The zoning commission concluded a nearly two-hour-long discussion during its Tuesday meeting by voting to delay a decision on what commissioners called a “rare” rezoning request in the Cattleman Square Historic District.
Mike Shannon, director of the City’s Development Services Department, asked to delay a request to rezone a 1-acre lot where the historic Whitt Print building is located.
Shannon’s call for delaying the decision comes less than a month after the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) denied a request to demolish the structure on May 5 and only days after Shannon filed an emergency demolition order following an inspection of the site.
Representing the Yuen King Lim family, which owns the building, attorney Patrick Christensen filed the request for rezoning but supported the request for a delay.
If commissioners had approved a rezoning, it would have paved the way for demolition of the vacant building where representatives of several Westside groups held a vigil Sunday evening to prevent demolition. Bulldozers were already on-site.
With the delay, the HDRC is set to review the emergency demolition request on Wednesday during an emergency hearing following its regular meeting. Commissioners denied a previous request for demolition of the building, which would have retained only the facade, because the applicant did not demonstrate an unreasonable economic hardship nor provide replacement plans as required by the unified development code.
The Cattleman Square Historic District is a small collection of streets and mostly commercial and industrial structures on the West Side of downtown. Designated a local historic district in 1985, the area is lately drawing the attention of developers who see opportunity in replacing vacant, run-down buildings with residential and commercial property that would support the growing downtown campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Since 2017, the appraised land value where the Whitt building and Golden Star Cafe are located has increased from $757,000 to over $1 million, according to tax records.
The 90-year-old Whitt building which sits adjacent to the cafe is a historic landmark with contributing status to the historic district. The building was once home to the Whitt Printing Company, founded by Gilberto White, which was known for its role in printing Spanish-language materials during a time when San Antonio had the most Spanish-language publishing houses of any U.S. city. The business operated until 1977.
During a public comment session at the zoning commission meeting, nearly two dozen people registered their opinions for and against rezoning. Those who supported the request, including the Gardendale Neighborhood Association and individual citizens, called the building an “accident waiting to happen,” while other individuals and Westside advocacy groups consider the building an important piece of the community’s historic fabric.
“Removing the historic zoning overlays would create a loss of significance that would set the groundwork for future demolition requests in this and other historic districts and landmarks,” said Tony Garcia of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, a San Antonio residents’ group made up of more than 50 urban-core neighborhoods.
Shannon said that after he received an anonymous call to his office complaining that the building was declining rapidly, the City’s chief building inspector and a code enforcement staffer conducted an inspection and recommended the emergency demolition by neglect.
“I chose, of course, to go look at it myself with my team to address the structural nature, hazards associated [and] potential hazard, and in fact, there were several safety issues that needed to be addressed very quickly,” Shannon said.
Christensen said the Lim family received a notice Thursday evening that they were “under the gun” to demolish the dangerous structure. They called in contractors who arrived with bulldozers.
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On Friday, Shannon initiated the emergency demolition by neglect process and notified the director of the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) to determine how the building could be stabilized rather than demolished.
But the code stipulates the department has 72 hours to complete that process, he said. The owners put a hold on the demolition.
“Emergency demolitions happen occasionally,” due to a fire or some other disaster, Shannon said, “and what’s left standing is going to hurt somebody.
“This is a little [rarer] because this has been a building that’s been deteriorating over time. Certainly, the heavy rains and storms have likely advanced that over the past several months.”
Though an emergency demolition order does not necessarily mean the building will be razed, it initiates the process for review within the codified time limit, he added. The HDRC will review the case on Wednesday and if a demolition plan is put in place, the owner could apply for rezoning.
Shanon Miller, OHP director, said the historic commission will consider the condition of the building as well as what its loss would mean to the district.
“This is kind of in the middle of the Cattlemen Square Historic District, and so obviously removing a hole from the middle of a long-standing historic district is of course concerning to the fabric of the overall district as a whole,” Miller said.
At least one HDRC commissioner expressed concern Tuesday that things were moving too fast on a case that was filled with what he called drama and intrigue. “There appears to be a willful effort to bypass the City’s regular demolition process,” said Scott Carpenter in an email to the San Antonio Report.
On Wednesday, Christensen will again go before the HDRC to request approval for demolition of the rear portion of the cinderblock building where the roof is caving in.
“The Lims have always volunteered to maintain the facade, which is probably one of the few aspects of the building that’s even historically original,” he said.
But Tuesday, several zoning commissioners said they were not sure they could vote to support the delay, formally known as a continuance, as proposed by Chairman John Bustamante.
Summer Greathouse said de-designating the property as historic would encourage owners to let a property decay in order to force a demolition.
“What about the Alamo? The Alamo was unstable for many years,” Greathouse said. “I think that the City needs to figure out a way to incentivize the correct behavior. So if I do support the continuance, I do expect that the public safety threat will be remedied.”
Bustamante, who represents District 5 where the property is located, said he had two reasons to support a delay. “One is, everyone seems to want that time. … That weighs heavily on me,” he said.
The second reason he said is that when it comes to zoning overlays for historic structures, the zoning commission generally looks to the HDRC for such decisions.
“I think there are a lot of issues, as the discussion indicated – how this process works, how it should work – and what kind of transparency and public access should we have in these processes,” Bustamante said. The motion passed 10-0 with commissioner Kin Yan Hui recusing himself.