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In an abnormally rowdy night at the Historic and Design Review Commission, parents, former students, and faculty of Beacon Hill Academy tearfully implored commissioners to ease the way toward demolition for an unused 1915 campus building on the school’s grounds. Parents say the building has created safety concerns and limited the space that the growing student body needs for physical activity.
The question at stake Wednesday night, however, was whether or not the building was of historical significance to the neighborhood and City. Commissioners ultimately voted 5-3 to find the structure historically significant, and advance the process to create a new local landmark, making it harder to eventually demolish.
San Antonio Independent School District and families of schoolchildren sought a denial of the historic status in hopes of forcing some action toward addressing the building’s condition. The building has sat vacant for more than two decades and has become dilapidated over time, with cracks in the brick exterior and significant water damage inside.
“Those bricks mean more to us than any of you [commissioners] sitting here today and we are ready to see that go so that our children don’t have to look at this building and think that all their worth is that dilapidation,” Beacon Hill alumna Devyn Gonzales said.
The matter will go next to City Council, which will decide whether to designate the building as having historical significance.
City staff estimated the Beacon Hill decision could go to Council sometime in late December or early January. Council’s first decision would be whether to initiate the rezoning process. The matter would go to the zoning commission, and then it would return to Council likely in February or March, Office of Historic Preservation Director Shanon Shea Miller said.
Even if Council approves the historic designation, there would still be an opportunity for SAISD to argue for demolition based on economic hardship or loss of historic value, but district officials said that would be a challenge.
Following the commissioners’ vote, parents rallied outside the boardroom with young students in tow, vowing to contact City Council members and encourage them to vote against granting the building historical status.
“Do not give up, do not be discouraged,” Beacon Hill Principal Laryn Nelson said. “Sí se puede!”
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) has repeatedly advocated for the building’s renovation, but parents say the estimated cost of more than $4 million has no dedicated funding. Treviño’s office and the Office of Historic Preservation have both said applying for historic status would make it easier to secure tax credits that could likely defray some of the cost of restoration.
With no money pledged toward updates, SAISD has committed to finding money to demolish the building. This cost is significantly less than the cost to update the building. As a result, the Beacon Hill community is pushing for demolition, saying that 20 years is too long for a building to sit vacant with no use.
In 1997, SAISD first explored demolition but had its permit denied by the City. Meeting minutes show that after the demolition was denied, the district committed to preserving the building.
Several commissioners questioned SAISD officials on this Wednesday, asking why more had not been done to preserve the building, and why the district could not now put aside money to make changes.
With significant needs elsewhere in the district, SAISD Board President Patti Radle said using precious funds to restore a building that is not currently in use would be irresponsible.
City officials argued that in the end, the building is of historical significance. Policy states that to be deemed significant, a building must meet three of 16 qualifiers in the Unified Development Code. The 1915 building met eight, including being the work of a master architect, embodying an architectural style, and having a unique location, city staff said.
Patti Zaiontz, the first vice president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, summed up the argument for historic status by saying that despite two decades of neglect, the building retains “significant architectural features” on both the exterior and interior.