Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Bexar County Commissioners Tuesday solidified a deal with local developer James Lifshutz, who owns land at Hot Wells, to redevelop the historic ruins into a county park. Under the contract, the County will get four acres of land surrounding Hot Wells for the park and will pay $52,459.39 to the Edwards Aquifer Authority for a partial release of a lien on the four-acre property.
Published on April 5, 2017
Bexar County commissioners approved a special warranty deed for the Hot Wells redevelopment project Tuesday. The document is the County's "last and final offer" to land owner and local developer James Lifshutz as it prepares to acquire the property and turn the historic ruins into a county park, according to Judge Nelson Wolff.
Lifshutz, who didn't return the Rivard Report's requests for comment, has to meet an April 13 deadline to sign the document. Time is running out for the County to capitalize on a right-of-way agreement with Union Pacific to construct a road in and out of the site, Wolff said, and also to accept a $1 million project grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
If Lifshutz doesn't comply, the offer will be terminated and the County could pull out of the deal altogether.
"If the deed is signed then we’ve got a clear path forward," Wolff said.
Hot Wells, established in 1894, was a popular spa, hotel, bathhouse, and health resort frequented by dignitaries and prominent figures from across the world up until the 1920s. Several fires consumed the site and left it in ruins, and in 2012 the Hot Wells Conservancy started planning to restore the lifeless site. In 2015, the County pledged funds to rehabilitate the Southside property, turning it into the newest Bexar County park.
The deed approved by commissioners Tuesday is a result of the County's negotiations with various entities and project stakeholders including Lifshutz, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, Union Pacific, and the Hot Wells Conservancy.
Negotiations with Lifshutz – who offered last December to donate 3.92 acres of Hot Wells land that he owns to the County for the park's development, pending an official agreement – have been ongoing over the last few weeks.
A recent media report stated there were disagreements between Lifshutz, who is conducting business under the name Hot Wells L.P., and the County concerning who would cover certain project costs relating to environmental remediation. Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), who had been negotiating with Lifshutz's lawyers, told the Rivard Report that those issues had already been resolved. Calvert said he and Lifshutz had not previously discussed the deed approved Tuesday and is unsure if Lifshutz will sign it.
According to the contract, Lifshutz will donate the 3.92 acres to the County, which will cover the cost of a $63,000 lien placed on the property by the Edwards Aquifer Authority to cap an on-site water well. Additionally, as required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the County will pay to remove underground storage tanks on the land as well as lead contaminating the soil.
The lead is believed to have come from lead-based paint on the building that seeped into the ground when the hotel burned down years ago, said Bexar County Heritage & Parks Department Director Betty Bueché.
"The cost of abatement [for the lead and the storage tanks], we believe, had been at approximately $800,000," she said. "We have worked closely with the environmental consulting firm, and as of yesterday they believe that they can get that down to approximately $450,000."
There currently is no road access to the ruins, and gaining approval to create that access from South Presa Street has been a complicated issue. An agreement with Union Pacific Railroad, signed by its officials and pending approval by County commissioners, will allow the County to construct an entrance drive from the street over the railroad tracks in the area, but the tracks pose problems for emergency vehicles traveling to the property.
The County may consider again working with the Torres family, which has owned nearby property for 150 years, to see if they are willing to sell their land to the County to build a road to Hot Wells.
Pushback from the family over the past few months led the County to drop those plans. However, after the recent death of the family's matriarch, Crisanta Torres, her family members have said that they may now consider selling the property.
Wolff asked Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez (Pct. 1) to follow up with them to see if that's still a possibility.
Lifshutz, who owns around 21 acres of land around Hot Wells, plans to develop an ice house and single-family homes in the area. At a later date, the County and Lifshutz will establish an easement across the land for vehicular and pedestrian traffic coming in and out of the property. Parking, however, would not be included in the agreement.
Pending Lifshutz's signature on the contract, the County will accept a $1 million grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to go toward the project, which will involve masonry work, landscaping, construction, invasive species removal, utilities, and the implementation of trails, signage, and an entry road.
With the grant, the County is putting more than $4.8 million toward the effort.
Proponents of the park, including Yvonne Katz, president of the Hot Wells Conservancy, believe in the importance of re-opening the ruins to the public.
"You think you're in Europe looking at the set of old ruins," said Katz, whose nonprofit will provide public programs at the finished park. She also foresees the rehabilitation endeavor breathing new life into the Southside and connecting residents and visitors to the city's bustling Mission Reach and Spanish-colonial Missions – World Heritage sites since 2015.
"This has been talked about for years, it's been so difficult," Wolff said. "... It is a very historic site and [we want] it to be unique to preserve San Antonio's history."