I fondly remember preservation/property rights mayor Robert Folsom, who died on January 24 at age 89. Mayor Folsom was also the strongest proponent of the neighborhood’s preservation request for single-family zoning and to become a historic district.
Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Morning News recently wrote about Mayor Folsom, “Supporters said he pumped life into Dallas with a shot of free enterprise, while critics said growth came at the expense of urban planning.”
The critics were correct that growth came at the expense of urban planning — if you define “urban planning” as that dictated by urban planning experts. And Dallas had quite an impressive and powerful gang of urban planners and politicians who supported the urban planners then. These urban planning experts included Weiming Lu. He worked hand in hand with urban planning advocate Plan Commission chair Olive Shapiro, East Dallas Plan Commission member and co-founder of the Historic Preservation League, Lyn Dunsavage, and the most powerful of all, interim mayor and mayor pro-team Adeline Harrison, the first “neighborhood-oriented” city council person,
Every one of these urban planning experts and advocates ferociously opposed the property owners’ request to rezone 100 blocks in Old East Dallas, consisting predominately of apartments and divided-up rent houses, from multi-family zoning to single-family zoning and to make Munger Place a historic district.
As Henry Tatum of the Dallas Morning News City reported, this 759-acre area between Haskell Avenue and Lakewood Shopping Center and Columbia/Abrams to Gaston Avenue was the largest zoning request for an already developed area in Dallas history.
Henry Tatum told me, “The urban planners at the City are opposing the neighborhood single-family zoning plan because you (are tearing up their Dallas Plan Department land-use plan for Dallas.”
These urban planners desired mixed use zoning in Old East Dallas and across the city. Mixed use zoning would either rezone the land for the uses currently on the land or in some areas create a checkerboard of different designations of multi-family zoning.
The urban planners proposed mixed-use zoning in Old East Dallas would have left 90% of the structures in Old East Dallas with some type of multi-family zoning. Further, they were also absolutely against Munger Place becoming a historic district because as the Plan Deparment said, “The neighborhood was too run down and the houses not significant enough to be a historic district.”
In the beginning, Mayor Folsom agreed to my request to use his office for a news conference to announce our single-family rezoning plan. On the day of the City Council single-family zoning hearing, he explained the economic benefits to any property owner who objected to the proposed rezoning at a City Hall hearing before the City Council vote in favor of the single-family zoning.
Mayor Folsom understood that single-family zoning created confidence and an environment for lending and investment. A positive trend toward single-family in the area would attract investment rather than the disinvestment that comes with the ownership of rental properties on multi-family zoned land in a deteriorated area. Mayor Folsom’s reverence for property rights extended to supporting the home owners and apartment owners, asking that the entire area be rezoned single-family. His understanding of free enterprise and development led him to believe new apartments would not be built in the worst neighborhood in Dallas. Mayor Folsom’s understanding of the marketplace gave him confidence that the planners were wrong and the property owners were right about single-family zoning being the catalyst of economic revitalization of the area.
This Proper Zoning form that proposed single-family zoning, with the names of panel speakers was passed out to the 600 property owners who attended the presentation of this idea.
At this meeting held in the Woodrow Wilson High School auditorium, I explained why the property owners should request that their properties currently zoned multi-family should be rezoned single-family. The mayor, David Fox, prominent lenders, HUD, area directors and apartment owner Bob Logan spoke in support of the single-family rezoning and the Munger Place Historic District.
Mayor Folsom is one of the primary reasons the Old East Dallas single-family restoration area became the largest single re-zoned single-family area in the country. With Mayor Folsom’s support Munger Place became a historic district, and later the Junius Heights Historic District and the Jefferson Peak Historic District were formed in the single-family rezoned area.
A double-sided postcard was sent out to property owners explaining why we were initiating the single-family zoning and on the other side of the postcard was the petition language above the signature line the property owner could sign and mail in. During the process the zoning request was modified that if an apartment burned down, the owner could use the insurance money to buy another comparable apartment for much less money than their former building. Stan Knight, a city attorney, provided the legal language for our petition that asked for the entire area in the map to be zoned single-family, with Munger Place designated a historic district.
