Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Dallas: A New City Discovers Its Past 

12-09-2015 17:35

Dallas is the new American city. It`s a diverse center for business and culture - a vibrant place to live and work. Given our growth over the past few decades, we`ve built "newer" and "bigger" projects. However, over the last several years, we`ve also realized that the places of our past add to the fabric of our community. Historic preservation has become a tool for increased economic activity. We`re reclaiming historic inner-city neighborhoods, bringing many landmark buildings back with creative adaptive use, and improving some of Dallas`s public assets as real showplaces and public gathering centers.

As a city government, we have endorsed individual projects and increased and confirmed historic protections. With creative developers willing to revitalize historic buildings, dedicated homeowners in historic districts, and private organizations such as Preservation Dallas and the Friends of Fair Park, we have turned a corner and made the past part of our future.

New Ordinance and Historic Tax Incentives Increase Preservation`s Pace

The speed of preservation has increased over the last several years. Following the demolition of the Dr. Pepper headquarters building in 1996, preservationists set out to develop and pass a stronger historic preservation ordinance. Championed by City Council Member Veletta Forsythe Lill, the new ordinance set up a process for action against demolition by neglect, streamlined the process of obtaining a certificate of appropriateness for routine repairs, revised the process and rules for historic designation, and established a preservation fund. The new ordinance made it more difficult, although not impossible, for historic buildings to be demolished. The Dallas city council passed the ordinance unanimously in January 2000.

The first challenge to the updated ordinance occurred almost immediately. When the landmark commission denied a request for a Certificate of Appropriateness, the property owner appealed the decision to the Dallas city council and complained of the burdensome procedures of the landmark commission and its subcommittees.

After months of contentious debate and community meetings, the council voted to update the ordinance to take the appeals out of its hands and return them to the city`s planning and zoning commission, where politics would play a smaller role in any decision. Furthermore, the council updated the procedures of the commission and its subcommittees to ensure uniformity in all proceedings.

The new ordinance, coupled with the efforts of many farsighted developers using City Historic Tax Incentives programs, have increased local landmark designations. Significant projects involving historic buildings have included the redevelopment of the Wilson Building by Post Properties, the Kirby Building by Hall Financial Group, and the Magnolia Oil Building by Steve Holtze. More such projects are on the way, including redevelopment of the former Mercantile Complex as a huge housing and retail complex. Downtown Dallas has found new energy through the 17,000 people who call it home.

The Beginnings: Historic Districts

Dallas`s historic preservation efforts really began with the passing of the first historic preservation ordinance in 1973. At that time, the city created the landmark commission and the Swiss Avenue Historic District, which was the city`s first historic district. The stately mansions on Swiss and the vintage houses on Bryan Parkway, La Vista, and Live Oak had deteriorated. It`s said that vacant lots on Swiss then sold for more than those with houses, because it spared new owners the cost of demolishing a house of little worth. Now the Swiss Avenue Historic District is one of the premier historic districts in the United States.

Two other historic districts were established soon after: the West End Historic District in downtown Dallas, an area of office and warehouse buildings now converted into an entertainment/office/ residential district; and the South Boulevard/Park Row Historic District in South Dallas, an African-American neighborhood of stately homes first developed by many of Dallas`s leading Jewish families. This area is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a historic district this year.

In 1978 the Dallas city council made an audacious move and "back-zoned" more than 100 blocks in East Dallas, returning them to single-family zoning - the largest move of its kind in the nation. This created an environment for the redevelopment of other historic neighborhoods, including Munger Place and the Peak Suburban Addition.

Today Dallas is home to more historic districts than any city in Texas - 18 historic neighborhoods in all. These neighborhoods have reached varying degrees of success, preserving many different styles of homes. They include Winnetka Heights in Oak Cliff, Dallas`s largest historic district with more than 1,000 homes. The city`s newest historic district is Wheatley Place, designated in 2000, an African-American neighborhood in South Dallas that features bungalows built in the 1920s and 1930s.

