The city’s Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday voted down a request to demolish a historic building next to the Golden Star Café in west downtown to clear the way for potential development.
The Lim family, which has owned and operated the restaurant for decades, has been getting inquiries from developers interested in building on the site at 821 W. Commerce, but has been unable to enter into any agreements because of the presence of the historic but derelict Whitt Printing Co. building, their attorney Patrick Christensen said at the virtual meeting. He proposed that the family could preserve the building’s distinctive façade while demolishing the exterior, which consists largely of cinder blocks.
But members of the commission said they were reluctant to allow the destruction of a historic landmark when no specific development was planned to replace it—especially on the West Side, where urban blight and renewal projects have led to mass demolition of historic structures. The commission voted 6-1 against the request.
Commission member Scott W. Carpenter suggested that the family could submit another request along with a feasibility study for a development for the site.
“I would imagine that that would be something this commission would be much more receptive to, rather than this thing gets razed to the ground … and it becomes yet another example of an empty lot in a community that’s getting eroded pretty quickly,” he said.
“Without a proposal, it’s almost like the cart is before the horse,” said commissioner Gabriel Q. Velasquez.
The commission considered another request by the family to remove the historic designation from the Whitt Printing Co. building. It was denied on a vote of 7-0.
Along with being a city historic landmark, the building is within the city’s Cattleman Square Historic District.
The request included a simple rendering showing a five-story mixed-use development with 120 housing units and 240 parking spaces, cautioning that it is a “future development exercise only.”
The Whitt Print Co. building has suffered significant damage, especially to its roof, Christensen said. On top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely hurt business at the Golden Star Café.
“They’re kind of in a bind,” he said of the Lim family. “No one’s willing to invest that kind of money in the property unless they know what they can do with the building.”
If the HDRC would not grant the request, the family would consider going to their councilperson to seek the removal of the property from the historic district, he said. The property is within District 5, which is currently represented by Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. However, she’s due to leave the council having reached the four-term limit, and will be replaced by either Teri Castillo, a teacher and community organizer, or Rudy Lopez, a retired city employee, who are due to face off in the June 5 run-off election.
City staff had recommended denying both requests, saying that the family had not demonstrated that the presence of the Whitt Printing Co. building had caused them economic hardship and that there was “no new and compelling evidence” for the removal of the historic designation.
Patti Zaiontz, president of the Conservation Society of San Antonio, submitted letters opposing both requests, and representatives of the Historic West Side Residents Association spoke against them.
“Developers need to respect the community,” said Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. “Developers need to work with historic buildings. The Pearl is a fine example of how they built the new structures, and the structures look like the Pearl, but the old structures were saved.”
The Lim family owns a 1.13-acre plot containing the Golden Star restaurant and the Whitt Printing Co. building through Yuen King Lim Family LLC, according to the Bexar Appraisal District. The property consists of about half of that block, with the other half owned by Texstar National Bank.
Several major developments are planned around the site. It is two blocks north of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus, which is set to greatly expand with the construction of academic and athletics buildings, student housing, parking garages and street improvements allowing pedestrians to more easily walk underneath Interstate 10 to get downtown.
VIA Metropolitan Transit hopes to rehabilitate the nearby Scobey industrial complex—six buildings which have long sat vacant at 301 N. Medina St.—into a mixed-use development of residential, retail and office space. The agency’s Centro Plaza transit hub occupies the block in between the Scobey and Golden Star.
Several private developers are looking to build in the area. One block north of the Golden Star, nonprofit developer Alamo Community Group plans to build a 140-unit mixed-income complex with the name Cattleman Square Lofts in partnership with the San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corp., an arm of the city.
The block to the east of the Golden Star—bounded by Commerce, Leona and Houston streets and Interstate 10—is owned by Weston Urban, which is remaking the area of downtown on the other side of the highway, around the Rand building, which includes shared office space Geekdom, and the Frost Tower.
Velazquez, the HDRC commissioner, called the Whitt Print Co. a “survivor” of the “horror of neglect” on the West Side.
“While the building has been a victim, it’s also a bit of an architectural hero, and that’s what makes it difficult to make it go away,” he said.
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter