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Weighing History Against "Imminent Threats to Public Health and Safety"

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Park Row, in the shadow of Fair Park, is a street lined with modest bungalows constructed mostly in the 1920s, many by and for Jewish immigrants who settled in the area early during last century -- my grandfather among them. Thirty-one years ago, both Park Row and South Boulevard -- which sits one street over and is lined with spectacular mansions, many rehabbed in recent years, once populated by Dallas's civic and business leaders -- were designated by the city as a historic district.

Which hasn't stopped substantial deterioration in the neighborhood, especially among some houses closer to the Julius Schepps Freeway. Two properties especially -- at 2415 and 2417 Park Row -- have been crumbling for years. Both on the tax rolls for around $25,000, they're charred, boarded-up, barely standing shells, which is why the city finally wants to tear them down. And today at 2 p.m. the Landmark Commission's South Boulevard/Park Row Task Force will meet to discuss their demise, as both are considered "imminent threat[s] to public health and safety." The task force will likely approve bulldozers finishing the job years of neglect started.

Only, it's not that simple.

Back in August, we mentioned that the city council's Public Safety Committee was looking into streamlining the process that rids neighborhoods of structures deemed "an Imminent Threat to Health or Safety." That streamlining would involve cutting out the Landmark Commission entirely and leaving the decision to code enforcement and the City Attorney's Office, pending final approval in municipal court. But, says Katherine Seale, Preservation Dallas's executive director and a member of the Landmark Committee's Designation Committee, "If the Landmark Commission is cut out, the neighborhood has no input."

Worse, she says, "What's scary for the historic preservation office is that we're a certified local government, and to maintain that status we have to review demolitions in historically designated neighborhoods. If that's taken away, it strips us of CLG status, which means we'll no longer get grants from the state, and historic preservation will suffer."

On Monday, representatives from the City Attorney's Office met with the Landmark Commission to discuss the proposed new process. Commissioners were told they weren't being excluded, necessarily, only that the process was being "streamlined." It's become a contentious battle -- one that will likely carry over to City Hall this evening, when the Landmark Commission meets at 6 p.m. to once more discuss the amendment to the city code.

"Out of 19 cases in five years that have involved demolition because of imminent threat, all but six were approved for demolition within 30 days by the Landmark Commission," Seale says. "And three were not approved because the city couldn't determine the owner, and the city can't tear down without clear proof of ownership. In the case of two others, the property owner or another interested party came forward with plans to purchase and renovate. At this point, we cannot understand why the city attorney and city staff are cutting out Landmark Commission." --Robert Wilonsky

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