Talk About It
Legacy Architecture: Is Historic Preservation Relevant in Dallas?
The story of historic preservation in Dallas could simply be described as a roller coaster ride. Consider the highs of landmark status over owner objection for Crozier Tech-Old Dallas High School and the restoration and reclaiming of Old East Dallas into desirable neighborhoods. Then offset that with the soul-crushing losses of the Cokesbury Bookstore downtown and the Dr. Pepper headquarters on Mockingbird Lane.
Dallas has been riding a recent wave of relative success: from the adaptive re-use of St. Ann’s Catholic School into a widely popular restaurant and bar to the majority of downtown’s thousands of residents living in converted historic office structures. The demolition of several properties on the National Register of Historic Places on Main and Elm streets on a sunny September afternoon last year proved to many that, while things may change, things certainly stay the same.
To say the least, historic preservation in Dallas once again finds itself at a crossroads, a watershed moment where it will be asked once again what exactly is historic preservation. How is it relevant today and how should it be relevant in the future?
Demolition begins on buildings on Main Street, Dallas. Photo by Marcel Quimby, FAIA
Dallas’ Preservation Assets
Dallas’ history of preservation grew from humble beginnings when, in 1973, Swiss Avenue residents began working with the brand new city planner, Weiming Lu, to create the first residential historic district. Today, the City of Dallas’ preservation program boasts 145 official City of Dallas landmarks. These historic designations include both individual structures and entire neighborhoods. In total, Dallas has over 4,000 structures that now have some protection from inappropriate alterations or demolitions.
The general thinking of historic preservation continues to evolve—from the long-held opinion of little old ladies in tennis shoes protecting antebellum structures to the adaptive use of existing structures to create dynamic neighborhoods and authentic places. How should this translate to a citywide conversation? Does a more sustainable and particular model begin with a conversation about saving buildings and move into saving and/or protecting particular neighborhoods? More frequently, in Dallas and around the country and throughout the world historic preservation is becoming more of a quality of life issue.
Dallas’ Checkered Past
Moving such a conversation into gray areas leads us to use words and phrases like character and sense of place. How does one quantify—much less legislate or govern—the funky hipster vibe of Bishop Arts, the grittiness of Deep Ellum, or the quirkiness of The Cedars? People flock to New Orleans or New York because there is a particular ambiance and feel that cannot be replicated any place in the world. Dallas has dozens of opportunities to have that same spirit and sentiment: from Knox-Henderson down to Exposition Park and over to Wynnewood in Oak Cliff.
As inner neighborhoods become suddenly hot, the concern is that the low-rise, eclectic feel of the Dallas Design District or the single-family Latino flavor of West Dallas will be erased in favor of the West Village effect that developers prefer and that city leaders favor because it increases population and tax base. With Dallas’ checkered history of allowing these types of neighborhoods to be erased in the name of progress (see Little Mexico and most of State-Thomas), that concern is valid and should not be ignored.
The 1993 loss of Cokesbury Bookstore, downtown Dallas, serves as a reminder of failed preservation efforts.
The Funding Conundrum
In taking a look back and assessing current situations, what are the challenges of historic preservation in Dallas? Automatically, most would identify that the current city program and its structure are in need of improvement. Historically, the preservation planning department has been seriously understaffed and underfunded. Effectiveness and ability to serve the growing list of historic districts and their active and engaged residents ebbed and flowed over the decades. Budget cuts beginning in 2008 eliminated over half the planners that handled preservation issues. Along with the usual staff attrition, the time to regain staffing levels has been agonizingly slow, especially while more and more residents expect a certain level of service while making serious investments in their properties.
While it would be certainly very easy to criticize Dallas City Hall regarding staff and funding issues (and make the claim that city fathers simply don’t care about historic preservation), the reality is that city administrators are simply responding to the preservation community at large. When the funding source for the department was moved from the enterprise fund to the general fund, under direction and pressure from the preservation community, the budget was essentially capped at an amount that limited the number of staff positions. The enterprise fund relies on fees and permits generated from the building inspection department. Keeping the program in the enterprise fund may expose staff members to fluctuations based on how much income is generated from year to year. A move to the general fund puts the preservation program in the same funding pool as parks and recreation, libraries, street repair and maintenance, and the arts community. While this may not be an issue during periods of prosperity, preservation staff has been historically the first to be cut when the economy takes a turn for the worse. Keeping a recreation center open is deemed more important than how long a review takes place or if a building is considered historic.
Of course, these piggyback onto another challenge: The fact is that historic preservation is generally viewed as an after-thought in any city or private planning activity, if it is included at all. Despite the burgeoning and widely accepted trend of LEED-designed buildings and green and sustainable architecture, preservation is usually never included in such conversations at Dallas City Hall. That lack of thoughtfulness leads to another point that includes the perception of historic preservation within City Hall and the development community at large. Viewed at times by those outside the preservation community as NIMBYism run amok, the well-worn policy of that community is to be automatically averse to any development or well-meaning policy changes. This has led to a general dismissal or avoidance of any fruitful discussions. The lack of a cohesive and vocal constituency willing to work with City Hall on boosting the profile of the program usually results in no invitation to the table on large scale development plans that directly impact historic, inner-city neighborhoods.
However, sometimes the policies and procedures set in place by the city may have unintended consequences or may not marry up with the spirit or intent of historic preservation or neighborhood stabilization. One of the tenets of the well-meaning, relatively successful GrowSouth initiative calls for the demolition of hundreds of substandard structures in the southern sector. Unfortunately, some are located in city and national historic register districts. No matter how dilapidated and damaged they may be, they are not being replaced with new construction. More often than not, their neighbors are vacant lots that grow weeds, tall grass, and heaps of trash.
Consider the case of the Tenth Street Historic District. Settled as a Freedmen’s Town, the Tenth Street area in east Oak Cliff was designated a neighborhood worth preserving in 1993. However, as long-time families died off or left the area, properties have been sold off to absentee landlords or to new residents who simply don’t know or care about the unique history of the neighborhood. Inappropriate alterations made to the remaining housing stock, lax code enforcement, and demolitions by the dozens (usually under the auspices of the city) resulted in a once proud neighborhood on the brink of losing landmark status. Preservation—already a hard sell in minority neighborhoods—is viewed as an abject failure, used repeatedly as the reason why redevelopment has been slow to come to these areas.
With all the challenges that preservation faces in Dallas, there are certainly several reasons for hope for future success. The creation of a task force in response to the demolition of the structures on Main and Elm streets is a perfect opportunity to engage a newer, fresher audience that may have different perspectives on what the preservation community can do and be. The review of the city’s historic tax exemption program, due to sunset in December 2015, will offer a chance to refresh the program. It may offer more or better solutions for financial incentives for owners of historic properties or a bigger monetary carrot for those interested in local designation. The continued success of Bishop Arts and the spread down West Davis to Winnetka Heights only enforces the reality of preservation as both a positive planning tool and economic generator. In this case, zoning tools were used to expedite a compromise between neighborhood residents and planners. This model could be easily replicated for the West End and Deep Ellum. Both areas are undergoing transitions and are ripe for redevelopment. Both have solid, vested property owners with interests in retaining the unique architecture and spirit of the neighborhoods.
The key will be to take advantage of future opportunities and cultivate a new generation of involved citizens. They may not necessarily identify themselves as preservationists, but they may still understand that a successful city respects its past—embraces and grows on it—and doesn’t erase it.
Mark Doty is the historic preservation officer for the City of Dallas and author of Lost Dallas.