Tax incentives from the Texas Historical Commission can help renovate and reopen City Hall West, but Denton City Council members, about three years into the discussion, have not decided how to fund the project.
“We will look into all the options for the council to look into,” said Sarah Kuechler, Denton’s chief of staff. “That really is a policy question for council to answer.”
Estimated to cost nearly $7 million to renovate, that work remains on hold not just while council members determine how to pay for it but how it should be used. That is despite the fact that in 2018, a steering committee of 24 people recommended that the exterior of the building on North Elm Street should be preserved, that City Hall West should be repurposed for public use — primarily for the arts community — and that the east entry and original auditorium and firetruck bays should be rehabilitated.
In a March 31 email from Caroline Wright of Texas Historical Commission to Randy Hunt, president of Historic Denton Inc., she said that a nonprofit organization would have to lease and manage the building and pay for the renovation before 25% of rehab costs would be applied.
“The old city hall building is [a Registered Texas Historic Landmark], which makes it eligible for the state program, which goes hand in hand with the nonprofit use that is primarily eligible for the state program,” Wright wrote. “The nonprofit needs to have a long-term lease of the property, of at least 39 years; needs to pay for the rehabilitation work; and needs to be the ultimate users/management of the building.”
‘It’s going to depend’
Council member John Ryan said he could support such a scenario.
“It’s going to depend on the organization and how it’s structured,” he said.
Historic Denton is a nonprofit organization that advocates for historic preservation throughout the city, creating National Register Districts and protecting the integrity of historic neighborhoods. Hunt said that he is trying to work with city officials to find a property manager for City Hall West.
“In conversations with the new Denton [historic preservation officer], working on the City Hall West building as a rehabilitation project is an agreed collaboration,” he said in an email to THC in March. “The use of the former city hall … was the formal recommendation by the CHW Commission created by the city council. The plan was to include CHW as a property managed by the Greater Denton Arts Council.”
“That I would most likely be in support of,” Ryan said. “It is one we have talked about potentially managing the building.”
Cameron Robertson joined the city as historic preservation officer on Feb. 1. During a conference call on Monday with the Denton Record-Chronicle between her, Kuechler and Director of Facilities Scott Gray, Robertson was not allowed to answer a question from the newspaper about her position on using tax credits to help pay for City Hall West.
“That is not a question Cameron can answer,” Kuechler said. “If you want to ask her about what the tax credits are, she can talk about that.”
Gray did not talk about the tax credits, either, instead focusing on council members’ direction to staff officials on Tuesday to solicit requests for information (RFI) and requests for qualifications (RFQ) from contractors to repair damage at City Hall West from Winter Storm Uri in February and asbestos removal.
“We will be moving forward with the RFI process that profits and nonprofits can use to submit their concepts,” Gray said. “That will be shared with council to get their direction. We will come back to council in June or July with what we received.”
City Hall West, built in 1927 in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style, is about 24,600 square feet. It was renovated in the 1960s as Central Fire Station, in 1984 as a police station and in 1995 for the Planning and Development Department.
“I was excited to hear that City Hall West can qualify for tax credits from the Texas Historical Commission,” council member Deb Armintor said. “It’s an excellent organization that does a lot of good for historic preservation in Texas. I think we’d be silly not to pursue this opportunity for the greater public good.”
‘Fulfill the vision’
Council member Paul Meltzer offered his opinion.
“I’m aware [the tax credits] are available if [City Hall West] is used for a commercial purpose,” he said. “I think the challenge, overall, is to find a way to make this economically possible and still fulfill the vision to the extent possible of it being a community arts center.”
Joanna St. Angelo is executive director of the Sammons Center for the Arts in Dallas. Architexas, the contractor hired by Denton to produce conceptual designs of the rehabilitated property in June 2017, asked St. Angelo to address the Denton steering committee in 2018.
“I took a very thorough tour of the building,” she said. “You have a community space for exhibits, rehearsals, town hall meetings and all kinds of things. I think it deserves to be a community asset. These are buildings built with community dollars and serve a communal purpose.”
A comparable property in Dallas
The Sammons Center for the Arts, St. Angelo said, is one of the oldest and largest arts incubators in the U.S.
“We took over a building leased to us in 1981,” she said. “It was a falling-down wreck — a former water pump station. It had been empty for 25 or 30 years.”
Sammons submitted a proposal, and it was accepted by the Dallas City Council.
“And the city said, ‘We will give you a long lease,’” St. Angelo said. “They told us to raise the money to renovate and operate it. It was tough because we were the first to do it. But we opened in 1988, raising $3 million.”
She said that Sammons Center for the Arts serves more than 100 performing arts organizations.
“It’s office space, rehearsal space, meeting space, technology resources — everything that small arts groups need to do their everyday work.
“The City Council serves at the pleasure of the community,” St. Angelo said. “I don’t see a downside for trying to repurpose it for something that would have a far greater benefit to the community.”
The 2018 committee report also suggested using City Hall West as a venue for events such as weddings, corporate presentations, city meetings and museum displays. The report projects that annual revenue could range from $400,000 to $500,000 in the building’s first few years of operation.
The city would subsidize operations at $265,000 annually, according to the report.