Knocking Down the Historic Demolition Ordinance That's Before the Council Today

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Five years ago a fierce battle was fought to stop the demolition of a house on my block in Dallas's first and oldest historic district (The Swiss Avenue Historic District). Blogista (and friend) Sharon Boyd called those of us who wanted to save the house "Preservation Nazis," which I guess is better than just plain Nazis.

Everyone said that house was a ridiculous loser, an urban nuisance, a noxious heap of rat doo-doo that didn't deserve to endure. But after the bulldozers were halted by a court order based on the city's historic preservation ordinance, the house was saved and resplendently restored.

I mean resplendently. A very lucky and proud family occupies it today. This year that house was the star of the Swiss Avenue Home Tour. And my block of Bryan Parkway remains one of the most intact historic blocks in the city, having dodged the bullet of the Plano-style McMansion that would have been built had the old house gone down.

If the anti-preservation measure being considered by the Dallas City Council today had been in effect then, the house on my block would have been knocked down in a North Dallas minute. Preservationists have put out the call this morning; the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League sent out an e-mail moments ago asking folks to beg the council via e-mail to oppose "catastrophic ... last-minute changes" made to the proposed ordinance. And, this morning, I received this letter from Virginia Savage McAlester, daughter of Dorothy and Wallace Savage, in whose living room the Swiss Avenue Historic District was founded 33 years ago:
Dear Jim,

This is very serious.

We hope the Council will delay this or support CPC (City Plan Commission) wording. Most of Council does not understand this. There is a lot of bad and different language floating around. The City Attorneys are saying "Of course we would never use this ordinance the way it is written." If not, why did they not deliver the promised language that made how it could be used absolutely clear.

I sent the following out this morning:

Love a historic building? Get ready to hang onto your memories. Care for a neighborhood with small historic homes like State-Thomas (where some owners would love to tear down their historic Queen Anne cottage for a huge new Victorian McMansion)? Well, watch out. If Dallas City Attorneys have their way, an owner can throw open those front doors, put a hole in the roof, knock out a window and start calling code enforcement. The City Attorney's office would then be able to help them completely bypass the historic ordinance and get the building torn down. No pesky architect or engineer saying, "Well actually this structure is structurally sound and can economically be saved."

The Dallas City Staff will ask the Dallas City Council today to drastically alter the City's Historic Preservation Ordinance in a manner that could leave the Landmark Commission helpless to stop demolitions. Owners of major Dallas landmarks could be stripped of their historic buildings and staring at a vacant lot -- stopped in their tracks as they seek renovation financing in today's tough economic climate.

A little background: Dallas has one of the best historic preservation ordinances in the state, with language carefully crafted to create a democratic process that specifies professionals to be included in its membership (architect, planner, appraiser, historian, etc.) and always allows for public involvement and comment.

But the wording the City Staff is presenting to City Council bypasses the Landmark Commission and a demolition request goes straight from the City Attorney to a Municipal Judge, who is an employee of the city. A professional evaluation of the structure's integrity is not required. And tragically, while there is wording that makes it appear that Landmark Commission has some input after the fact, last month the City Attorney added language that requires the City Plan Commission to "give deference to" the municipal judge in an appeal. Sounds relatively harmless, but it means that on appeal the City Plan Commission has to assume that the judge was right.

Last fall, after a full year of work, consensus wording on this issue was passed by the City Plan Commission -- and supported by the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee, and by preservationists. The CPC consensus wording covers every single demolition case the City Attorney has had in the past six years. It allows their office to move forward on residential uses that are less than 3,000 square feet in size. This covers 100% of the City Attorney's demolitions of historic structures during the last six years. Supporting this was a huge concession by the preservation community.

So the City Staff's new strong wording, presented like a bolt out of the blue last month, is a solution in search of a problem.

A new "Urban Nuisance" ordinance would create a massive loophole for fast demolition of Dallas landmarks. Every historic building with a 'public safety' code violation will be at risk. The system of checks and balances built into Dallas' excellent Historic Preservation Ordinance will be nullified.

This has the potential to endanger 40 years of successful historic preservation in Dallas. It opens the way for owners to be stripped of their historic buildings without a Landmark hearing. And at the same time it opens the way for someone who prefers a vacant lot to a historic building to deliberately let it rot and bypass Landmark Commission.

So preservationist's are asking why. Why have as many as seven highly paid city attorneys sat in meetings to discuss this? Why is an ordinance with few checks and balances being pushed through with such force when the compromise wording from Plan Commission would have worked well for everything in the past six years? What is being contemplated for the future? What Dallas landmarks might be at risk?

The "fast demolition by City Staff" language being presented to Dallas City Council today is overkill. Let us all hope that the City Council will adopt the compromise wording that was recommended by their Plan Commissioners.

All the best,

VA

Virginia Savage McAlester
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