Monday, November 26, 2012

Time Running Out for Downtown's Thomas Building

I’m sorry to report that demolition crews are about to make quick work of downtown’s once-grand Thomas Building. Sometime within the next week or so the eight-story Dallas landmark will be imploded. After 88 years, the brick and carved stone building near the corner of Wood and Akard streets will be a pile of debris to be carted off to the landfill.
Next door in the old Cotton Exchange Building — torn down a few years ago — traders would bid on cotton shipments and examine samples of the crop. The Thomas Building’s fate shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s been sitting empty for years.Years of paying property taxes on an empty building and the city of Dallas’ official edict requiring owners to maintain or tear down vacant properties no doubt pushed the owner over the edge.
Local preservationists are saying what they always say, that they dropped the ball on this one and will try to do better next time. Such comments are no doubt sincere but provide little solace when one more local landmark bites the dust.
It’s even more frustrating that the Thomas Building will probably be replaced by a parking lot. That’s what happened next door where the Cotton Exchange used to be. And it was the same story for Oak Lawn’s colorful Esquire Theater and the fine old YWCA Building on Haskell Avenue. Parking lots now occupy both sites. When grand old buildings are demolished to make way for new ones, well, at least there’s that.
But what’s sadder than knocking down something like the Thomas Building or the Esquire Theater to make more room to park Hondas and SUVs? I’ve said before that the last thing Dallas needs is more surface parking lots. If you don’t believe me, just walk down Field Street between Ross and Pacific avenues downtown where you are surrounded by a desert of cracked concrete and parked cars. So much for an urban experience.
The buildings that once occupied those downtown blocks have been gone for decades. The keep-the-dirt-flying fans always say that it’s better to tear the old stuff down to make way for grand new construction. Indeed, sometimes that’s true. But when all we get out of the deal is a few dozen more places to park cars, is that really a fair trade?
I also understand that it doesn’t make sense to try and hang onto every old pile of bricks and tumble-down chicken coop just because it’s “old.”
Still, it should be up to city leaders to come up with a workable list of buildings that deserve to be saved — even if they are empty. Then help keep them standing with property tax abatements and exterior preservation incentives.
Of course, it’s too late for the Thomas Building. Maybe we’ll do better next time.

Steve Brown 
Real Estate Editor 
Dallas Morning News