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Sad Weekend for Downtown Dallas – Demolition of 807 Elm

13 Mar

Credit: Harry Wilonsky & The Dallas Observer

This blog can’t be all about cocktails, restaurants and music, occasionally we will be moved to explore deeper issues that effect the intangible qualities and places that (could) make Dallas Authentic.  This weekend, the Dallas Observer (among others) brought the news of the demolition of a vacant, circa-1925, former warehouse near the entry to the West End District in Dallas.  Most have probably never noticed the building, and if they have might advocate for its demolition anyway.  But that would be the exact type of thinking that took our downtown from a dense, walkable and livable downtown to a parking lot filled, pedestrian unfriendly mess that we have seen evolve over the past 50 years.

My history with 807 Elm

I looked at this building (actually a portfolio of three buildings that was foreclosed on, and is now owned by Park Cities Bank) approximately 12 months ago and was able to tour 807 Elm.  I was looking at possibly using Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits to rehab one or all of the buildings in the portfolio.  It was evident fairly early that even if the bank was to give the building to me for free, there was no way a for-profit real estate developer would be able to rehabilitate the property and generate a return anywhere near what would be required by his/her investors.  Chief among the building’s issues were no parking for the site as well structural and environmental (asbestos, lead paint, etc.) issues.

Why save the thing if it is such a bad investment?

It is very important for us as citizens of Dallas to save these precious few remaining buildings that survived from the early 1900’s.  In the very simplest terms they vary the downtown landscape and make it more architecturally diverse and  interesting.  They also hearken back to a day where buildings addressed the street, sidewalk and pedestrian in a much more direct and friendly manner.  We are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to study ways to make downtown more pedestrian friendly and one of the simplest answers is to bring the building to the pedestrian at a human scale, which is the epitome of 807 Elm.

The Solution?

I see two ways of averting this type of destruction in the future.  One scenario is philanthropic driven and the other is market driven.  The first scenario I call the philanthropic angle.  We have great people in this city that give millions to build museums, bridges, performance venues and parks, but these monuments are only small parts of what make a city great.  Think about if all the money that was spent on the arts district, signature bridges and new museums were put into a fund to make downtown more walkable, add work force housing (for teachers, first responders, recent college graduates, service industry employees, etc.) and rehabilitate the vacant infrastructure already in place?  That fund would have done more to make Dallas a livable city than the aforementioned projects could ever hope to achieve.

That is the pie-in-the-sky scenario and those philanthropists are more than welcome to spend their money however and wherever they see fit.  This brings me to the reason for this post…where are the “next level philanthropists” in this city? By next level, I mean the mere millionaires.  The 30-something who sold his software company for $10 or $20 million, the app developer who made a few million off an iPhone app that makes a smiley face, the restaurateur who has launched a few successful concepts and sold off the company for $8million, or for the ultimate Dallas stereotype, the plastic surgeon who is 40-something and pulling down seven or eight figures a year as he peals a year or two off the bodies and faces of old money Dallas.

I saw 807 Elm as a great live/work space for a forward thinking restaurateur. Use the bottom floor as his/her restaurant, create a penthouse on the top floor or two as their living space, and either use the remaining floors as office space for his/her company, rent it to other tenants, or sell those floors as condos to other people.  This would be hard to pull off for someone like me who needs to generate a certain return for my investors, but becomes much more economical for someone who is looking to occupy and profit off the use of the space as opposed to someone who needs to generate a return off the real estate alone.  This is what I mean by “next level philanthropist”.  Someone who is not just writing off their money as a donation, but someone who is making an investment in our city and may profit from their venture, but who can also write off any losses because they see the greater benefit to the city and look at their investment as a contribution to downtown.

What Can You do?

If you’re not a millionaire, trust fund baby, or software genius (if you are contact me, we can make magic) the second, market driven, scenario is for you. It can cost as little or as much as you choose.  Participate in Downtown!  If you have the means to buy or rent downtown, seriously consider doing so.  Eat downtown, shop downtown, drink downtown.  If you are the decision maker at your company, consider moving your office downtown.  If you can’t do any of the above, just visiting downtown, walking around or using the parks makes a huge difference.  Having people on the streets is as important as having storefronts filled with boutiques, coffee shops, delis and bistros.

The idea behind the market driven scenario is to make it economically feasible to re-purpose and redevelop the old and vacant buildings, but more importantly make it an economic disincentive to create, maintain or own a surface parking lot.  Surface parking lots are a cancer to downtown and need to be removed.

We’re making steady improvements in Dallas, but real progress will have been achieved when we are talking about ground breakings and not demolitions.  For more information, read one of the authorities on urban Dallas over at Walkable DFW.  Here is a post that compliments what I have written here.

 

Credit: Harwood Historic District - http://www.harwoodhistoricdistrict.com/

Shortlink: http://wp.me/pZPDa-5f

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