Metropolis: Wednesday, December 19, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Christmas Ceasefire

The 7th Street debacle may yield stronger preservation laws.

By JEFF PRINCE

How warm and fuzzy in this Yuletide season for harmony to arise from the ashes of destruction. In just a few short months, memories of the demolished 7th Street Theatre have faded just enough to allow most everyone to make nice again. Sure, suspicion and regret still linger and tinge the occasional conversation with bitterness. But a truce and spirit of cooperation are prevailing among residents, business leaders, and city officials attempting to write new laws to better protect Fort Worth’s historic buildings from being whacked with bulldozers when nobody’s looking.

A Preservation Plan Steering Committee consisting of 30 people of varying backgrounds has been meeting since August to discuss ordinance revisions and confer with consultants. Public hearings begin in January. Barring any new breakdown in communication, the committee appears poised to recommend revisions to preservation ordinances that have evolved over the past 20 years but, in some people’s opinion, are vague and leave escape hatches for developers more interested in tearing down than renovating old buildings.

“There is a growing sense among community leaders throughout Fort Worth, including our city council, that the city and community generally have been making decisions about historic preservation on an ad hoc basis without the benefit of consistent policy,” said City Planner Fernando Costa.

The city decided to redo ordinances early last year, before a series of events culminated in the nonprofit FPA Foundation’s razing the 54-year-old 7th Street Theatre despite being warned by the city that its historical significance prevented just such a move without first pow-wowing and seeking alternatives. That demolition highlighted loopholes and gave added momentum to the city’s plan to tighten ordinances.

“These recommendations are going to be a valuable asset to the city,” said Marty Craddock, a steering committee member and longtime preservationist who laments the theater’s loss but is willing to look for a silver lining. “I look at this as an unparalleled opportunity to write a full-blown comprehensive preservation plan for the city.”

Preservationists aren’t the only ones bellying up to the bargaining table. The committee includes developers and business operators, who sometimes prefer to remove an old building and start from scratch, and regular ol’ folks seeking to balance property rights, progress, and appreciation for the architectural past. Even people who didn’t consider the 7th Street Theatre as anything more than a cinder-block eyesore were shocked by how easy it was for FPA Foundation to ignore city directives, refuse to consider alternatives to demolition, and arrogantly thumb its nose at the entire preservation process. The city weakly threatened FPA with fines last summer but didn’t follow through.

“The 7th Street Theatre issue underscored the importance of undertaking this initiative,” Costa said. A current ordinance allows the city to make a property owner wait 180 days in some instances before tearing down a building and requires the property owner to entertain offers and alternatives. But apparently nothing in the law stops property owners from twiddling their thumbs for 180 days, yawning their way through consultation meetings, and then firing up the bulldozers on Day 181.

So far, suggestions for policy revisions include defining penalties for non-compliance and forcing property owners to consider alternatives to demolition.

Numerous battles in recent years, prior to the 7th Street Theatre debacle, kick-started the movement to revise laws. RadioShack’s decision to buy and raze the old red-brick Ripley Arnold public housing apartments near downtown, and Trinity Railway Express’ choice to run a rail line through the 100-year-old Alarm Supply Inc. building near the new Intermodal Transportation Center helped fuel the effort.

“Those are some examples of recent issues in which the city’s interest in historic preservation must be balanced against the city’s interest in economic development, affordable housing, transportation, public safety, and the protection of private property rights,” Costa said.

A property owner’s March 2001 decision to tear down the historic Crumley House in Mistletoe Heights is another example. That demolition outraged some residents and led the neighborhood to seek a historic overlay designation, which in turn infuriated other residents who didn’t want anyone telling them what to do with their property.

“Some residents who wanted to preserve the house expressed frustration at the limitations on their ability to save [it] because the decision on the Crumley House, as in the case of the theater, on whether to abolish or not rests entirely with the property owner,” Costa said. “Nothing compels the property owner to act upon any suggestion or offers that might result from consultation. Some might argue that that’s what the city council intended and that that’s entirely appropriate. I don’t think we want to say that’s necessarily a flaw; it’s a policy issue.”

The five-points intersection at Camp Bowie Boulevard and University Drive looks appealing post-carnage. The former theater site is being filled with topsoil, and workers are planting shrubs and trees. It seems, in fact, that a small forest has been planted around the intersection in the past year and will be a charming sight in the coming decades as those trees mature. That doesn’t mean people have forgotten how a city staffer’s mistake allowed a demolition permit to be issued in error to FPA Foundation, or what the foundation did. Preservationists haven’t forgotten how they argued among themselves, some wondering aloud if Historic Fort Worth undermined efforts by sending FPA a letter asking for a contribution — which skeptics viewed as an insider deal to help save future buildings while sacrificing the theater.

Nothing’s going to bring the theater back, so preservationists are trying to look beyond that fiasco, to the future. “I think we will get a positive turnaround in the ordinance because of this process and what happened with the 7th Street Theatre,” said Darla Vaughan, vice moderator of Westside Alliance, a group of neighborhood associations. “Hopefully, with amendments to the ordinance we can have more firm guidelines about what needs to take place as far as consultation goes and also look at penalties. I’m not on the committee, and I’m sure it is contentious at times, but I do expect a better ordinance to come out of those efforts.”

Recommendations are set to be officially presented in May, and the city council will decide whether to implement them. There’s still plenty of time for the whole process to devolve into partisan sniping and backbiting, but so far most people are content to sing joyful tunes and predict happy endings. “The moral of the story is going to come out in the next several weeks by how the ordinance is rewritten,” Vaughn said.




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