San Antonio Preservation Roundup, December 2021, or: Pity the Negligent
The main image here is our 1870 Wulff House, now for sale after 47 years of Conservation Society ownership. We maintain all of our properties with regular maintenance and cyclical maintenance for major systems and features like roofs, porches and facades. We need to be good stewards and set an example. This story is not about us.
A year ago I wrote a blog about how preservation laws and agreements were just being ignored. This week the ongoing story of the Whitt Building took another turn when the owners filed a press release (and a lawsuit) against the city for preventing their demolition of the Whitt Building. The Whitt made news back on Memorial Day Weekend when the City briefly ordered demolition of the structure after the roof collapsed a bit more, only to overrule itself when a structural report and the Historic and Design Review Commission held an emergency meeting to save it.
The story really begins in 1990, when prominent local family who owns the restaurant behind the building, bought the structure, which is a landmark in the Cattleman Square district west of downtown. So….they bought a LANDMARK and then left it out in the rain for 30 years, hoping for the worst. The problem is that this particular building has a concrete structure with mad cred, so much so that the roof does not hold the walls together as it does on many other buildings.
The press release has already had an impact the trailing lawsuit likely can’t match, eliciting sympathy for the poor owners of this eyesore.
Which they bought thirty years ago. WHEN IT HAD ALREADY BEEN A LANDMARK FOR FIVE YEARS. You can see why I don’t have any sympathy – this didn’t sneak up on y’all.
But the press release is timed very well – there is another story about a guy who bought the shotgun house next to his own for the purpose of tearing it down so his kids could play in a bigger yard. Unlike the owners above and below, they were not aware that the building was being considered a landmark. Add the Whitt owners’ press release and the pity party gets some legs.
So maybe this year’s theme is not “Mejor perdon que permiso” but “Feel bad for me, look what I caused” or “Pity the Negligent.” Same story at 503 Urban Loop, which I wrote about last time, owned by ANOTHER prominent restaurant family. We got a tour not long ago and the homeless have taken it over and trashed the inside. They have not trashed the structure, but you got the sense that the tour was meant to make you feel bad for the poor owner, as in the Whitt Building press release.
Dude, I’m old. I’ve seen this muck a thousand times before and you can’t tell me this four-by-four 1883 column is going anywhere.
This is called demolition by neglect. The phrase correctly captures the agency involved – it is the owner’s responsibility, and no amount of press releases (or lawsuits) can paper over that.
Meanwhile in the neighborhoods, out-of-town developers are famous for buying up properties and letting nature do their dirty work. This is the second fire at this house which has been laying fallow due to absentee owners.
I have heard building owners explain how hard it is for them to secure their property.
So why is it still their property?
Call me old-fashioned, but I take responsibility for my property and I feel cheated when others get away with doing the opposite.
This is the 1911 Hughes house at 312 W Courtland Street in San Antonio. It sits on a corner next to a parking lot and across from the epic and massive Koehler House. And it is up for demolition. Which is understandable, unless you look at it.
It’s pretty. It’s intact. It is a solidly built, eminently adaptable house. Indeed, it has been owned by the Archdiocese for over half a century. They used it for a Catholic student center for most of that time, but now apparently it needs work. LIKE EVERY OTHER HOUSE IN HISTORY.
So, we have an owner who feel they can’t rehabilitate a house they themselves have let go. What is the alternative? Are they going to build a new student center? A parking lot? What is the alternative? Nothing. Just like 503 Urban Loop, our brothel-cum-child care center that is up for designation December 2. The owners originally said they were building a residential highrise, not they are on to the NO ALTERNATIVE PLANS plans.
Does anything say “I’M A FLIPPER” more loudly than a request for demolition with no plan for a replacement?
I remember City Council members back in the 1980s in Chicago saying that they might vote against landmarking something if they saw that what it was going to be replaced with was better. That actually makes sense, because a legislative representative has to look at all the factors, whereas a landmarks commissioner focuses on whether the building meets the criteria for designation.
If you aren’t revealing your plan, you probably don’t have one. In fact, you might just be shilling for the eventual owner, who has convinced you to do the dirty work of getting a demolition permit before they will ink the deal. It happens. But the Tobin Hill neighbors who are upset about the Hughes house are right, and the Council Member needs to have an alternative or he will be approving an Alternativeless Demolition.
