Convenience store giant 7-Eleven still plans to raze the Malt House, the iconic Westside Tex-Mex/American restaurant, and build a new food store and gas station in its place.
But area residents, artists, and architects hope 7-Eleven will have in its new design aspects that recall the Malt House’s history and reputation as a community gathering spot. Business and the building were declining for years. The restaurant’s longtime owner Baldemar Gonzalez had no choice but to sell the property.
More than 60 people attended a public discussion Tuesday night at the American Institute of Architects San Antonio (AIA) chapter office. They outlined possible designs and amenities for the new store site at Zarzamora and Buena Vista streets.
Councilmen Rey Saldaña (D4) and Roberto Treviño (D1) worked with the Office of Historic Preservation, AIA San Antonio, and Westside residents to host the design charrette after the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) granted 7-Eleven’s request to demolish the Malt House in October, which sparked public outcry.
Tuesday’s charrette was well attended by Westside residents who were guided by local architects, including members of Latinos in Architecture, a subcommittee of the local AIA chapter. They hoped to help residents and 7-Eleven capture that illusive “sense of place” in the architecture of a gas station.
“Artists can help us look at things in ways we never thought of,” Treviño told the Rivard Report on Monday. “(7-Eleven) has agreed to have the conversation – there’s no guarantees here, I’m just being incredibly hopeful.”
Marley Phillips, land development manager for Creighton Development, the construction firm partnering with 7-Eleven, attended the charrette with some colleagues.
“We’ve been over several versions of the site plan. We’ve used different footprints and differently shaped buildings,” he said.
HDRC granted conceptual approval for the basic plan, but the commission told developers hired by 7-Eleven to go back to the drawing board and return with a design that paid more tribute to the restaurant and the neighborhood.
Break-out groups at the charrette developed a consensus: the 7-Eleven should incorporate a few aspects from the former restaurant, such as the famed exterior neon sign and perhaps serve popular menu items, such as the onion rings.
Attendees also encouraged the developers to reserve a public gathering spot outside the store, and allow for photos or some kind of art element that preserves the Malt House’s heritage and Westside connection.
HDRC Commissioner Tim Cone (D1) told the crowd that he and his colleagues considered more than the Malt House’s architectural design.
Since opening as a casual restaurant in the 1940s, the Malt House became a destination for Westsiders. Its indoor/outdoor dining setting lured many locals. It also drew political and civic leaders for a range of informal chats.
The City designated the Malt House as historic in 2013, as part of the Westside Cultural Resources Survey efforts.
The property is zoned to accommodate what 7-Eleven proposes, and would not conflict with parts of the surrounding area, which is proposed for possible affordable housing redevelopment under the City’s planned 2017 bond.
“Events happened. Politics were made there,” Cone said. “(The new design) needs to be part of the community. It needs to reference some of the stuff that happened at the site.”
The overall demolition and design process has been stalled to give community members time to share their ideas for developing the property, Saldaña said.
“There are people out there holding their breath, thinking this isn’t possible. This is part of what’s possible,” he said.
The Westside Preservation Alliance (WPA), a volunteer activist group organized under the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, did not participate in the Tuesday night meeting. While the charrette work is appreciated, said WPA member Antonia Castaneda, several members and Westside residents would rather see the Malt House purchased by a private individual, group, or even a public entity.
“This is an ongoing dialogue,” Castaneda said. “We are not in opposition to each other, we have different approaches.”
When they heard 7-Eleven had officially purchased the property from the Gonzalez family, “all of our hearts fell collectively to the ground with a big thud,” Castaneda said.
The WPA’s approach will be to bring the broader Westside community together to try to raise awareness and funds to keep the Malt House intact, she said. “We’re not ready to give up.”
A large community meeting is being planned for January, Castaneda said.
Treviño said he supports WPA’s efforts. “We certainly respect their position.”
Jimmy LeFlore, the City’s director of public art, said the Malt House redevelopment project should incorporate public art.
“We’re looking for a nexus between community and development, which is happening at an ever-increasing pace,” he said.
Participants came up with a wide range of issues to consider for the final store site design. A few are worried about traffic and how the site could accommodate gasoline-carrying tankers.
Most residents hope that 7-Eleven sticks with the part of its proposal that includes a small, outdoor public meeting spot facing Buena Vista.
The right shade and seating could recall the Malt House’s days of attracting neighborhood residents to simply stay and enjoy each other’s company.
“The Malt House is a very important place for the community, for meeting, and hanging out,” said attendee Colton Powell.
The Malt House felt “democratic,” as it welcomed all types of people, Powell said. He and a few other attendees suggested making the gathering spot accessible to pedestrians waiting for a VIA Primo bus, which has a stop planned for that intersection.
Other attendees felt that 7-Eleven cannot deny generations of Westsiders who have positive recollections of and connections to the Malt House.
“It’s not so much about trying to preserve a building as it is about preserving memories,” said attendee Isabel Garcia.
Garcia and others agreed that the new convenience store must be more than a place where a visitor buys food. The 7-Eleven could – with some color and landscaping – encourage those visitors to stay for a while, they suggested.
Some attendees recommended preserving at least the main exterior Malt House sign for incorporation into the new store design. Others, like Anthony Gutierrez, proposed that part of the back exterior wall could use color schemes and art that recall the 1950s style that the Malt House embodied.
A couple of other visitors even suggested inviting neighborhood residents to help create a collage of photos of gatherings at the Malt House from over the decades.
Gutierrez, an artist based in the Lone Star neighborhood, complimented 7-Eleven for its willingness to include historic preservation of the Malt House in its new store site design.
“I appreciate that 7-Eleven isn’t putting in another cookie-cutter store, and that it’s not just replacing (the Malt House) in a haphazard or clichéd way,” he added.
The City will prepare a report focusing on recurring themes of community gathering place, history, public safety, and food for later consideration in the store site design.
Treviño said community collaboration is the ideal way to arrive at resolution over what should happen with the Malt House site.
“This is an important discussion about what makes a place significant,” Treviño said. “We hope to work together collaboratively, positively, toward great ideas.”