Dallas examines ways to improve preservation of neighborhoods without historic buildings

Dallas examines ways to improve preservation of neighborhoods without historic buildings

Dallas City Council members received a briefing this week on ways the city can enhance its preservation program and help neighborhoods, especially those without historic buildings and structural markers, safeguard their stories.

The action plan was part of a historic and cultural preservation strategy that is one of several proposed city policies that center equity in how the city delivers its services.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal April 10.

City officials said they banded together with local historians and preservationists to figure out ways to prevent instances like what happened to the Tenth Street neighborhood. There, despite a historic designation, a city ordinance allowed the demolition of hundreds of buildings.

Staffers also need more resources to gather information about areas that need to be preserved.

For that to become a reality, city officials said they needed more people on the ground, in the neighborhoods.

Arturo Del Castillo, assistant director at the planning and urban design department, said the recent designations of White Rock cemetery, home to graves of formerly enslaved people and some of Dallas’ early Black pioneers, and El Ranchito, a historic Mexican restaurant, were examples of how staffers worked with community members to protect the character of a community.

“But our team needs more capacity to proactively work with neighborhoods,” Castillo said.

First year of implementation

In its first year, staffers want to add four planners to the city’s department of planning and urban design to oversee historic preservation and legacy neighborhoods to work closely with community members.

“We hear from neighborhoods: How can you help us? What can we do? Where do we even start?” Andrea Gilles, the planning and urban design director, told council members.

While drafting the strategy, officials and local stakeholders ran into community members who were looking for direction to maneuver the laborious and often expensive process of historic designation.

Sometimes, officials said, the best approach is unrelated to zoning.

Kas Tebbetts, an analyst with the consulting firm HR&A, said some communities may need to look beyond zoning tools to preserve their neighborhoods.

Tebbetts said officials had heard from residents in West Dallas about how they had tried to use zoning as a way to protect their neighborhood’s character but had not experienced much success. Still, she said, there “was enthusiasm around extra support for things like community organizations and small businesses that are really the cornerstones of their communities.”

Then there are underrepresented neighborhoods that may not be part of a historic district or have historic buildings.

Chief Preservation Planner Kate Singleton said the preservation of underserved neighborhoods is part of a nationwide conversation. “There still needs to be a way to recognize those places and keep that history alive,” Singleton said.

Tax incentives and grants for home repairs and historic small businesses are some of the non-zoning tools the city wants to deploy.

Gilles told council members there is more work to be done to explain the details of those tools.

Addressing the needs of different neighborhoods

The draft strategy also shows the city wants to increase the amount of time staffers spend in the community. They want new employees to spend a minimum of 10% of their work hours in outreach and education.

Current city data shows historic preservation staff spend 95% of their available time in administrative work like processing applications for Certificates of Appropriateness, which are required whenever there’s any additions, demolitions or changes made to a historic building or district.

Council member Jaynie Schultz said she hoped the outreach work would help neighborhoods craft tools that are unique to their needs. “I think it can really deepen every resident’s relationship with our city,” Schultz said.

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