The Blue Star Arts Complex‘s Probandt Street entrance will look radically different in the next year if Blue Star owner and developer James Lifshutz gets his latest Blue Star project – a five-story, 25-unit mixed-use development – through City planning and construction permitting processes. The five residents that live in rental units in the building have until Aug. 1 to move out.
The first hurdle was jumped Wednesday when the Historic and Design Review Commission unanimously approved the preliminary design for the project that would mean demolishing the southernmost building, Building 125, that lines the railroad tracks. The plan includes 6,500 sq. ft. of commercial space on the ground floor and 19 partially-underground parking spaces for residents.
If all goes as planned, demolition will begin late summer, construction in late fall and completion in fall 2016, Lifshutz said.
Alamo Architects Principal Jim Bailey called the section slated for demolition a “substandard addition” to the string of railroad warehouses located a stone’s throw away from the San Antonio River’s Eagleland Reach.
Blue Star is on the National Register of Historic Places but “has fallen into disrepair and has become structurally unsound. Staff finds the applicant’s proposal to partially demolish this section of building 125 appropriate given the proposed plans for new construction,” states the City staff recommendation.
While Commissioner Michael Conner had reservations about the extent of the impact on the National Register designation and losing the historic use of the building, he said that ultimately he was confident that staff had properly vetted those concerns.
Three Blue Star residents – two of which live in the demolition site – and the San Antonio Conservation Society spoke against the demolition during the meeting, citing the historic, railway use of the circa 1950s structure.
“It is difficult to imagine that the portion of the building proposed for demolition does not contribute to the significance of the National Register,” stated Conservation Society President Sue Ann Pemberton in a letter read to the commission. “The nomination states, ‘The Blue Star Street Industrial Historic District’ appears to be unique among the railway architecture remaining in San Antonio.'”
While a visual assessment of the building was performed by the architecture firm’s structural engineer, there were no “exploratory or forensic demolition to test the strength of the steel, concrete and foundation,” Bailey said. “It is possible to repair this building. However, it is cost prohibitive.”
There are five rental units in the existing structure, Lifshutz said after the meeting.
“All of the leases are up,” he said, they’re now living there on month-to-month leases and have been notified that they’ll need to find a new place.”
“If you like where you live, you don’t want to give up your space. I’m totally sympathetic to that,” Lifshutz said, but the timing is right to capitalize on that property as Big Tex and other nearby residential projects start to take shape nearby. The first phase of Big Tex should be done in early 2016, the second phase closer to the end of 2016 – around the same time the new Building 124 will be up for rent.
Construction on the South Alamo Street Bridge last year caused Blue Star’s main entrance to close. But even since its reopening, people have continued to use the “back entrance” off of Probandt Street as well.
“The facades on Alamo street, they’re all beautifully well-built buildings,” Lifshutz said. “But as you go down south from those frontages they get worse and worse and worse – and this is the last building. … Do I want my worst building to be my new front door? The answer is no.”
Tommy Chase, who lives just north of the project, claims his neighbors’ leases extend at least through August – “they are not month-to-month … everyone is still on active leases.
“I kind of didn’t expect (the commission vote) to go our way, but I wanted to have our concerns voiced,” he said after the meeting. Along with the historic significance and lease disagreements, Chase is also concerned about the possibility of dangerous particulates (asbestos and heavy metals) effecting nearby residents, and what he said is a lack of historical research and communication with tenants about the development.
“It’s the equivalent – but not on the scale of– saying, ‘We’re going to take the outer wall of the Alamo and put a business in there because you have the rest of the Alamo to go to,'” he said. “Destroying an historic building so you can build one of the gaudiest things I’ve seen is wrong. … The only remaining (architecture of interest in the immediate area) is the Pioneer Flour (Mills) tower, and that isn’t open to the public.”
The Blue Star Arts Complex has historically been private property and will continue to be so. Lifshutz, as the owner of that building, said simply, “It’s a beautiful design. I’d rather have a beautiful building than an ugly one.”