A historic building in west downtown could soon be cleared for partial demolition, even after the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) voted last month not to let that happen, following a determination by city staff that it is structurally unstable.
On Wednesday evening, the HDRC will hold a rare “emergency hearing” to discuss a plan to preserve the façade and a small part of the concrete structure of the 90-year-old Whitt Printing Co. building, 821 W. Commerce St., and to allow the rest of it to be torn down. The plan came out of discussions between the city and the Lim family, which owns the building and the adjacent Golden Star Café, as well as stakeholders such as the Conservation Society of San Antonio, said Michael Shannon, director of the city’s Development Services Department.
The case of the Whitt Printing building has blazed an unprecedented path through the city’s typically humdrum historic approval process since May 5, when the HDRC denied the Lim family’s request to tear down the building to make the property more attractive for development.
Following that setback, the family took the unusual step of submitting a bid to remove the building’s historic designation outright, paying extra to have the case expedited. The bid was scheduled to be voted on at a Zoning Commission meeting on Tuesday and a City Council meeting on Thursday.
Yet the case veered in another direction last week when an anonymous tip to the city raised concerns about the building’s stability. After inspecting the building on Friday, Shannon decided that it represented a case of “emergency demolition by neglect”—in other words, it is so unstable that it poses a threat to the public, and a plan must be put in place to stabilize it or it could be torn down.
The Lim family set up an excavator machine beside the building. Its attorney, Patrick Christensen, told the Zoning Commission on Tuesday that the family leased it from a contractor so that they would have equipment “ready to go,” and that they would not use it without the city’s approval.
Over Memorial Day weekend, the street outside the building was the site of protests by West Side activists and neighborhood groups who believe that the family is circumventing the city’s historic approval process and that the demolition would mark the loss of yet another precious piece of the area’s cultural heritage. The structure rests inside the Cattleman Square Historic District.
Teri Castillo, who on Saturday will compete in a run-off against Rudy Lopez for the District 5 council seat, took part in the protests.
“I believe that the process has been circumvented, and the community hasn’t been able to voice their concerns,” she said. “There are opportunities to provide incentives to retrofit the building to help the developer maintain the historic structure. However, those options haven’t been explored.”
Lopez did not respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday, the Zoning Commission voted unanimously to delay consideration of the Lim family’s bid until July 6, in order to allow the demolition consideration process to continue.
But it is likely that the commission, and City Council, will never consider the case. If the plan that is presented to HDRC on Wednesday is approved, the Lim family would not need the building to be stripped of its historic designation to proceed with the partial demolition, said Shanon Shea Miller, director of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation.
Regardless of how the HDRC votes, the Development Services Department has the ultimate authority to sign off on the plan, she said.
“We want the HDRC to vet it, and consider it, and give us their feedback and hopefully recommendation,” Michael Shannon said in an interview.
Several members of the Zoning Commission said they were hesitant to vote to delay the family’s bid. District 1 appointee Summer Greathouse said she was worried that the “emergency demolition” designation was removing the case from the public process.
“I don’t believe that property owners should be rewarded for creating public nuisances, and then being allowed to tear it down saying, ‘Well, it’s too far gone,’” she said. “It incentivizes the wrong type of behavior… If we wanted to say, ‘Well, the building’s unstable,’ what about the Alamo? The Alamo was unstable for many years.”
The commission’s appointee for District 5, John Bustamante, made the motion to delay consideration.
“We generally defer to HDRC. In this case, HDRC is going to hear it again tomorrow. They’re going to have the opportunity to reassess this in light of the demolition process going on,” he said on Tuesday.
The plan to be presented to HDRC on Wednesday would preserve the building’s façade and one of its five structural bays, or sections of concrete columns and beams, Shannon said. Much of the building’s roof has caved in, and parts of its east wall and façade are unstable, he said.
“Obviously, the preference is to reuse whole buildings, but sometimes it’s just not feasible,” Miller said. “In this particular situation, the rear portions of the building are not really architecturally significant.”
The proposed plan has the appeal of “preserving what is culturally significant about the property while at the same time addressing the public safety hazard,” she said.
Susana Segura, an organizer with the nonprofit Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, said that preserving the façade is not good enough. Esperanza is wrapping up its rehabilitation of the former site of Lerma’s Nite Club at the corner of Zarzamora and Laurel streets, after bracing three of the building’s walls and replacing the fourth, as well as its roof.
In a statement to Zoning Commission on Tuesday, Esperanza pointed out that the Lerma’s building is “four times as large” as the Whitt Printing building and in worse condition, yet the nonprofit had been able to raise funds to stabilize it. The nonprofit plans to open the building to the public this summer.
“We see a lot of façade preservation in San Antonio, and it’s just a really cheap way of adapting and reusing what’s there,” Segura said in an interview. “Because in reality, they’re not doing restoration work. They’re just preserving the façade.”
After receiving the anonymous tip last week, officers from the Development Services Department visited the Whitt Printing building and determined that it had structural problems, which had been worsened after recent rain storms, Shannon said. He then visited the building with his own team and decided to put it in the demolition process.
Vincent Michael, the Conservation Society’s executive director, said that members of the society had gone with an engineer to examine the building on Friday and found it to be in no danger of collapse. Behind the cinder blocks, which make up most of its exterior, there are large piers and beams made of concrete, he said.
“While we prefer and recommend that the original structure remain in place for economic and structural reasons, we believe that conservation of the façade and at least one full structural bay of the east and west walls would allow the building to retain its historic significance,” the society’s president, Patti Zaiontz, said in a statement.
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