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Hackberry saplings and spiders are tenants at 422 E. Park Avenue in the Tobin Hill neighborhood. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

East Park Avenue a showcase for urban blight and renewal

The house at 422 E. Park Avenue has seen better days. Built around 1900, the three-bedroom, two-story, 2,520-square-foot structure leans in a southwesterly direction, judging from the tilted two pillars that guard its entrance. The paint is peeling. The porch and the balcony are rotting away. The yard is overgrown with spider webs and hackberry saplings, and the brick and wrought iron fence is falling apart. The Bexar Appraisal District values the house and property at $36,500, and lists Abelardo Treviño as the occupant. But nobody lives there anymore.

The house's next-door neighbor, 502 E. Park, appears to feel worse. The three-bedroom, three-bath home was converted into apartments at some point in its 82-year existence, but a poorly erected chain link fence now prevents anyone from entering.

These homes serve as a silent reminder of the fate 300 houses in the Tobin Hill and Monte Vista neighborhoods have met in a relentless onslaught of urban termites: property owners who have opted to bulldoze historic structures instead of saving and renovating them to their past glory.

The term "urban termites" was adopted by local historic home preservation advocates, who apply it to former members of the Alamo Community College District Board of Trustees and to the honchos of Metropolitan Methodist Hospital, who have demolished houses in Tobin Hill and Monte Vista to build parking lots in the formerly magnificent neighborhoods. Yet, San Antonio College and the medical complex aren't the only termites to take a bite out of the neighborhood. Stories abound about property owners who have mowed down houses to make room for office buildings, apartments, and asphalt parking lots.

Technically, the homes can't be called historic, because Tobin Hill has not been declared a historic district. That's a fight that will occur next year when the city tries to designate the area historic, and thus imposing more building and demolition regulations on property owners. The topic is contentious, especially in Tobin Hill. Feelings run so strongly on both sides that two neighborhood associations have evolved: one tolerant of destroying old houses in Tobin Hill, and the other adamantly in favor of preserving these homes.

District 1 Councilman Roger Flores Jr. has initiated a change in the city's Uniform Development Code that could slow the pace of demolition.

"What is true for zoning is true for demolition of historic homes," said Flores of his plan. "Whoever seeks a demolition permit needs to notify neighbors 200 feet around, and there needs to be signage on the property itself that notes that a demolition permit has been applied for."

The signs would have to be posted two weeks before the scheduled demolition.

The new rules are not yet firm. The City Council will have to approve the changes in the UDC, but Flores says he has the votes to make it happen. "I thought it was important for us to protect our historical structures."

Flores made thistoric preservation in his district a major part of his council campaign last May. He stood vigil for two homes on West Euclid and Brooklyn streets with former councilwoman Maria Berriozabal, District 1 opponent Rene Balderas, and preservation activists.

If medals were handed out for preserving historic homes in the Alamo City, Rod Radle, executive director of the San Antonio Alternative Housing Corp., would earn one for saving the former home of Harry Hertzberg, a prominent local attorney in the early 20th century, at 521 W. Euclid. The elegant, but timeworn two-story brick home was later divided into apartments, and the surrounding neighborhood has gone to seed, but Radle intends to see the house restored.

San Antonio Alternative Housing bought the structure for $85,000, cleaned it up, and has set a sale price of $120,000. "We acquired it in hopes of locating a family that would want to restore it, explained Radle. "If we don't sell it during 2004, we will go ahead with restoration ourselves."

The effort of San Antonio Alternative Housing to save the Hertzberg home is laudable, and could serve as a bellwether for other property owners in the Tobin Hill neighborhood who demolish old houses to build shoddy new apartments or other edifices in the name of profit. Some of those owners have been accused of demolition by neglect, which is addressed by a city ordinance - but only for houses within historic districts.

"If you intentionally don't take care of the building, it becomes a dangerous structure that would have to be torn down. That is demolition by neglect," explained Ann McGlone, the city's historic preservation officer.

The penalties are steep: $1,000 a day until the property is fixed to the city's suiting - and total fines can run as high as $250,000. But McGlone said fines and court orders are futile when the house is abandoned, tied up in probate court, or the owner doesn't have enough money to fix the problems. "We can win in court, but if they don't have any money, they can't pay the fine to fix the house. It's not a cure-all."

Currently, McGlone and her staff are working with local architecture students to take an inventory of all the buildings in the Tobin Hill neighborhood, including businesses and residences. McGlone said that by March 2004 she will propose neighborhood boundaries for a historic district designation. Residents then could gather signatures to petition for the designation, which would make it more difficult to demolish historic structures.

There's a battle looming in Tobin Hill. Meanwhile, houses on Park Avenue continue to crumble. •