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Standing in the parking lot in front of his family’s Mexican restaurant on Laredo Street on the West Side, Steven Rodriguez pointed to the area the San Antonio Water System is planning to take over in order to build a station to pump sewage into a nearby sewer main.

SAWS officials say the lift station is part of a federally required sewage upgrade and that they have no other choice than to put the station in front of Piedras Negras De Noche, a third-generation restaurant business Steven Rodriguez’s grandfather started in the 1960s. The family’s lot on Laredo Street also includes the Beer Depot, a Tejano bar inside a former ice house.

Rodriguez fears the businesses won’t survive a six-month construction period followed by sewage smells and potential spills right outside their eatery. The SAWS board tabled the issue at its October meeting Tuesday, though the matter is likely to come up again in November.

“It will just drive people away just from the stench of it,” Rodriguez said of the lift station, which is mostly underground but would include a protruding electrical panel and enclosure.

Rodriguez’s family learned only Monday that the SAWS board was scheduled to vote on allowing the use of eminent domain to force a sale of the 285 square feet needed for the lift station. Despite negotiations with the restaurant owners going back to early 2020, the Rodriguez family said SAWS never informed them the matter was up for a vote at the utility’s board meeting.

The dispute boiled over on Tuesday when restaurant owner John Rodriguez Sr. and his son, attorney Johnny Rodriguez Jr., spoke out at the meeting. They said SAWS officials are targeting their property rather than other nearby lots, such as a nearby McDonald’s franchise, because the family has fewer resources to fight back.

“I’ve done nothing to that man, but it seems like he decided to choose my place,” John Rodriguez Sr. said of SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente. “How come he didn’t choose McDonald’s? It’s too strong of a company. I’m a small man.”

Puente said SAWS has spent more than 18 months studying the area and has no other alternatives. Other nearby sites, including the McDonald’s and a Shell gas station, have too many wires, tanks, and pipes underground already.

“There’s a massive amount of underground utilities, electrical, [natural] gas, and gasoline,” Puente told the San Antonio Report. “It would be a nightmare, if even possible.”

A rendering of the proposed sewage lift station site in the parking lot of Piedras Negras de Noche.
An aerial photo shows the proposed sewage lift station site in the parking lot of Piedras Negras de Noche. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Water System

Marc Long, an engineer the Rodriguezes hired to review the project, described the location — crammed between San Pedro Creek, Union Pacific tracks, and Interstate 35 — as “a challenging area” for SAWS to work in. But he said SAWS engineers dismissed some of his proposed alternatives because they’d be more expensive.

“I would challenge SAWS to look at what the total cost of a project is, not necessarily the construction-phase costs,” Long said during the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting. “What would be the economic impacts to the property being bisected with this lift station at the front edge off of Laredo Street?”

Mary Alice Cisneros, a former District 1 councilwoman and wife of former mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, also spoke to the SAWS board. She pleaded with them not to use eminent domain to force a sale that could harm a more than 50-year-old family business on the West Side. The historically Mexican American neighborhood has a rich history that’s also been shaped by neglect from local governments and institutions throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Don’t do that to us,” Cisneros told the board. “Don’t shut down this restaurant and make it difficult with the fumes and all that for people to come and enjoy a meal.”

Nancy Dias, a waiter at Piadras Negras De Noche, brings out food during lunch service.
Nancy Dias, a waiter at Piedras Negras De Noche, brings out food during lunch service. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

‘Barely surviving as it is’

The Rodriguezes have deep roots on the West and South sides, with ancestors who immigrated from the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras and founded the nearby Piedras Negras Cafe, which the family later sold. Part of the family’s confusion over the SAWS issue stemmed from notices intended for one Piedras Negras restaurant that would wind up at the other one, where SAWS also is conducting sewer work nearby.

After returning from serving in Vietnam, John Rodriguez Sr. started Piedras Negras De Noche. It remained a family business where “everyone contributed,” Johnny Rodriguez Jr. said.

The Rodriguezes love their business but have seen their share of difficulties, keeping the business going after a fire 15 years ago and weathering the COVID-19 pandemic, which Steven Rodriguez called a “damn gut punch.”

“We’re barely surviving as it is,” he said.

SAWS officials say they need a lift station in the area to fulfill a federal order to upgrade its undersized and leaky sewage system. One small piece of that is abandoning a deteriorating sewage main underneath Interstate 35 and directing that sewage instead through a pipe along the frontage road next to Piedras Negras De Noche.

The land SAWS wants is about the size of two parking spaces. Most of the structure would go underground, though an electrical panel would protrude from the parking lot. SAWS typically encloses its lift stations with chain-link fences topped with barbed wire, though Puente said SAWS had offered to build a masonry wall around it.

In a phone interview, Puente insisted that the location for the lift station actually came from the Rodriguez family. SAWS officials shared a document that showed the location on a list of four routes proposed by one of the family’s consultants.

“[It] was their idea, their proposal; that’s the one we picked,” Puente said.

Puente also said SAWS has offered to do the construction at night when the business is closed, make SAWS’ access area for the lift station smaller than normal, and pay the family “more than what we usually do when we cut up someone’s parking lot.”

“When I talk to him, he talks in extremes by saying things like, ‘You’re going to totally shut us down, we will not be able to survive this construction, you’re killing my father,’” Puente said of Johnny Rodriguez Jr.

Family members say they’ve been clear with SAWS that they don’t want a lift station on their property, especially not one right in front of their business. Johnny Rodriguez Jr. shared a document with the San Antonio Report that showed Long, their engineer, arguing in favor of an alternative that would instead put the lift station at the end of nearby Tunstall Street, away from the businesses on the frontage road.

The Rodriguezes left the meeting confused about whether SAWS still wants their land. When SAWS Chair Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison tabled the issue on Tuesday, she didn’t specify whether SAWS staff should return with a proposal for a lift station on the Rodriguezes’ land or somewhere else.

“We do want to consider the item as a public necessity for public use, but we want to do so with a more appropriate site,” Jamison said at the meeting.

Asked about this in phone calls with the San Antonio Report, Puente and Jamison confirmed SAWS staff could end up proposing moving the lift station to another site on the Rodriguezes’ land.

“We don’t know what [the family is] willing to let us do, so we’ve got to proceed forward on what’s in SAWS’ best interests,” Puente said.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.