Workers and heavy equipment have arrived at the East Side’s historic G.J. Sutton building as a full-scale demolition of the massive complex begins.

So far, plywood shields have been pulled from some street-facing windows and asbestos remediation work has begun inside the century-old structure. A chain-link fence surrounds the block, keep-out signs are in place, and a crane sits at the arched-brick entryway.

While some local residents and others had hoped to see the building rehabilitated, even redeveloped in a way that would retain some of its landmark presence on the East Side, State officials determined months ago that preservation would be cost-prohibitive.

“The Sutton property has a long, long history,” said one official. It’s a history that in recent years winds in and out of State legislative sessions, environmental studies, and developer proposals.

Its most recent chapter began after legislation passed in June that allows the State to put the vacant, infested, and crumbling property up for sale – but not until Veit Demolition completely deconstructs the three-story building to pave the way for a private buyer and new development.

At 112,000 square feet, the G.J. Sutton complex on 321 Center St. is a prominent landmark on the East Side named for Garlington Jerome Sutton, the first black official from San Antonio elected to the Texas House of Representatives. The 264,018-square-foot parcel is split into two sections by East Crockett Street.

The buildings once housed a machine and supply company served by rail. The State acquired the complex in 1975 and used it for office space until 2013. Though the complex has sat vacant and boarded up since then, the State has spent thousands of dollars annually stabilizing and maintaining the structure.

In 2015, the Texas Facilities Commission (TFC) solicited proposals to redevelop the site. But when all the bidders proposed residential uses for the site, the TFC – which under the Texas Government Code is not authorized to manage residential facilities – the agency canceled the request for proposals and shortly after pursued demolition studies.

“[Demolition] would give the development community the best value, and the state the best value, because very few developers would want to buy a building they knew they would have to abate and demolish,” said a TFC spokeswoman. “As a responsible landowner, that falls on us to do.”

A demolition study assessment conducted in December 2018 for the TFC stated that much of the site’s historic integrity was compromised with the removal of more than half of the original structures included in the San Antonio Machine and Supply Co. complex and with the demolition of the rail sidings.

The report also states, “Architecturally, the interiors have been extensively reworked. … The removal of historic materials, such as doors and windows, and the changes made to how the structures interact with the street scape have a negative impact to the building’s architectural integrity.”

The G.J. Sutton building at 321 Center Street on June 17, 2019
House Bill 2944, signed last month by Gov. Greg Abbott, authorities the sale of the property at 321 Center St. by the State. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

Salvaging facades or any other part of the structures, adding $20 million or more to the cost of demolition, was deemed cost-prohibitive.

In February, TFC began soliciting proposals to remediate and demolish the complex and awarded the contract to Minnesota-based Veit Demolition in April.

On June 14, the governor signed into law House Bill 2944, allowing the State to sell the property to a private developer.

Veit began working with local subcontractors in June to remove and dispose of regulated waste such as asbestos and mercury switches from the building. According to a 2018 report, an environmental study of the property found lead-based paint and asbestos-containing materials in the building, and hydrocarbons and heavy metals in the soil, including arsenic, barium, cadmium, lead, and mercury.

When the abatement is complete this month, excavators will be brought in to begin the three-to-four-week demolition, starting from the top and working down, said Steve Hosier, vice president of demolition for Veit.

The State has also provided Veit a “laundry list” of items to be salvaged during the demolition, Hosier said, some of which are historical relics and some components to be recycled.

This week, TFC officials will meet with the General Land Office to begin mapping out the process to sell the property, according to a spokeswoman from the commission. “My guess that the end-to-end process of drafting a [request for proposals], soliciting bids, evaluating responses, and negotiating contracts could take up to a year.”

State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio), who introduced the bill that authorizes the sale of the Sutton complex, made it a condition of the sale that any new development on the property uses the name G.J. Sutton.

“I think it’s important we preserve as much history as we can,” she said.

Tuesdaé Knight, president and CEO of San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside, was not aware of the demolition order until the Rivard Report contacted her Wednesday. She said she had not been inside the building but appreciates its historical significance in the area.

“I would say that the building absolutely has a historical presence, and the meaning behind the name means much more than just a piece of land,” she said. “I hoped that the building could be repurposed and used to benefit the community.”

In a tweet on July 8, local public relations professional Christian Reed-Ogba said she learned from a worker while walking by the complex that it would be knocked down – “and now everything is sad,” she wrote.

Shortly after, Gervin-Hawkins’ office reached out and invited Reed-Ogba to a tour of the building so she could see close-up its present poor condition and the demolition in progress.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.