Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
City Council decided Thursday to give the owner of a long-vacant gas station on the near Southwest side six more months before voting on whether to start the historic designation process for the building. The owner asked the City for permission to demolish it in October last year, but that process was paused when the San Antonio Conservation Society filed a request for the City consider the 1936 Pure Oil gas station a historic landmark.
The building has been vacant for more than 20 years and is in dire need of repairs, said attorney Rob Killen, who is representing the 98-year-old property owner, Maria Hetos. Thursday’s decision to delay comes after the first delay was granted by Council for the owner and Conservation Society in January to try to find a buyer or developer willing to purchase the property and restore the gas station with some kind of adaptive re-use.
City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, whose District 5 includes the neighborhood where the gas station is located, led both votes. It’s common for Council to side with the member whose district the issue is in.
“My heart wants to see this property developed with the gas station in place,” said Gonzales, who initially was going to vote against the historic designation. “The will of the community is that ‘we just want to see the property developed.’ … [They] continue to see projects started and then not completed.”
After considering comments from fellow Council members and Conservation Society leadership, Gonzales asked to delay the vote for six months.
She encouraged City staff to look into ways to help fund renovations. “If it’s the City’s action to designate it, then it should also be the City’s charge to find funding to do that,” she said.
When a building is designated as historic by the City, it’s difficult to get permission to demolish it, and there are strict rules on how its exterior can be modified. The Office of Historic Preservation oversees these processes, including the Historic and Design Review Commission.
Killen told City Council on Thursday that he was contacted by two interested buyers in the past two months, but both were “low-ball offers” for the parcel that includes four buildings north of San Pedro Creek between the Collins Garden and Lone Star neighborhoods.
City Council’s action – or lack thereof – Thursday will likely not help make the property attractive to potential buyers, he said, now that the building is in limbo.
If Council approved the historic designation process immediately, the question of whether to designate the gas station historic would still have to go to the Zoning Commission for further vetting and then back to City Council for final approval. The HDRC has already found the building historically significant.
Hetos would have had at least a “clear path forward and timeline” had Council moved forward Thursday, Killen said.
“We’ve just left it open-ended,” he said. “[Hetos] is going to be very disappointed that we didn’t get [a] resolution today. I’m optimistic that there is a buyer out there who can develop the property and find a way to save the gas station.”
Now, it will be at least a year since filing the demolition request before Hetos can get an answer.
While historic designation is seen by some as a barrier to development, others, including the Conservation Society and OHP staff, see economic growth potential. Historically designated properties are eligible for state and federal historic renovation tax credits and contribute to the “authenticity” of San Antonio, said Susan Beavin, the society’s president.
Beavin said they received the names of eight people who were interested in the property – none of which Killen said he heard from. They briefly exchanged information after the meeting Thursday. The property owners have asked Killen to handle interest in the property by emailing him directly at email@example.com.
Gonzales and Killen said that the Collins Garden neighborhood residents weren’t interested in the site being designated historic.
“The neighborhood may not be aware of all the potential” the building has to become a restaurant, office, or part of a mixed-used development, Beavin said, adding that the other buildings on the lot were not designated historic and therefore there could be room for a buyer to develop there without touching the gas station.
“There is time to maybe show the neighborhood that there is potential there,” she said. “The gas station is still wonderful and a nice centerpiece [of the property].”
Representatives of the Collins Garden Neighborhood Association could not be reached for comment, but Susan Powers, president of the nearby Lone Star Neighborhood Association, said she would like to see the building renovated.
“I don’t like to see anything that’s old torn down,” Powers, who did not attend the meeting, told the Rivard Report. “I think it’s a pretty building and it would be nice if they kept it.”
Hetos’ father built the station, constructed in a Tudor Revival style rare in San Antonio, and it remained a gas station through the 1960s. It then became a tire repair shop and auto repair shop before closing in the 1990s, according to the Conservation Society. It’s the only Pure Oil station left in San Antonio.
Hetos lives in hospice care in Memphis, where her daughters reside.
Killen said if the process was approved today, his client would continue to wait five months before demolishing the building and offer anyone interested in moving it $10,000 to help defray moving costs and give it to them for free. It’s a deal that Council declined and the Conservation Society said wouldn’t satisfy the historic integrity of the building.
Beavin noted that the Conservation Society estimated that moving the structure would cost $100,000.
“At the end of the day it always comes down to money,” Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said.
Neither Perry nor Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said they would support using taxpayer dollars to directly assist the rehabilitation of historic buildings such as this one. However, they would like to see such structures protected.
“The gas station is actually pretty cool … I’m not saying we help them with tax dollars … but there are methods and mechanisms that can help us,” Brockhouse said.