Despite four non-profit and neighborhood organizations supporting the designation of 503 Urban Loop, it has its detractors because it is not conventionally pretty from all angles. Some might argue that the homeless are getting in and demolition is necessary. Because demolition solves the homeless issue?
312 W. Courtland is a very nice house so it might have even more friends, and fewer social ills in its Tobin Hill/Monte Vista neighborhood.
No, the real issue at 312 W. Courtland is likely that a potential buyer is asking the Archdiocese to demolish it because, under state law, they can do it UNLIKE EVERY OTHER BUILDING OWNER because they are a church.
The building isn’t a church, of course, which is what the first religious exclusion laws in the 80s focused on. It’s a perfectly good house.
Want to know the funny part?
The Archdiocese is likely getting hosed by the buyer – who is obviously making their offer contingent on the Archdiocese getting the demolition.
How many ways are there to be hosed in this situation?
- The property was never listed for sale, so all of those out-of-state transplants buying big lovely houses three blocks away have not had a chance to bid on this. The Archdiocese is leaving money on the table.
- The demolition and disposal cost on this is going to be high. Tile roofs are lovely, but heavy. Brick is also lovely, and you can’t push it over for $20k. Not a cheap demolition by any stretch. If the Archdiocese pays this bill for the under-the-market buyer, they are again….leaving money on the table.
So, what is the alternative? We don’t know.
Tobin Hill neighbors are asking for a Review of Significance, which you can support by contacting the Office of Historic Preservation, City of San Antonio. Again, State law allows the Archdiocese to prevail over landmarks laws, but let’s at least shine a light on it.
WHAT CAN YOU DO!
Visit the Conservation Society page on the Hughes House TODAY!
See the Conservation Society page on 503 Urban Loop now!
JUNE 2022 UPDATE: The HUGHES HOUSE IS SAVED! The Archdiocese found a willing buyer who is interested in repurposing the house! Apparently the sale closed today!
Demolition and economic hardship
For as long as historic preservation ordinances have been judged appropriate exercises of the police power (40+ years) they have included provisions for economic hardship. This makes sense, if a building is so far gone that it cannot be economically rehabilitated, there should be an exception. But how did it get there? And what are your (legal standard spoiler alert!) “reasonable investment-backed expectations?”
See, San Antonio is pretty good at fixing old buildings that people in other towns won’t. So, when you hear that someone is trying to tear down a salvageable house, odds are they aren’t from here. And their claims of economic hardship? Even sillier.
So, let’s say you owned this house for eight years. During that time you could have invested a couple thousand dollars a year and slowly brought it back to life. Or you could ignore it, allow the homeless to congregate there, and hope that your investment would turn – magically – into a lucrative vacant lot. Except it’s not magic and it is very deliberate. Even the well-worn phrase “demolition by neglect” sounds more benign than malignant, and this behavior is malignant.
See, this isn’t some poor guy who can’t maintain a house. This is an out-of-town investor who has more than a dozen business entities, each of which owns one of these houses in the neighborhood. This isn’t economic hardship – this is malignant neglect and a business model built on NOT taking care of the assets you own.
How do you argue economic hardship when you have created all of the conditions that made the building expensive to rehab? What are the “reasonable investment-backed expectations” of this business model?
And how do the neighbors like it? Well, if you are behind one of these single-house-owning-LLCs, you should reasonably expect that your investment and your business practice model are going to piss off the neighbors. Indeed, that is one of many reasons for putting the asset into a one-off corporate entity – to hide from the neighbors.
Heck, those pesky neighbors might insist that the city enforce the same regulations on you as they do on them. What’s that called? Equity?
No, not that kind of equity.
Time for a new business model.
An even better business model: Buy a perfectly lovely old house, DO NOTHING to the point of actively resisting neighbor’s attempts to lease it, encourage vagrants to collect on the property, and then WAIT for the neighbors to demand demolition because of all the problems the property is causing. YOU aren’t causing the problems, the property is. Did I mention you needed to excise your moral compass and human integrity to follow this business model? No problem? Good!
JULY 2021 UPDATE
I noticed that the Louisiana legislature is considering a bill that would allow New Orleans to double the fines for violating building permits to $1,000 a day to “deter bad actors”. That would be good here as well.