Michael Guarino, a renowned local architect who served as chair of the Historic and Design Review Commission, resigned from that position Tuesday.
The District 2 and District 4 commissioners have also recently resigned, leaving three seats open on the commission that makes exterior design recommendations for structures in historic districts, downtown areas, publicly owned buildings, and those near the San Antonio River.
“After nine years and seven months on the commission it’s about time for someone else to do the job,” Guarino said via email. He declined to elaborate.
Guarino was appointed to HDRC in 2010 by then-Mayor Julián Castro. Officially, he had not been reappointed, but so-called “holdover” members of the commission may serve as interim commissioners until they step down or are replaced by their respective City Council member.
“It is my understanding that a letter of resignation is not required for an interim position, so this is notification that I am terminating my interim service as of today,” Guarino wrote in a communication to Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s office on Tuesday.
He spent nine years with Ford, Powell & Carson before he retired as partner and he has served as interim executive director of King William Association.
Guarino is widely respected in the development and neighborhood advocacy communities, but the commission often encounters controversial projects and protests, as it is one of the more high-profile boards that makes recommendations to City Council and staff. A project does not technically need approval from HDRC to proceed, as recently illustrated with City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s decision to approve the design of an apartment complex near the historic Hays Street Bridge, but it’s largely seen as essential to build, modify, or move buildings/structures under its purview.
More recent controversial decisions include the approval of the Alamo Master Plan and recommending historic designation for a dilapidated building at Beacon Hill Elementary School. This week, however, City Council will consider a compromise deal that allows the building to be demolished in exchange for a new cultural/architectural heritage curriculum. HDRC was not formally notified of that compromise, according to the Office of Historic Preservation.
Jim Bailey, principal at Alamo Architects, frequently finds his projects – high-profile and small-scale – up for review by the commission.
Guarino’s presence will be missed on HDRC, Bailey said, because he was sensitive to historic preservation, property rights, and the concerns neighbors often have regarding development.
“Not only is he a skilled architect … he has been sort of this ultimate middle ground between neighbors and [developers],” Bailey said. “He encouraged everyone to sit back and talk through [projects].”
Some developers often say the HDRC should be abolished, he said, while neighborhoods often feel the commission is too development-friendly.
“The reality is, it’s a group of trained professionals that are dedicated community servants,” Bailey said, adding that HDRC isn’t perfect, but the mechanism it provides is necessary. “It’s a thankless job.”
Sandi Wolff, who had represented District 2 on HDRC since she was appointed in September, said her departure from the commission was unrelated to Guarino’s.
“I took on a new job and I just don’t have time [to serve on HDRC] with my employment commitment,” Wolff said. “I wish I could have continued to serve.”
She will attend as many meetings as possible until an interim member is selected, she said.
Michael Connor resigned from the District 4 seat in September after he was informed by Councilman Rey Saldaña’s office that they were looking for a replacement, according to his resignation letter.
The 11 commissioners serve two year terms at a time indefinitely at the will of their respective City Council member or mayor who appoint them. The commissioners don’t have to live in the district they represent, but they must live in San Antonio. Typically, however, district representatives live in the area.
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The HDRC members have experience in architecture, historic preservation, landscape architecture, planning, public art, and development – but it’s not required. The amount of time needed to review cases and attending meetings (which can last more than five hours) is not insignificant and a learning curve for some to understand architectural drawings can be steep.
Each term of the current commissioners expires at the end of May this year, after the municipal elections. It’s not atypical for a Council member to retain the sitting commissioner or appoint a new one.