Most of a 90-year-old, dilapidated structure at the center of a debate between public safety and historic preservation won’t be demolished.
After the Zoning Commission delayed a vote Tuesday on removing the historic designation of the Whitt Printing building at 821 W. Commerce St., another local commission voted during an emergency hearing Wednesday to preserve most of the structure.
The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) voted unanimously Wednesday to follow City staff recommendations to preserve most of the building and address portions of the structure that are unstable.
“We know we have to focus on a remedy that deals with the most hazardous conditions … and then consider the preservation of the majority of the building structure and the historic facade,” said Shanon Miller, director of the City’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP).
While the roof has failed, the overall frame is intact, according to a structural engineer who inspected the building, Miller said. But because the facade is “character-defining,” it and the concrete structure should be preserved while the unstable roof, interior debris, and the concrete masonry infill walls could be removed.
“This maintains the original historic structural portions of the building while at the same time addressing the public safety concerns,” Miller said. “The Conservation Society [of San Antonio] and the owner have both expressed support of this staff recommendation.”
Located in the Cattleman Square Historic District, the historic Whitt Printing building and adjacent Golden Star Cafe are owned by the Yuen King Lim family. Attorney Patrick Christensen represented the family at recent meetings of both the HDRC and the Zoning Commission in which the owners requested permission to demolish the building.
In early May, commissioners had denied a previous request to demolish 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 local land development code.
On May 28, Mike Shannon, director of the City’s Development Services Department, initiated an emergency demolition by neglect process and notified the OHP director to determine how the building could be stabilized rather than demolished.
Tuesday’s Zoning Commission meeting resulted in a continuance, delaying a vote on the rezoning request until the group’s next meeting. Christensen had filed the request for rezoning on behalf of his clients but supported the request for a delay to allow for more discussion by the historic commission.
During the HDRC meeting Wednesday evening, commissioners heard from dozens of people both in support and opposition to razing the Whitt building.
Those opposing demolition, including a number of downtown neighborhood associations, cited the building’s contribution to the culture and history of the district.
A member of the Westside Resident Association read a letter from David Whitt, great-grandson of the founder of the Whitt Printing Company who was also an early founder of the San Antonio Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce:
“The Whitt family believes that the city of San Antonio should feel an obligation to assist the Lim family and ultimately come to a solution that will not allow the full and partial demolition of the Whitt Printing Company building. It is important to our city’s history and culture.”
The Conservation Society also submitted a statement. In it, the group noted its preference for keeping the original structure in place. But if a partial demolition is needed for economic and structural reasons, “we believe the conservation of the facade and at least one full structural bay of the east and west walls would allow the building to retain its historic significance.”
Those who support demolition of the building said it represents a safety hazard for passersby and workers delivering food to the cafe.
Larry Rickels, the structural engineer who examined the structure, said the primary structure is in good shape and may not need supplemental bracing when the concrete masonry infill is removed.
Christensen said the building owner agrees with the recommendation OHP presented but still wants the go-ahead to demolish the two-story, red brick portion that is not part of the original structure. “If we can get that from you tonight, I will withdraw the rezoning immediately,” he said.
After some discussion, commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the plan to maintain the facade and stable walls and columns and allow for possible demolition of the back portion.
Shannon said that due to requirements set out in the land development code when emergency demolition orders are initiated, that work will begin this week and continue through the weekend.
A joint statement issued by Shannon and Miller said the plan “strikes a great compromise for all involved.”
“Maintaining the public’s safety, as well as protecting the historic fabric of our community, are both priorities for the City of San Antonio,” the statement read. “Today’s unanimous action by the HDRC will preserve the historic Whitt Printing Building’s structure and facade, while also securing the site to ensure the safety of those who want to enjoy it.”