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By Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons |

Dallas has never been a haven for historic preservationists. But a recent study of historically significant downtown structures has raised the blood pressure of local preservation buffs to a historic high.

Chief among the agitated is a twenty-eight-year-old, preppie-looking East Dallas native who was chosen in January as the executive director of the Dallas Historic Preservation League. Joe Wyman, who returned to Dallas after a ten-year stint in preservation politics in Austin, approaches his calling with a missionary’s zeal. What he lacks in subtlety, he makes up for in conviction.

Wyman is not happy with the way Dallas regards its architectural legacy. And the new study confirms his worst fears: of 239 potential historic structures in downtown Dallas identified in 1980, only seventy-four remain. Lost treasures include the Woolf Bros, building, the old YMCA building, and the Dallas Athletic Club. Most were replaced by parking lots.

Ironically, this destruction has come in the wake of a much-ballyhooed set of incentives designed in 1981 to encourage developers to renovate historically significant buildings. “Only two property owners, both working in the West End, have taken advantage of any portion of the preservation incentive package,” says Wyman.

Wyman concedes that the sluggish economy has hampered development in downtown Dallas, but he maintains that there are fundamental flaws in the incentive package. For starters, an eight-year tax freeze on properties designated as historic amounts to “small change,” Wyman charges. And the freeze applies only to city property taxes and not to those levied by the county or school district.

Dallas’s longtime love affair with development at the expense of history, Wyman claims, is at the root of the problem. “People tend to view preservation in terms of aesthetics and quality of life issues. Nobody’s looking at it in terms of the bottom line.” City planning staffer Ron Emrich, senior planner for historic preservation agrees. “We’re not only losing history,” Emrich says, “we’re losing economic opportunity.” The preservationists would like to persuade property owners that preservation pays its way just as parking lots do. Emrich cites the enormous increase in the tax base in the West End Historic District, which contributed about $20,000 in city, state, DART, and TABC tax revenue five years ago. “Estimates for 1988 run around two-and-a-half million dollars,” he says.

Wyman’s group is working to further identify endangered treasures, and it is pushing to amend the process by which buildings are demolished. But Wyman sees little hope unless there’s a shift in key attitudes. “Historically, there has been little support either on the city staff or on the city council,” Wyman claims. He is most critical of assistant city manager for planning Jim Reid, whom he views as pro-developer to a fault. “Basically Jim Reid believes preservation is obstructive [to property owners’ rights],” Wyman says.

Support is lacking for the most part at the council level as well, Wyman charges. As an example, he cites a recent reception for city officials during National Historic Preservation Week, an occasion that featured a visit from national preservation advocate Nellie Longs-worth. Not one council member showed up-not even Mayor Annette Strauss, whose name was on the invitation.

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