If Dallas wants to revive Deep Ellum’s most historic landmark, we will have to help pay for a new building

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On Wednesday the Dallas City Council will likely do something it has never done before: vote to give a developer a very generous historic-preservation tax break for a building that is not historic because it does not exist. Which, I guess, is historic?

That building will be part of the Deep Ellum development called The Epic, that towering sprawl of girders and cranes promising a 250,000-square feet office complex along Pacific Avenue and a skyline-blocking residential tower along Elm Street. There will be a hotel, too — 190 rooms spread over two buildings.

Twenty-eight rooms will be in a structure that has stood at Elm and Good-Latimer Expressway since 1916, the late Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythias Temple. A city landmark, it once served as the center of Dallas’ middle-class black community: This state’s first black surgeon and dentist had offices there; so, too, did insurance men, bankers, optometrists. On the fourth floor, in the ballroom that has survived into the 21st century, George Washington Carver and Marcus Garvey spoke to packed crowds.

The hotel’s other 164 rooms will be housed inside a seven-story concrete sliver that will be built behind the century old temple.

Both buildings will be known jointly as The Pittman, so named after the Pythian Temple’s architect — William Sidney Pittman, a would-be titan of building design who was buried in an unmarked grave in a Hatcher Street cemetery. Pittman was also Booker T. Washington’s son-in-law.

The resurrection of the Pythian Temple is an enormous win for a city that still struggles to bring its yesterdays into tomorrow. This should be a moment to celebrate — a long-dormant, once-threatened landmark on the cusp of resurrection.

Yet as the vote approaches there is growing concern at City Hall that the Epic’s developers, among them Westdale Properties and Dallas-based KDC, are asking for something they do not deserve: close to $2 million in historic preservation tax breaks over the next decade.

Less than half of that, about $640,000, will go toward the Pythian Temple’s overhaul, already in progress. The rest will go toward the new construction.

City documents refer to the incentives as "foregone revenue." The developers, whose City Hall lobbyist did not return messages left Monday, have insisted at public hearings it is a small price to pay for putting a dormant landmark back on the tax rolls — and what about all that hotel occupancy tax, too?

I was ticked when I heard Westdale was asking for that tax break: A decade ago I wrote several stories about how the company had let the Pythian Temple crumble, to the point where city attorneys had to intervene. But the building’s shabby white exterior has recently been peeled off, exposing red brick unseen for decades.

Maybe this is an ingenious way to fund preservation in this city, commingling the old with new. The price we pay for getting our history back.

But that’s not going to be the issue Wednesday.

The Epic’s developers approached the city in 2015 about financial assistance from the Deep Ellum TIF, which, like all tax increment financing districts in the city, uses tax revenue previously generated inside its boundaries to shore up new development. But two years later the Epic backed away from that request without explaining why.

Some city officials now believe that’s because the Epic’s developers didn’t want to build the affordable housing demanded of any residential developer taking TIF money.

David Cossum, head of Sustainable Development, said Epic’s legal reps insisted the hotel isn’t tied to the residential and the residential isn’t tied to the office project — that all three have the same owner, Westdale, but different developers.

The building as it looked a century ago in a rendering once loaned to me by the late Louis Bedford.

"It’s the Epic development," Cossum said, not buying it. "All three fall under that."

In December, developers filed documents that would expand the Pythian Temple’s historic boundaries to include the hotel addition; they also asked for historic tax exemptions for both buildings. Cossum became concerned the Epic was misusing the city’s Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program, and that it could open the door to other developers wanting city money for construction in historic districts.

"Philosophically and generally speaking, we do not support the use of the tax exemption program to finance new development," Cossum said. "The result is great. It’s just how we’re getting there that is problematic."

In March, three Epic reps went to the Landmark Commission to plead their case, insisting that the Pythian Temple was too small to be a stand-alone hotel and that the only way to make the project "practical, functional or feasible" was by constructing the addition.

Since one couldn’t exist without the other, they said, both were eligible for the historic tax incentives.

The only person to speak in opposition was Dallas’ historic preservation officer, Mark Doty. He told the commission that city staff believes the developers are "trying to use a gray area in our ordinance to get a benefit that should just apply to the historic portion."

The $2-million request passed Landmark unanimously. When it went to the council’s Economic Development & Housing Committee last month, only North Dallas’ Lee Kleinman opposed.

"They are clearly just trying to circumvent our housing policy, and it’s something we need to clean up," he said. Far as he’s concerned, this isn’t about preservation, but "about giving more money to a developer to build another building."

Which may be the most historic thing this city does.

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