Owner Seeks Reduced Historic Designation for Eastside Landmarks

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These buildings that make up the Friedrich Refrigeration complex are designated historic by the City. Courtesy photo.

These buildings that make up the Friedrich Refrigeration complex are designated historic by the City. Courtesy photo.

A representative for the owner of two large, historic building complexes on the city's Eastside  – the Friedrich Refrigeration Building and Merchant's Ice & Cold Storage Building – appeared before the Historic and Design Review Commission to request the official historic designations from the City be removed from large portions of both properties.

Commissioners responded with a unanimous "no" on Wednesday, rejecting claims from land use attorney James McKnight that the historic designations are preventing his client, John Miller of Dallas, and other investors, from selling the complexes. Without the option of demolishing some dilapidated structures, which historic designation prohibits, buyers aren't interested, McKnight said.

"That doesn’t provide, in my mind, a significant excuse for demolishing buildings," said Commission Chair Michael Guarino.

The San Antonio Conservation Society and the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association sent representatives to the meeting to oppose the requested change that would have resulted in the owner preserving the building facades and demolishing extensive portions of the rest. Both buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The redevelopment of the two complexes would add significant momentum to revitalization initiatives already underway on the Eastside, but the balancing act between development and preservation of the Dignowity Hill Historic District and surrounding areas has been the subject of growing public interest as more and more projects come to light. Generally, community leaders support projects that attract more people and amenities to the historically low-income area, but not at the expense of erasing the Eastside's history or allowing substandard design.

An aerial view of downtown and near-Eastside, home to both vacant building complexes. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

An aerial view of downtown and near-Eastside, home to both vacant building complexes. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

McKnight said after the meeting that Miller will take his request to the Zoning Commission, the next rung on the ladder of City government and, if necessary, to City Council where Mayor Ivy Taylor and the 10 council members have the ultimate say over such proposals.

"This is just a recommendation, it goes to Zoning Commission in two weeks. ... I want to know what the commissioners have to say, what OHP (the Office of Historic Preservation) has to say. We want to hear the comments," McKnight said.

OHP staff already has recommended denial of the request to change the designation and allow partial demolition.

Carrying the matter all the way to a City Council vote, while unlikely to reverse decisions at HDRC or the Zoning Commission, will raise the profile of the properties for sale, which might be McKnight's real intent.

"Both buildings are being marketed now, (we want to see) what that reaction is," he said.

There has been interest in both properties, but not from any buyers with deep enough pockets to pay the asking price or with the patience and willingness to see a very complicated historic redevelopment project through to completion. Some local developers say the properties are too far gone to redevelop "as is" with incurring significant financial loss.

"We’re at kind of our wits' end at this point, and we’re really looking for something to get people to the table,” McKnight told commissioners.

The original building of the Merchant's Ice & Cold Storage complex. Courtesy photo.

The original building of the Merchant's Ice & Cold Storage complex. Courtesy photo.

The Merchant's Ice complex at 1305 E. Houston St. was on track for redevelopment into a 262-unit, 120,000 sq. ft. apartment complex last year, but that deal fell through when the developer,  Indiana-based Herman & Kittle Properties Inc., was unable to attract a partner or buyer willing to finance the project.

Plans for the so-called Merchant's Ice Lofts were to include units priced below market rate that would have won City incentives, but McKnight said the historic designation proved to be a deal killer.

"They (HKP) told us at the end that 'had the designation not been there, we could have made this work,'” he said, declining to identify any letters of agreement or other evidence of a prospective buyer willing to back HKP.

“I would be much more sympathetic if you had such a letter or such plans,”  said Commissioner Michael Conner (D4).

The San Antonio Business Journal reported in July that HKP, which does not have any other projects in San Antonio, "spent more than $450,000 on predevelopment and environmental remediation costs. ... And with most of the planning and heavy lifting already done, whoever steps in won't have to do much, aside from turning the dirt."

Those plans were never presented to HDRC for review, said Commissioner Tim Cone (D1). It is incorrect to characterize historic designation as a “detriment to the project when they’ve never event met with HDRC," he said.

