Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Malt House, an iconic San Antonio drive-or-dine-in restaurant that developed deep historic ties to the community throughout its years of serving affordable Mexican and American staples on the Westside, is now on a path to rubble after the City's Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) approved a demolition request by 7-Eleven on Wednesday.
But the convenience store and gas station giant will still have to go back to the drawing board on the design of its new location, commissioners said, before the locally-designated historic building can be razed.
"We've more work to do," HDRC Chair Michael Guarino said. "No demolition will be possible until we're satisfied with the schematic design."
More than 20 citizens, most of them past and present Westside residents, provided emotional statements against demolition. They recalled fond memories of celebrating birthdays, weddings, and prom nights, and sharing simple, casual meals with friends and family at the restaurant. Malt House was designated historic by the City in 2013 as part of the Westside Cultural Resources Survey initiative "for its cultural significance as a place and institution where community gathered, socialized, and celebrated for more than 50 years," according to City documents. "The architecture by itself is not the basis for landmark status, instead the basis is found in spatial (tangible) and social (intangible) characteristics that provide a unique and authentic sense of place."
“Please don’t tear this place down, there’s too much love in there,” longtime Malt House customer John David A. Griffin said, holding back tears as he addressed the commission.
Organizers with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center delivered more than 300 hard-copy petitions and an additional 300 online signatures to the commission to demonstrate the strong connection citizens had to Malt House. There was a similar outpouring of support on social media when it was announced that Malt House would be temporarily closing in January. It never reopened.
"I respect the right of the owners to do what they need to do," said former City Manager Alex Briseño, "but a 7-Eleven? Más no."
There might be a restaurant owner or real estate developer interested in preserving the Malt House, Briseño said. "We need some time to get these other options explored."
Though there was never a "for sale" sign on the front door, the property was on the market for more than two years, according to local attorney William Kaufman, who represented 7-Eleven at the meeting. Some people "kicked the tires" on it, but the only serious bid came from 7-Eleven.
Perhaps the most impactful testimony Wednesday night came from Malt House owner Baldemar Gonzalez, who claimed he was $400,000 in debt from the business he purchased after the previous owner died in the 1990s. Many years prior, he had worked as a bus boy at Malt House.
"Raise your hand and say 'I got $400,000,'" Gonzalez said, turning away from the commissioners to the murmuring crowd behind him. No one raised their hand. "Who has it? Who is going to help me?"
Kaufman and his team estimated it would cost about $1.8 million to get the restaurant into working order while preserving the building.
"While the $1.8 million dollar estimate is a very high estimate," City documents stated, "it’s clear that the cost to rehabilitate the structure would be significant."
Now that the demolition is approved, 7-Eleven will finalize the deal with Gonzalez, Kaufman said. "This shifts the risk of this to 7-Eleven, my client, instead of him. He’s doing all he can do.”
The property, including the land and building at 115 S. Zarzamora St., was appraised at $350,000 this year, according the the Bexar County Appraisal District.
Gonzalez's son, Ivan, told the commissioners that his family is considering operating the franchise store so they can stay in the neighborhood. If only the people that came to the meeting and signed the petitions had come to the restaurant more often, said Ivan, who appreciated the fond memories shared.
"I guess that's all they are ... just memories," he said. "You haven't been here in the longest time. You've moved on ... everybody moved on."
Structures that are designated historic can be demolished if the owner demonstrates unreasonable financial hardship. Most commissioners agreed that the evidence provided by certified inspections and analysis on the structure made it clear that it was beyond repair. From the plumbing to the electrical to the foundation, "we believe it's functionally obsolete," Kaufman said.
Click here to download the application packet and City staff recommendations.
Commissioner Anne-Marie Grube (D7) said more could have been done. Grube cast the sole vote against the demolition.
The design submitted to HDRC for the replacement building and other structures did not satisfy the commissioners or City staff's expectations in regards to paying homage to the former restaurant.
The design uses the original Malt House sign on one of the exterior walls, but does little else, some commissioners noted. They were pleased to see that a shade structure was included with picnic tables to recreate the "gathering place" that the restaurant once was.
7-Eleven's design team will continue to work with the HDRC's Design Committee on finalizing a plan that more closely follows staff recommendations so the replacement structure maintains "elements of the existing structure and spatial configuration in order to retain a sense of place and intangible heritage. This includes: spatial relationships and location of the original footprint; street presence along Zarzamora; setbacks; existing signage; pedestrian flow; areas for gathering and socializing."
Susana Segura, a member of the Westside Preservation Alliance, asked the commission to "challenge them (7-Eleven and the property owners) to think creatively," instead of bringing beer, junk food, cigarettes, and just another gas station into the neighborhood.
“It isn’t a matter of creative design. These are fundamental structural issues,” Kaufman said later.
But there is an alternative path forward for Malt House, Commissioner Tim Cone (D1) pointed out at the end of the meeting.
"This does not close the door to (another) viable solution," Cone said. "There is still a period of time between the approval today and the actual demolition. ... The sellers can consider all options if the members of the community that spoke today actually do have a viable option."
"We're giving the community options, but the option is up against 7-Eleven," Grube replied.
Top image: Malt House at 115 S. Zarzamora St. Photo by Scott Ball.