Monday’s demolition of the old Jorrie Furniture Building at 131 San Pedro took the city’s historic-preservation watchdogs by surprise. Defeat on this scale, as in the case of the recently flattened downtown Walgreens, usually follows a protracted fight, marked by dramatic appeals to San Antonio’s sentimental citizens. But this time, the property’s (temporary) owners, the American Payroll Institute, whose headquarters are nearby at 660 N. Main, circumvented the usual review process and went straight to outgoing Planning Director Emil Moncivais, who signed the 1929 building’s death warrant on his way out the door. SA Preservation Officer Ann Benson McGlone, who is leaving the City this week to work as the Community Development Director for Alamo Heights, spent a few of her final COSA minutes dishing and dissing our local conservation policy, and putting the recent, documented spike in historic demos in
Could you explain how `the 131 San Pedro demo` didn’t go through the Historic and Design Review Committee process?
Any single demolition in the City of San Antonio comes through the Historic Preservation office, so we don’t tear something down that has historic value. So we look at every single thing, and it’s our job as staff to determine if there’s a historic significance to the property. So when they had originally turned in their demolition application for the property, we, the Historic staff, had said we think this has historic significance. We met the owner out there, talked about it, tried to find some alternative uses for it, talked to some people who might be interested in buying it and using it for something else ... So we worked with the developer on that. He was never really interested in developing it, and hired a lobbyist to see if they could get somebody to sign off on it at the City. So the lobbyist ... just went straight to Emil `Moncivais`, because Emil was director of Planning, over Historic. And so right before Emil left he signed off on the demolition of the building. So, I think what they’re trying to say is, in a normal process, if it would have come to our office, the Historic office, we would have said — because we had told them once already — that we thought it had historic significance, so then it would go to the HDRC for a finding of historic significance, and that didn’t happen because Emil decided that, whatever, he was gonna sign off on it, that it must not be historic — I have no idea; he didn’t talk to us about it.
And technically he has the authority to do that?
He does have the authority to do that. He was our boss. The HDRC is a recommending body to the director of Planning, and so generally you interpret that as he takes their recommendation and makes a decision. So in this case he just signed off on it, because he’s the boss over Historic Preservation.
What do you think is driving the `increase in historic and emergency demolitions`?
Oh, I think it’s very cyclical, it’s very, very cyclical. Code Compliance has a performance measure, about how many demolitions they can tear down. For them it’s a good thing in the city. The City, when it does its performance measures, it’s all kind of geared around how many miles of asphalt did we lay this year, or how many garbage pickups did we do — you know it’s like something that’s really countable, so it’s really easy on your performance measures to say, OK, we demolished this many houses this year, and we’re gonna demolish this many houses next year, and then the next year we’re gonna demolish X amount of houses.
So the accounting isn’t based on preservation.
And it’s not based on, “Is it good for the city?” But it’s something that you can show an increase in. And usually what happens cyclically is they do a whole, whole, whole, whole bunch — they go up, and up, and up, and then you sort of go what are you doin?! This isn’t good for the city. And then they drop back down, and then they sort of work their way back up again because it’s a performance measure. I think it’s weird myself. And then what I do, which is try to make San Antonio a better place, is hard to document. You know, that’s like much more — how many bad designs did you make a little bit better? So part of it is just sort of systemic.
You mentioned that the owners of the Jorrie building had hired a lobbyist ... So you get your money out of it if you get a lobbyist?
Yeah. I hate for you to put that in the paper. I remember once, `former City Councilwoman` Bonnie Conner, who I really respected, was quoted in the paper as saying, oh, yeah, we talk to the lobbyists all the time. If you really need information, you can get it faster through them than City staff ...
Right now they’re very effective. That also, I can say after being here 15 years, kind of comes and goes. •