"I’m just really amazed that no one has come to the table with the experience (in taking advantage of) historic tax credits,” Guarino said of local, federal, and (soon) state tax credits available for renovation of historic properties. "It’s a bargain.”

He remembers seeing proposed plans at a local architecture firm for the Merchant's complex, but that apparently never came to fruition. He declined to identify the firm.

The Friedrich complex at 1617 E. Commerce St. hasn't been the subject of any major redevelopment proposals for some years, and its many years of vacancy was used to attack Mayor Taylor during the spring runoff campaign by supporters of former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte.

Van de Putte held a press conference across the street to give Eastside leaders an illustrative backdrop that, they said, demonstrated then-interim Mayor Taylor's failed leadership.

“It’s been an eyesore in the community for tens of years,” Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2) said then. “Ivy Taylor had the opportunity as mayor to make a statement. As a District 2 council person she mentioned that this was a catalytic project, and yet she didn’t do anything as mayor to move this project forward.”

Taylor gave a measured response at the time.

“The Friedrich building is a difficult project with an owner that’s been difficult to deal with and I think maybe four mayors and four city managers have tried to tackle that and I certainly gave it a good go,” she said.

Owner Miller and his associates won approval from HDRC in September 2014 to demolish half of the 14 structures that make up the Friedrich complex after presenting plans that showed new construction would preserve the building's exterior and more than half of its overall structure.

Miller has said the site has the capacity to hold a six-story parking garage, more than 500 housing units, and 60,000 sq. ft. of commercial space.

McKnight's unsuccessful efforts to persuade HDRC officials to remove the historic designation probably means any sale or redevelopment of the Friedrich site remains unlikely anytime soon.

 

*Top image: These buildings that make up the Friedrich Refrigeration complex are designated historic by the City. Courtesy photo. 

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Vacant Lots in Dignowity Hill Will Be Filled

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18 thoughts on “Owner Seeks Reduced Historic Designation for Eastside Landmarks

  1. I understand that it’s important to keep our city’s history intact, but fighting for inward-facing industrial buildings at the expense of neighborhood progress is completely short-sighted. What good is a supposedly significant structure if it remains vacant, obsolete, blighted, and keeps the surrounding neighborhood down? I would much rather see the primary buildings preserved with care and the inner buildings demolished than watch the whole thing go down in flames.
    Besides that, has the HDRC ever even visited cities outside of Texas? They clearly don’t have a good grasp on what historically significant buildings are.

    • The part that bothers me is that nothing was presented to the Commission to show financial hardship. That should have been the minimum requirement. That actually isn’t hard to show when you are anticipating adaptive reuse. I agree with commentersbelow that it seems like the developer just doesn’t want any restrictions, period.

      Otherwise, FYI, there are a number of reasons buildings/places are historic. It might be who or what happened there, it could be an important example of some architect/builder’s work, or an influencing project, or an example of what was typical at one time in the past. That’s why every structure/place has “Contributing Elements” as to what is contributing to the designation. The interior may be more important than the exterior. In downtown LA, many of the interior corridors of the office buildings circa 1900-1920 are designated because they have clerestory windows to let in light (and retrofiting is difficult when the common corridor with upper level glass has to be preserved).

      In NYC several 1940-50 era modern office buildings are designated due to their construction methods… so it severely limits what one can do about window replacements for efficiency – since the first of these buildings were framed similar to brick buildings with lintels worked into the structural curtain wall — so there is no room for dual-pane glass.

    • There was no “ruling” because (as stated in the article) there was nothing presented by the developer as to why the designation was a hardship other than just saying it was a hardship.

  2. If the Pearl can converted to what it has become this can be changed (and preserved) into something creative as well. Seems like the owner doesn’t know or wish to deal with the resources at his disposal. Tearing it down for a parking garage? No way. Creating something fresh, new, and modern WITH the structure remaining? Absolutely. Someone needs to the capacity to think big and creatively here.

  3. If the Pearl can converted to what it has become this can be changed (and preserved) into something creative as well. Seems like the owner doesn’t know or wish to deal with the resources at his disposal. Tearing it down for a parking garage? No way. Creating something fresh, new, and modern WITH the structure remaining? Absolutely. Someone needs to the capacity to think big and creatively here.

