The G.J. Sutton building at 321 Center Street on June 17, 2019
As a State-owned property, the G.J. Sutton complex, 321 Center St., is exempt from local property taxes and has no appraised value. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

For six years, the tan brick G.J. Sutton complex that occupies an entire city block on San Antonio’s East Side has sat vacant, crumbling, and home to an infestation of bats, even as new development grew up around it.

Legislation passed this month could resurrect the historic structure and the near East Side with it.

Signed by the governor June 14, House Bill 2944 allows for the sale of the State-owned complex to a private developer, paving the way for what some say could be a “powerhouse” in the community.

“The Sutton complex has completed its service to the State and reached the end of its life cycle,” stated Mike Novak, executive director, Texas Facilities Commission (TFC), which has been responsible for the ongoing operating costs of the unoccupied Sutton complex. “It is now time for it to be redeveloped for future generations.”

Built in 1912, the G.J. Sutton complex at 321 Center St., at Cherry Street, was named for Garlington Jerome Sutton, the first black official from San Antonio elected to the Texas House of Representatives. He served from 1972 until his death in 1976 at the age of 67. The complex was named for him in 1982.

At 112,000 square feet, the G.J. Sutton complex sits on over 6 acres, with the total 264,018-square-foot parcel split by East Crockett Street into two sections. The site is currently zoned to allow for mixed-use development (residential, retail, and commercial), and was designated a Promise Zone in 2014.

The industrial-scale buildings named for Sutton were once home to SAMSCO, the San Antonio Machine and Supply Co. But the State acquired the 62-year-old complex in 1975 and turned it into office space for 200 employees. Due to serious ongoing maintenance needs and safety issues, the State vacated the site in 2013.

The TFC then spent $680,000 to structurally stabilize and secure the complex, including repairing a leaky roof and resulting water damage, stabilizing the underpinning of the north and east foundation walls and the fac?ade, adding protection around sinkholes, and boarding doors and windows.

According to a fiscal note dated April 7, the General Land Office could not estimate the fair market value of the Sutton complex, nor determine a sales price. And, as a State-owned property, it is exempt from local property taxes and, thus, does not have an appraised value.

In March, State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) introduced HB 2944 to authorize the State to sell the Sutton complex with the condition that the property or buildings located on the site use the name G.J. Sutton. The bill was passed by both the House and Senate in May and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 14.

“I thought it was important [legislation] because the building had been vacant for a number of years and it had become an eyesore in our community,” Gervin-Hawkins said.

Despite her predecessor’s attempts to activate the property with HB 1255, which was vetoed in 2015, it appears now the property finally can be repurposed and some of its history preserved.

“As a community continually trying to improve, this is one of the big assets, one of the pearls in the community. There are so many wonderful pearls … I just want to string them together to begin to improve the community, to provide services and bring much-needed retail and office space and additional living spaces.”

Gervin-Hawkins said she would also like to see the San Antonio African-American Archive and Museum housed there.

The TFC attempted in April 2015 to stimulate a public-private partnership for redevelopment of the Sutton complex and circulated a formal request for information to collect ideas from developers and architects.

In 2018, the commission released a request for proposals (RFP) for a mixed-use project in a land-lease deal. The scope of the project would have involved either redevelopment of the two historically significant structures or demolition due to the buildings’ structural and environmental issues.

Gervin-Hawkins said two developers responded to the RFP, including the NRP Group, but the State wasn’t able to work through the legalities of such a deal. According to State statute, the TFC may redevelop State-owned property only for agricultural or commercial use, not residential redevelopment. That’s when the TFC canceled the RFP and sought legislative authority to sell the property.

In 2014, reports stated the complex was infested with bats and TFC hired a professional pest control company to clear them out. The annual cost for pest control, ongoing security, monthly utilities, custodial, and grounds maintenance is $312,000.

But the structures are in bad shape, according to TFC officials, and demolition may be necessary due to the safety and environmental concerns. One condition of the sale is that all contaminated soil be removed from the site.

But those working to promote development in the East Side and others hope some parts of the complex can be saved and renewed.

“It’s been sitting dormant and it has so much potential to be a powerhouse in our community,” said Tuesdaé Knight, president and CEO of San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE). “It is strategically positioned to be a place opened for mixed use, it is a place that is going to really change the footprint for the East Side if done correctly.”

Knight believes that any development project there needs community input, she said, and that SAGE should be involved.

“My organization is here to ensure that development continues, that it is people-focused, business-focused, and community-focused, and that is our whole goal,” Knight said.

“It is a crazy footprint,” she said of the G.J. Sutton property. “There are a lot of homes; it’s right near the Merchant’s Ice House and where VelocityTX is coming in. There an opportunity for housing, for retail space – it just runs the gamut of opportunity.”

Like Gervin-Hawkins, she also hopes the buildings can remain somehow. “If it can be repurposed, it should. This history is important.”

District 2  Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan also said she favors keeping the name G.J. Sutton associated with the property.

The next stage in the process of selling the Sutton complex is issuing an RFP, collecting responses, and reviewing bids. That could take between six months and a year or more, Gervin-Hawkins said, but she hopes whoever buys the Sutton property will be a friendly developer who understands the value of working with the community as the project takes shape.

“I think it’s important we preserve as much history as we can, and the community needs to be engaged,” she said. “I’m going to make sure anybody who comes in engages the community at a very high level, making sure they have meetings, and values the input.

“I want to work this thing all the way through and not look up and see it’s something the community doesn’t want and can’t embrace. I started this journey and want to take it all the way to finish line.”

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Shari Biediger

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