Texas Playboys' 1930s studio doomed?

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As with Tulsa's struggle over applying new fire codes to older buildings, Dallas is experiencing a battle between historic preservation and downtown revitalization on the one hand and strict enforcement of building codes on the other.

The building in question is at 508 Park Avenue, a three-story Art Deco building from the late 1920s. Originally the Warner Brothers Film Exchange, in the 1930s it was used by Brunswick Records for storage and as a recording studio. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys recorded there, as did many other country, folk, and western swing acts of the day. Legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson made his last recording there in 1937.

The longtime owners filed a demolition permit back in January, a permit that has so far been denied by the city's Landmarks Commission. (Dallas, like Oklahoma City, but unlike Tulsa, has historic preservation ordinances with teeth.) The owners might have been content to continue their half-century ownership of the building, but city inspectors began fining them for code violations, part of an effort to clean up neglected buildings downtown. As Observer writer Robert Wilonsky put it, "So, as far as Glazer's Distributors is concerned, after 50 years of ownership better a parking lot near City Hall than a code-violations fine machine."

As of August, the owners had spent $50,000 to bring the building up to code and were being fined $1,000 per day per violation.

Preservation Dallas responded with a plea to spare the 508 Park Ave. building, not only for its own historic significance, but for the blight created by multiplying vacant lots where buildings once stood. Some choice quotes from their press release:

A demolition permit for 508 Park was sought following a recent code violation sweep in downtown in which 36 vacant and/or underutilized historic and non- historic properties were targeted for code citations and threatened with litigation. Despite the City's good intentions of furthering revitalizing efforts in downtown, the code violation sweep will likely lead to these ham-fisted remedies. We recognize that while some properties owners are at fault for letting their facilities fall into a state of disrepair, other owners are seeking to either sell their properties or are working diligently on a plan to rehabilitate them. But in these difficult economic times, the City's actions may force many property owners to consider demolition. Preservation Dallas contends this code violation campaign will result in the loss of many significant Dallas historic buildings.

Misguided property assessments can have the same effect, as we have already seen here in Tulsa. The Preservation Dallas statement pointed to another part of downtown, cleared many years earlier, of the urban connectivity problems created by demolition:

"The City seems to believe that vacant lots, particularly in central Dallas, would be an improvement over these existing and often historic buildings. Although they are treating this as a code enforcement issue, vacant lots aren't a quick fix," said Seale. One has only to look at the 'dead zone' at the west end of downtown between the Earle Cabell Federal Building and the County Courthouse complex for evidence. This area, the result of demolitions dating from the 1960s, is a major impediment to the Convention Center connecting to the core of downtown Dallas, and it isolates the County buildings. Those historic buildings that are no longer there would have been good candidates for redevelopment; they would have offered opportunities for residential and commercial uses in the western portion of downtown- a stated goal of the City's. As it turns out, the walkability of this sector of downtown Dallas is dismal at best, and not something the City should encourage or pursue in the rest of downtown....

Vacant lots are an impediment to further redevelopment efforts in downtown. Vacant lots do not make downtown more livable. Nor do vacant lots provide a context for downtown. They are eyesores. A building, however, has potential for re-development.

Apropos to my previous entry on downtown housing -- if we really want to repopulate downtown Tulsa and the inner neighborhoods, we need to reduce obstacles to renovating historic buildings, rather than focusing on new development projects out of the price range of most Tulsans.

Where do Dallas' downtown residents live? 5,000 people live in downtown Dallas and almost all of them live in historic buildings rehabilitated for residential use. In most cases these now successful buildings were in worse shape than the buildings now targeted by the city.

On that page, you can see before-and-after photos proving their point.

Finally, Preservation Dallas points out that an overlooked section of the city's landmark ordinance already provides a resolution of the tension between code enforcement and historic preservation:

To address the city's concern regarding neglectful property owners, the City should strengthen and proactively pursue the Demolition by Neglect section of the enabling Dallas Historic Landmark ordinance. Destroying historic buildings due to the City's code violation drive does damage to the original intent of the initiative as well as lasting damage to Downtown Dallas.

Today, the owners are asking the City Plan Commission to approve their demolition permit, despite the denial by the Landmarks Commission and despite the fact that the building is not an imminent danger to life or property.

MORE: A 2002 story in the Dallas Morning Newson the history of 508 Park.

UPDATE 2009/11/23: On November 19, the Dallas city plan commission denied the demolition permit for 508 Park on the grounds that the building did not pose an imminent danger to health and safety. There is still a possibility that the commission would grant a demolition permit on economic viability grounds.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 19, 2009 1:02 AM.

Take the downtown housing survey was the previous entry in this blog.

Karen Keith's ex post facto crusade for unfair zoning is the next entry in this blog.

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