    • There is only one Kit Goldsbury (developer of the Pearl) in San Antonio. I don’t know if even today he has recovered his investment (more like a legacy to the City) in the Pearl. How many people can afford to lose money for years to fund a dream or a project?
      There seems to be a predisposition in San Antonio to think that an old architectural style cannot blend with a modern one next door. Just travel some and watch! New projects are being forced to look old.
      To me architecture is an art. It should not be regulated. Beauty in a building, just like in a painting, is subjective. Some may like it, others may not. Just because HDRC approves some design, it does not make it pretty to everyone.
      Imagine an artist being told that he/she can paint anything they want but because we are in SA, he/she cannot use the colors blue and red, because we only use earth colors in this town.
      Any private project must make economic sense. We can regulate zoning, setbacks, heights, etc., i.e. factors that we can measure, but we should not regulate architectural styles.
      What I believe is happening is that HDRC does not trust the professionals (architects) to design a building to blend with the neighboring structures and wants to impose a style. I have attended meetings where the members of the HDRC cannot agree on style, which only makes the process very frustrating. Needless to say, more expensive to build. I have also seen projects get approved where the artist (architect) had to cave in to imposed changes that are not of his/her creation, just to move forward.

  4. The Friedrich building brings back memories. I worked summers there during high school assembling coils for air conditioners. They required a lot of oil in assembling. We then hung the coils on conveyer belts in the ceiling and the belt moved them into another room where the ACs were assembled. At the end of the shift our clothes, hair and body were soaked in oil. Perhaps a future use would be an olive oil factory?

  5. The Friedrich Building complex is critically important to the future success of developing the Eastside into a desirable community while still embracing it’s history. Historic designations should not be stripped away, but at the same time portions of that building are not as significant as others. The complex must retain it’s identity and historical legacy. It is an ideal site for mixed use development. If these out of town DALLAS developers could have a longer range of sight instead of only viewing their immediate profits, they might see the benefits of future profitability through sustainable and respectable redevelopment with good architectural planning and respect for the community’s needs.

  6. The Friedrich Building complex is critically important to the future success of developing the Eastside into a desirable community while still embracing it’s history. Historic designations should not be stripped away, but at the same time portions of that building are not as significant as others. The complex must retain it’s identity and historical legacy. It is an ideal site for mixed use development. If these out of town DALLAS developers could have a longer range of site instead of only viewing their immediate profits, they might see the benefits of future profitability through sustainable and respectable redevelopment with good architectural planning and respect for the community’s needs.

  7. Historic designation does NOT mean that an owner is completely prevented from demolishing a building. All it means is that the owner has to present a better case than “because I want to,” and present their redevelopment plans. Historic designation helps protect the SITE, not just the buildings on it. The article states that the owner was already given permission to demolish a good portion of the complex, so the HDRC is not saying that they can’t demolish any of the buildings… they just want to know what they plan to replace them with.

    In my opinion, it appears that the owner just doesn’t want to have to comply with any design standards. Every progressive city has design standards, so San Antonio’s requirement is not unusual. For example, in Austin, if your building has too much concrete block or EIFS (“fake stucco”), you need to earn additional “design points”. San Antonio is much more generous in that they just enforce design standards if the project is in a historic district, near the river, or is (as in this case) a designated landmark.

  8. My dad, Tom Berg, was president of Friedrich in 1970 when he closed shop there and relocated to Binz Engelmann & IH 35.

    He opened a vocational school for welding in the old building and hoped for someone to re-imagine its use. That, sadly, has never happened…and that was almost 50 yrs ago!

    The building as a factory for the manufacture of room air conditioners was hopelessly inefficient. So much so that it was abandoned three years after he took the helm of Friedrich.

    Keep the sign; tear the building down.

  9. John Miller is known in Dallas as a historic preservationist and he has done wonderful work restoring warehouses, original windows and using all the federal, state and city incentives there are to make a redevelopment project feasible. They need to present a ‘redesignation’ contingent to the sale and redevelopment plans from another investor/partnership.

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