Drive a block in any direction in East Dallas, and you’re likely to find yourself in a historic neighborhood. Whether it’s the intricate Tudor cottages of the M Streets and Hollywood/Santa Monica, the stately mansions along Swiss Avenue, or the sprawling, neighborly porches of the prairie-style homes of Munger Place, East Dallas boasts more conservation districts, historic districts and neighborhood stabilization overlays than just about any other part of the city.
Our expansive collection of historic homes did not occur by accident or as the result of the farsighted wisdom of City Hall planners. It is directly attributable to the hard work of residents determined to preserve the character and charm of homes threatened by demolition, neglect, improper zoning and incompatible infill.
Obtaining preservation status is a long, arduous process initiated and led by neighborhood volunteers. It requires countless meetings, architectural and historical analysis of each home, codification of the protections sought, and neighborhood consensus on the proposed plan. The process can takes months, and sometimes years, to complete. At that point, the city sends zoning ballots to property owners to gauge neighborhood support (a part of the process common to all types of zoning changes). The proposal is presented to the City Plan Commission and, if approved, forwarded to the City Council for ultimate determination. It’s a challenging process, but one that has worked well in allowing determined, united neighborhoods to obtain preservation protection while weeding out those unable to establish consensus.
The City of Dallas oversees the rezoning process, but it would be an overstatement to say the city is a proponent of historic preservation. At best, it is agnostic. The city’s historic-preservation department is understaffed, which doesn’t help matters, but there is also a sense that the city is averse to the creation of new preservation districts.
Now, unprompted by neighborhoods or preservationists, city staff propose to change the way conservation districts are created. As the old adage goes: “If it ain’t broke, please, please, City Hall, don’t fix it.” Ostensibly, the intent is to clarify the process for neighborhoods. But the conservation district process has served neighborhoods well for more than 30 years, so I’m skeptical of the real impetus for these changes.
Some of the suggested revisions would make it much more difficult to obtain conservation district status. One proposed change would significantly increase the percentage of property owners required to initiate the process (from a simple majority to a super-majority). Another would introduce a new standard prohibiting the City Council from voting on any proposed conservation district unless a super-majority of property owners returned their ballots in favor. This would have the effect of counting abstentions as “no” votes in the balloting process, a Draconian counting method used in no other rezoning procedure in the city (and certainly not one employed during City Council elections).
These suggested changes aren’t set in stone, and it’s unclear what ultimately will be presented to the City Council. But city staff’s proposals are concerning and telling. Commercial developers (and their paid consultants and teams of attorneys) who seek rezoning aren’t required to meet these restrictive standards. So why should neighborhood volunteers seeking conservation district protection be faced with additional obstacles when the process is already challenging?
As the proposed changes are discussed in the coming months, it will be important for those of us who have most benefited from historic preservation — through increased home values, greater neighborhood stability, a sense of community, and freedom from incompatible infill — to make our voices heard. East Dallas would not be East Dallas without our historic homes, and we need to ensure that future neighborhoods have the same opportunities to preserve their unique character.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.