There are also eight conservation districts, which are governed by less stringent historic overview. In total, more than 6,000 households exist in historic and conservation districts. The property owners represent a diverse spectrum of Dallas citizens, and each neighborhood has its own goals, attitude toward self-determination, and ideas about how to approach preservation. And, as the mayor, I know that most of the people who choose to live in historic areas don`t want "preservation lite." They`re committed to their ordinances and to strong preservation standards.

However, we`ve found that historic designation isn`t the answer by itself. Some districts, such as the Tenth Street Historic District, struggle as contributing structures continue to deteriorate. It takes champions and hard work to bring back a historic neighborhood.

Historic Tax Incentives and Reclaiming Downtown

Our unsuccessful efforts to get Boeing to relocate its headquarters here told us what we already knew - we still have work to do in downtown Dallas revitalization. Dallas likes a challenge. It makes us re-dedicate ourselves. We know we need to ensure the further redevelopment of cultural institutions in the Arts District, intensify efforts to develop the Trinity River Corridor, and redevelop historic buildings on Main Street to make downtown Dallas a vibrant place to work, live, learn, and play. Although much of the development will be new construction, saving significant structures will enhance downtown. Dallas`s Historic Tax Incentives programs, renewed in 1997 with the support of Preservation Dallas and the Central Dallas Association, have had a significant impact. Since 1994, 197 historic projects were approved, resulting in $216 million in reinvestment and redevelopment. For every $1 of public investment, $10 in private investment was generated, and the city recaptured its investment in 1.8 years.

The Historic Tax Incentives and Neighborhood Revitalization Incentives were renewed and revised in April 2001 to provide focus for incentives in downtown Dallas and for homeowners in National Register Districts and local Dallas Historic Districts. It was our pleasure as elected representatives to have many developers tell us that the incentives made their deals possible. We expect these incentives to have an impact in greatly increasing revitalization efforts in downtown and inner-city neighborhoods in the next three-year cycle.

Saving Fair Park: Dallas`s Crown Jewel

Another significant preservation effort has been renovating and restoring Dallas`s Fair Park, a National Historic Landmark and home of the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the United States. In 1993 the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Fair Park as one of the nation`s "most endangered historic places." The situation was so dire that it was listed again the following year.

The Friends of Fair Park, established in 1984 to both preserve and increase the usage of the 1936 Texas Centennial site, developed a Unified Funding Plan that suggested sources for the massive amounts of money needed to rehabilitate the deteriorating structures. The plan was subsequently approved by the city council. Building a politically active coalition, the organization has lobbied and won federal, state, city, and private investments totaling almost $100 million since 1993.

Friends of Fair Park have been champions for the new national Women`s Museum: An Institute for the Future, which opened in the former Fair Park Administration Building in 2000. Restoration of the Tower Building, the Centennial Building, and the Band Shell; restoration of murals; and many more such projects are complete or on the drawing boards. Fair Park attendance has soared from 2.3 million in 1995 to more than 6.8 million in 2000. And Fair Park is center stage in Dallas`s bid for the 2012 Olympics.

Controversy and Building a Preservation Ethic

One might say that Dallas has had an awakening about preservation; that it is beginning - through successful projects, collective effort, and public/private partnerships - to have a preservation ethic. I would agree that`s true.

But preservation is not without controversy. In a relatively young city that strives to be "world class," there are some who oppose any limitation on development.

There are also those who oppose any limitation on property owners` rights, and we may have many more battles in the future. It is controversial to designate a building against the wishes of the property owner. But in the last two years, the city council has designated part of St. Ann`s Church (a significant cultural landmark to our Hispanic community), and the main building of Dallas High School/Crozier Tech, both against the wishes of the owners. These were both highly contested battles.

And there are preservationists who are too extreme, who would make it too difficult to preserve and to adapt historic buildings for new uses. Preservation in Dallas is not without controversy. But a winning track record strengthens our position that preservation is a strategy that works.

Dallas may not have the lengthy history of other great American cities. However, as a "new" city, we`re laying claim to our history - and ensuring that those who would preserve it, can.

Publication Date: Fall 2001

#taxincentives #historictaxcredit #ForumJournal #historicdistricts

Author(s):Ronald Kirk