To Denton visitors, downtown likely means the Square. For residents, it may mean a bit more — the businesses, bars and eateries along the streets that spin off the Square, and the apartments and townhouses within walking distance around them. When planners talk downtown, there could be several different maps on the table.
Downtown development drove several hours of conversation among city leaders last week. The Denton City Council agreed to consolidate some planning boundaries, reducing the number of maps on the table and laying the groundwork for new rules that could spur more investment and development downtown. Also, the Historic Landmark Commission pushed for opportunities to be proactive with development that affects the city’s historic places.
On Tuesday, the City Council agreed with a staff recommendation to eliminate the old central business district map, an area of about 261 acres that includes land and businesses along Carroll Boulevard and Elm and Locust streets. Instead, land south of the Square from about Sycamore Street, much of which lies in a floodplain, and land to the north from about Parkway, McKinney Street and Quakertown Park will be taken out of the planners’ “downtown” maps.
The city’s planning director, Brian Lockley, laid out a proposed project as an example of one that would benefit from the change: new construction on a 1.25-acre lot on Hickory Street that would include residences and retail.
The council agreed with the consolidation plan but sought more information about a companion proposal in which developers might pay a fee in lieu of adding parking spaces. The Hickory Street project, for example, is partially encumbered by a floodplain and wouldn’t be able to meet the city’s current requirements to provide the amount of parking required by the rules.
In an interview Friday, City Council member Jim Engelbrecht said the new development rules for downtown should help with both redevelopment and infill, both of which are difficult under the city’s current codes. Yet, he didn’t think that what’s being proposed now would have worked 25 years ago, because people expected to park close to the businesses they patronized.
Many younger adults don’t expect that today, he said.
On Monday, the Historic Landmark Commission tried for the second time in two months to talk about a growing list of issues with historic buildings touched by development downtown — including signage on one building and the removal of the brick facade on another building along the Square, the demolition of a Victorian-era house on East Oak Street, and the commercial buildings on East Hickory caught in the cross hairs of code enforcement.
Commissioner Deb Conte said the group, if given the chance, can be proactive and pointed to recent collaborations as successes: new fencing for historic cemeteries and a new house in the Oak-Hickory Historic District.
Then commissioners started asking about their authority to weigh in on downtown development.
Deputy City Attorney John Knight told them the posted agenda did not list that as a discussion topic after Commissioner Pati Haworth passed out copies of documents related to the city’s expected stewardship of historic districts.
Commissioner Eric Pulido said he, too, wanted to be able to help but felt stymied.
He pointed to a recent controversy that erupted over Subway’s new lighted sign on the Texas Building — now resolved because the company agreed to replace it. The building, while in the historic district of the Square, is not itself historic. The original sign met the city’s current development requirements but not the sensibilities of many residents who thought it was out of place in a historic district.
“We’re not trying to deny anyone, but we’re not just serving business owners, or the buildings, but something greater,” Pulido said. “I’m not against lighted signs, and I’d love to have some arguments with you all.”
But, since it wasn’t on the agenda, the commission could not discuss it further.
Council member Kevin Roden said that commission members understand that Denton’s current rules don’t protect historic buildings very well and that many people around the city have been talking about that recently.
The current rules reflect concerns from long ago, when people worried that the Oak Street mansions would be torn down, he said. But he didn’t think the commission could be completely out front of the issue either — not without talking to property owners and building coalitions.
“They need to have some meetings and explore opportunities how to pursue this [protecting historic buildings] like neighborhoods do,” Roden said.
As a lifelong resident, Mayor Pro Tem Pete Kamp said she was glad that people care about the city’s historic character and are talking about it.
“We have an authentic downtown that other cities try to duplicate,” Kamp said, adding that she likes that new buildings and old ones flourish side by side.
Council member Dalton Gregory agreed that both the council and the commission recognize that downtown’s appeal comes from its authenticity. Some buildings need work in order to be part of the dynamic growth happening downtown, however, he said. He saw the commission as having a role addressing those issues.
“We can preserve the authentic, unique character while being reasonable,” Gregory said.
The Square itself is not as much of a concern as the rest of downtown, according to Mayor Mark Burroughs, who called some areas “really challenged.”
“Not every building is historic, even if it’s old,” Burroughs said.
He, too, called on the commission to help get feedback from the community.
Council member Joey Hawkins, who owns a coffeehouse in a historic building on the Square, agrees that the commission plays a big role in preserving older buildings downtown, and that property owners and the commission can get the job done if they don’t focus too much on single issues.
“As long as everyone has a 30,000-foot view, we can figure out what’s best,” Hawkins said.
Whatever the rules become, he added, they need to be explained simply and clearly to business owners interested in investing in downtown.
Council member James King said what’s cool about Denton is the growing mix of businesses and buildings, old and new, that come together, sometimes even in one building, like a jigsaw puzzle, he said.
He said he wasn’t sure new rules would ferret out all the problems that come with developing a mix of old and new, but he hoped the additional flexibility would help.
“I know we’re talking about downtown,” King said. “But this is the rub for [all of] Denton.”
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.