which will then forward its recommendation to the Dallas City Council, which makes the final decision.

Usually, endangered buildings wind up going through this process. And owners who resist designation do so because they don't like the rules and regulations that go along with owning a historically designated building -- especially the one that doesn't allow them to tear down a building without the Landmark Committee's OK.  But in the case of The Joule, well, it's been gutted and restored and then some. And if Headington doesn't want the designation at this late date, Seale says, that's because he might argue that "that historic designation would preclude a future property owner from making substantial changes to the building," should he ever sell the joint.

But the Continental Building's a little trickier: Forest City's been saying for three years that it plans on renovating the building as a residential space, but to date nothing's been done -- and, sources say, nothing's close to happening for the foreseeable future given, but of course, the state of the economy. Which means designating that building could in, in fact, impact what Forest City -- or some other owner, should the company decide to sell to another developer -- can and can't do should it ever move ahead with its plans for 140 residential units.

Developing. One day.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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