This time next year, give or take, there will be a new restaurant in a very old North Oak Cliff home — a home built in 1910 by the former Chief Justice of Dallas’ 5th Court of Appeals who would become Dallas’ mayor during the Texas Centennial of 1936. For that, you can thank the Dallas City Council and the developer for which several council members had nothing but kind words when blessing his project — and its parking requirements — at the end of Wednesday’s council meeting.
Developer Jim Lake, who helped reshape and remake the Bishop Arts District and the Cedars, bought the residence and the archives of Mayor George Sergeant six years ago from the family’s longtime caretaker. And it was always Lake’s intention to convert the house into a restaurant — because, as he told the council, he needed to "make a reasonable return on our investment."
But there was one significant hang-up: parking requirements.
City regulations, and the plan commission, said because of the way the property’s zoned for mixed-use, Lake needed 30 parking spaces before he could get the OK to convert the home into an eatery — or, one space per 125 square feet of restaurant floor area. But, Lake has long argued, there isn’t enough room around the historic house to accommodate that many cars — especially given the crush of development devouring that part of Oak Cliff near Bishop Arts at Zang and W. Davis Street.
"We were trying to squeeze them in there," Lake said. "But it didn’t work."
Nearby residents, complaining of the congestion in their single-family neighborhood off W. Neely Street, came to council Wednesday to reiterate their demands for more parking spaces, not fewer. And in documents sent to the council, city staff said it was "understanding and sensitive" to their concerns.
However, staff said Lake could make do with 22 spots, especially given the property’s proximity to the Oak Cliff-to-downtown free streetcar line. Documents prepared for Wednesday’s meeting said that was the only option left for a tumbledown house whose sole salvation was the restaurant being proposed by the developer.
"In order to revitalize the building and allow for the creation of a high density business," staff told council, "a parking reduction can be the trade-off for preserving and updating a structure that is important to the history of the City of Dallas."
In the end, the council sided with city staff — and Lake. The home of The Centennial Mayor will be spared.
"I think this building is significant to the character of Oak Cliff and our heritage," said North Oak Cliff’s council member Scott Griggs. He lauded Lake as "someone willing to make this investment as a passion project."
The council was ultimately faced with two choices: approve the parking and give the house a shot at a second life — "the hallmark of the entire Bishop Arts District," Griggs said — or vote no and allow Sergeant’s home to continue to rot. Lake, whose investment is surrounded by new multi-family construction, even considered moving the house out of the city limits.
"We’ve been offered three times what we paid for that property," Lake said in an interview. "We could have sold it a long time ago. If the council had voted no, we would have relocated the house to another site — somewhere. And then we would have sold the site."
And if Lake had parted with the property, the next developer could have built, by right, a three-story mixed-use structure that would have brought even more traffic into the already overwhelmed neighborhood.
The house, which Lake said Wednesday had been abused over the years by the homeless and vandals, has long been on preservationists’ most-endangered lists. Lake said after the council meeting Wednesday that renovations will begin within the next 60 days following the unanimous vote in favor of lowering the parking needs.
"This particular project is historically significant and has so much history behind it," Lake said, "we thought all the citizens of North Oak Cliff and Dallas should come visit."
Its name, for now, will be The Mayor’s House Restaurant.