The key to this rezoning effort and Mayor Folsom’s support is that the property owners were not asking for their specific properties to losing zoning rights, but for the entire 100 blocks of 2,000 properties, including their own be rezoned single-family. For credibility we mailed postcards that could be filled in and signed with the owner’s name and properties they owned in the area in a private, thoughtful movement.
Despite an overwhelming majority of property owners petitioning and requesting single-family for the entire100-block area, the urban planners instead called a public hearing to discuss their plan. The urban planners wanted to take away zoning privileges from some and give extra zoning privileges to others as they proposed 10 different zoning types and areas.
In fact, the urban planners at the Plan Department and Plan Commission did not even allow us and the other property owners to speak about our petitioned request to rezone the entire area single-family. They only allowed us to speak about how we wanted our personal lots in one of the ten proposed rezoning areas.
At the City Council meeting Mayor Folsom articulated why the entire 100 blocks should be rezoned single-family and the City Council reversed the City Plan Commission recommendation for 10 different zones of mixed use and apartment zoning and voted for single-family zoning.
City Hall reporter Henry Tatum covered this zoning case from the beginning and reviews the potential of single-family zoning. Also, neighborhood advocates, city council persons and urban planning sympathizer Adeline Harrison are mentioned as opposing the single-family zoning and that they were already trying to revise the ordinance to allow duplexes in single-family areas.
When the written single-family ordinance came back from the Plan Department to be certified, it contained language the Urban Planners desired. For instance, every apartment could be replaced with an apartment. We went back to the City Plan Commission tapes of the meeting and Plan Commission chair Olive Shapiro is recorded as saying “single-family zoning is maybe what we voted on but it is not what we are going to do” and then instructing the staff to include language that allowed new apartments. Mayor Folsom and the City Council held fast to their original vote for single-family and had another vote to have the ordinance rewritten to specify everything in Old East Dallas was rezoned single-family and only single-family.
As a young graduate student I quickly began to realize Mayor Folsom understood the economics of the area and the importance of supporting the property owners over the objections of the urban planners. Mayor Folsom’s support of the Old East Dallas single-family zoning was the foundation for dozens of historic and conservation districts to come, the empowerment of neighborhood associations, and more vibrant inner-city neighborhoods. I might note that before Mayor Folsom’s tenure, the urban planners made Swiss Avenue a historic district, but consistent with their zoning philosophy, they made Swiss Avenue a historic district that allowed mixed-use density and modern homes.
Weiming Lu, Olive Shapiro and Adeline Harrison opposed Munger Place becoming a historic district. Mayor Folsom supported Munger Place becoming a historic district. Eventually the rest of the single-family rezoning area became designated historic districts: Junius Heights and Jefferson Peak.
A complimentary letter from the mayor is always nice to receive, but you can see from this letter that he is hopeful this neighborhood example will be indicative of what will come in other communities in Dallas.
Mayor Folsom was correct. Munger Place has been an example for other communities. Subsequently, dozens of neighborhoods became historic and conservation districts, neighborhoods were revitalized and new downtown housing became a reality.
Only after Mayor Folsom helped pass the single-family zoning and made Munger Place a historic district with historic guidelines did the zoning on Swiss Avenue change to single-family zoning with historic guidelines that called for home to reflect the original architecture.
Mayor Folsom Presented First Restoration House of the Year Award
Mayor Folsom and his wife came to Swiss Avenue to present the first to-become-annual Restoration House of the Year Award. The presentation was covered by four television stations and much of the print media, bringing much attention to renovating old homes, a movement then in its infancy.
When we think back on Mayor Robert Folsom we should think of him as someone who pumped life into Dallas with a shot of free enterprise. We should also recognize he pumped life into the revitalization of Old East Dallas with his understanding of the marketplace and his respect for the property owners and their request for single-family zoning. Mayor Folsom’s support of free enterprise paved the way for 2,000 properties to be re-zoned single-family, the saving grace of Old East Dallas, and the beginning of massive reinvestment in the area.
This 100-block restoration area has enjoyed over $1 billion of renovation and construction since Mayor Folsom supported the neighborhood single-family zoning revitalization plan.
The success of Dallas has been helped along by many great leaders. Mayor Folsom should be prominently remembered as one of them.