Last September, the Dallas preservation community let out a collective gasp as an entire block of century-old buildings was demolished by Headington Companies as part of the Joule’s expansion plans. Because of the way historic preservation is handled in Dallas, there was no time to discuss alternatives with the bulldozers or the company that employed them. They rolled into place and had their work done in a week.
At the time of the razing, Dallas Morning News Architecture Critic Mark Lamster wrote a scathing column, We regret to inform you that your city has been destroyed, calling the demos “acts of vandalism.” Preservation Dallas, a 43-year-old nonprofit dedicated to the protection and revitalization of the city’s historic buildings, neighborhoods, and places, called it “wanton destruction.”
But out of that surprising event (Headington Companies had received a Preservation Dallas award just the year before), a conversation started about how we take care of our historic buildings in Dallas, particularly in downtown.
“We shouldn’t be able to demolish a 100-year-old building in a matter of a couple of days,” said Katherine Seale, the former executive director of Preservation Dallas and chairman of the Downtown Historic Preservation Task Force, which was authorized by Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings in response to the demolitions.
Seale chose the 11 members of the task force, with includes members from the development, preservation, design, and planning communities, as well as city hall. They have been meeting since January to discuss what changes need to happen to the way Dallas does preservation to better protect our city’s history.
“Historic buildings are downtown’s greatest asset,” Seale said. “They should be treated like precious infrastructure.”
With the task force’s recommendations, approved yesterday, they just might be. They voted on nine recommendations (the executive summary is at the bottom of this post) to take place in incremental stages. Those recommendations will go before the Dallas City Council for approval in coming months.
“I couldn’t be more pleased—it was unanimous,” Seale said. “It’s an incredible outcome from a broad base of people that represent different interests and they all agreed on the recommendations.”
In February, we wrote a post called Historic Designation Protects Dallas Treasures from Demolition, looking at how buildings earn historic designation and what that means. The biggest take-away is that just because a building is old doesn’t mean it’s protected from big changes, up to and including demolishment.
The process of applying for historic designation in Dallas is long and complicated, and includes a rezoning application, landmark nomination form with detailed research on the history of the property or neighborhood, meetings of the Designation Committee, and approval of City Council.
That’s where two of the short-term recommendation of the task force come into play. First, they want to simplify and streamline the designation process. Second, they are recommending a demolition delay in order for staff to work with the applicant to be sure all of the options have been explored.
“Some other cities have varying degrees of delays, for instance in San Antonio, all demolitions have to go through the historic preservation department and they have to sign off on whether the building is historic or not before it can be demolished and it’s a minimum of 30 days,” said David Preziosi, executive director of Preservation Dallas. “In Fort Worth, it’s up to 180 days after a public hearing; in Chicago, it’s 90 days from the date of application for a demolition permit; in LA they do a 180-day delay, and Portland has a 120-day delay.”
After last year’s downtown demolitions, the city implemented a 10-day delay, but it didn’t include any provision for historic preservation. The task force increased that from 10 to 30 days and it only applies downtown buildings over 50 years of age.
“It doesn’t trample on the rights of private property—the task force was very cautions not to do that,” Seale said. “This gives staff a couple of extra weeks to sit down to the owners and talk about all the alternatives [to demolition].”
Seale said the most exciting aspect of the nine recommendations is that it married preservation and planning for the city.
“When we looked at best practices across the country, there seem to be two types of historic designation programs,” she said. “One type is a designation approach where you landmark buildings and then enforce criteria—that’s what Dallas does. But we also noticed some programs that are getting a lot of applause and recognition for doing really innovative things and they integrate preservation into their larger planning efforts.”
When preservation is really successful, it’s used hand-in-glove with development and they do this with planning, Seale said.
“Our preservation program used to do these things, when Dallas had a strong planning department, preservation was one of the most active parts,” she said. “The preservation program was established in the early 1970s, and it came out of the 1966 Goals for Dallas. One of the things they called for was a strong planning department that would give guidance to how the city was developed.”
Over the years, Dallas strayed from that vision. But with the task force recommendations, new life may be breathed into Dallas preservation.
“The average person should care about the demolition of our historic resources because it’s important that we maintain our history,” Preziosi said. “If everything is new, we don’t have a sense of place and can’t see how we have evolved from the late 1800s to the city we are today. We understand that new development can take place, but we want it to be in concert with older places, to create a vibrant mix.”
HISTORIC PRESERVATION TASK FORCE
Executive Summary: Findings and Recommendations
“Historic Preservation creates profits and economic development for Dallas. It is our competitive advantage. We have a resource, and we’re going to lose it. We don’t want to squander what we already have. It is unique to Downtown.” – Downtown Historic Preservation Task Force
Downtown Dallas’s historic buildings are valuable, limited resources proven to be major catalysts for growth. Dallas has a history of recognizing the importance of its existing buildings to its economic and cultural health. But now, as Downtown re-emerges as a highly desirable place to live, work, and play, we must do more to position our historic resources as assets that should be used to build upon as the backbone of this resurgence.
Dallas’s preservation program was once a model for the nation, fully integrated into the larger planning efforts of the City. Best practices in many comparative metropolitan areas use preservation as a planning tool. In contrast, the Dallas Program has become largely reactive. Instead the Preservation program must become participatory by including planning as its main activity in coordination with other departments to accomplish the larger goals of the City.
Preservation must shift from a position of reaction to one that influences change.
The Task Force has identified the following phased approach for the Mayor and City Council to consider. It will benefit Downtown stakeholders, overcome existing challenges to the mutual benefits of historic preservation, and change the perception of preservation as a hindrance to one of fostering change. Support must come from leadership in the City of Dallas, as well as from the community of stakeholders.
Phase 1: Immediate Solutions (0-12 months)
1. Advocacy: Establish broad-based Preservation Solutions Committee to advocate for historic fabric and be its voice as the City grows and evolves. Their first order of business is to help implement the following recommendations.
2. Simplify Designation: Streamline the landmark designation application and process.
3. Assess Staffing: Broaden staff capabilities to include planning and provide a new focus on public education. Review staff priorities to expedite landmark designations, file certificates of appropriateness, field inquiries, and assist owners with incentives. Fund two additional planners.
4. Demolition Delay: Enhance notification and expand staff review time for proposed demolition of historic buildings in Greater Downtown to foster dialogue and consider alternatives.
Phase 2: Near Term Solutions (1 to 3 years)
5. Education: Educate the public about the goals and accomplishments of preservation.
6. Downtown Survey: Conduct a new, state-of-the-art survey of Greater Downtown as a base-layer for direction, establish preservation priorities, and provide a tool for existing and future planning. Explore funding sources such as Community Development Block Grants, Certified Local Government money, and private foundations.
Phase 3: Long Term Solutions (3 to 5 years)
7. Preservation Plan: Prepare and adopt a new Preservation Plan for Dallas to address the City’s programs and policies that impact the City’s historic urban fabric. Explore funding sources such as public/private partnerships, private foundations, and private sector money.
8. Planning: Create a forum for strategic interdepartmental partnerships wherein a common interest is being pursued such as Capital Improvements, Tax Increment Finance Districts, Land Use/Zoning, and certain aspects of Economic Development.
9. Incentives: Identify strategies and incentives that address market conditions and barriers to re-development to re-animate vacant and underutilized buildings.