Zoning Committee Amends Historic Demolition Ordinance: Houses Only, If You Don't Mind.

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burnedouthouse.jpg
Back in August 2008, this was among the houses depicted in the council committee briefing regarding the need for a new teardown ordinance.
Speaking of vacant downtown buildings ...

When Mayor Tom Leppert unveiled his list of Central Business District buildings that needed to be brought up to code or else, preservationists fretted that he had his sights set on razing, oh, the Statler Hilton or 508 Park Avenue, for starters. It made a certain amount of sense -- because, after all, just two months earlier the City Attorney's Office began clearing a path toward making it easier to demolish structures in historic districts at the expense of the Landmark Commission's input. The two items seemed to go hand-in-glove, far as some were concerned.

Leppert's more or less rejected that idea in October; he told Unfair Park that, no, the city had no interest in seizing, oh, the Statler or tearing it down, but added, "You gotta be fair and not eliminate anything." And only yesterday, in advance of today's discussion of the long-debated ordinance allowing for the demolition of properties in a historic district, First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers told us, "We have not sought the demolition of 508 Park Avenue. We have not sought the demolition of the Statler. Could there come a point where a downtown building deteriorates so far it becomes a blight? Yes. And the city's vacant building initiative is the most positive step taken in years toward doing what we can to make sure that level of deterioration doesn't happen."

But just moments ago, the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee of the City Plan Commission took one more step to guarantee the new ordinance doesn't allow for the razing of downtown buildings: By a unanimous vote, ZOAC amended the ordinance to limit its application to residential structures smaller than 3,000 square feet. It will now go before the City Plan Commisison, sometime in the next few weeks.

"I am disappointed" in today's amendment, Bowers just told Unfair Park. "Although [residential structures] have certainly been the vast majority of the problem over the last five and a half years, there's nothing to guarantee that will always be the case. Our track record shows the existing process is broken, and there need to be benchmarks for these situations and expectations and time lines that will require people to either take prompt action to save the building or to let the building be demolished. But ZOAC is entitled to its say. They're very qualified people, and I am sure the City Plan Commisison will take a look at ZOAC's recommendation, Landmark's recommendation and staff's recommendation, and ultimately the [city] council will take a look at all of them and decide how the city will deal with the situation."

But before the council moves forward, perhaps a little background is in order. Because during our conversation yesterday Bowers said that, look, the whole reason for the ordinance in the first place was the deterioration of homes in historic districts -- "primarily in Southern Dallas," he noted. And he referred to the Tenth Street Historic District as "the poster child" for the slow decay of history in this city.

"Despite many efforts of preservationists, the district continues to decline, and more and more buildings are gutted," he said. "The most famous example is the Sunshine Elizabeth Chapel, which collapsed despite preservationists trying to identify someone who could come forward to stop the decay. That district's viability is in question, and there are others not far behind."

And yesterday, the subject of structure size did come up: I told Bowers, matter of fact, that preservationists and some on ZOAC had told Unfair Park they'd have no issue with the ordinance if it were restricted to residences under 3,000 square feet. The ordinance, as it read before the amendment, listed both "residential structures with no more than 3,000 square feet of floor area" and "all other structures."

"Has the city used the existing process in the last five, six years to demolish a historic downtown building because of deteriotation?" Bowers said. "No. There have been 40 such properties, and all but one have been single family residential, and the other was multi-family."

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