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Save Casa Maldonado

For 2 years, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, the Westside Preservation Alliance (known then as the Westside Historic Preservation Group), Westside residents, and community historians worked to gather the stories and history of Casa Maldonado, aka the Pink Building, 1312 Guadalupe St., and save it from demolition by its owner, the Avenida Guadalupe Association (AGA).

The Esperanza Peace & Justice Center and the Westside Preservation Alliance researched and published the history of the Casa Maldonado demonstrating the significant role it played in the progressive political and cultural history of San Antonio since the early 1900s (June 2011, La Voz de Esperanza). An application for historic designation of the pink house was completed and submitted and over 2,000 signatures were gathered supporting the preservation of Casa Maldonado. The group even wrote and was awarded a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that paid for an independent evaluation of the structure of the building.

As a result of all of the research, hard work, and dozens of testimonies, San Antonio’s Historic Design Review Committee (HDRC) deemed the building historic in March 2011. The case then went to City Council, where in April Council unanimously voted in favor of proceeding with the process of historic preservation thereby sending the case onto the Zoning Commission where hours of community testimony and questions exposed the ignorance and bias of the commissioners who voted to recommend that Council deny historic overlay (zoning) designation.

No matter what the outcome of the HDRC and Zoning meetings, the City Council makes the final decision to designate the building as a historic landmark, or not. In a complete 180 degree turn, the City Council followed District 5 Councilman Medina’s lead on June 16th, accepting the zoning recommendation against historic designation with a unanimous NO vote reversing their unanimous YES vote of 2 months prior. We left that Council meeting with no official historic designation for Casa Maldonado.

At the same June 16th Council meeting, the Westside Historic Preservation Group presented architectural drawings that were created pro bono in less than a week showing design options for the Promesa Project that would incorporate preservation and re-purposing of the existing structure. Despite showing that a compromise could save the Casa, Avenida representatives dismissed the plan, claiming that they would lose federal funding if they didn’t demolish Casa Maldonado. They also claimed it would create over 40 jobs, which they now admit their future tenants would produce. Avenida has since also recanted the claim that they could lose funding, revealing that currently there is no funding for the building planned at the Casa Maldonado site. Multiple misrepresentations by the Avenida ultimately led to the Council’s vote against Casa Maldonado, against preservation, and against the community.

After the June 16th Council meeting, Mayor Castro admonished Avenida President & CEO, Oscar Ramírez, with a public warning saying, “Your credibility is on the line.” He instructed Avenida to work with community reps to create a revised design for the Promesa Project taking into consideration the National Trust for Historic Preservation structural engineers report, and compromising with those in favor of reservation. All the while, Ramirez retorted, contradicted himself, twisted semantics, and admitted that their only goal since the purchase of the Maldonado house, in 2004, was to demolish the building. (June 16, 2011 meeting video available from city.) The Avenida’s credibility has since remained in question for the public to see.

Since the June 16th City Council meeting, all parties have received a detailed copy of the structural engineer’s report commissioned by the National Trust. Avenida has been slow to review it and dismissed the validity of it. Patrick Sparks, the Structural Engineer who worked to save the Hays Street Bridge in San Antonio came in from Austin to assess Casa Maldonado concluding that it could definitely be saved. The report disproved claims by members of Avenida, the Zoning Commission, and City Council that the building was beyond repair. Cost estimates compiled by Preservation Architect, Ann McGlone, came in at $254,000, less than a third of the AGA’s quote of $800,000 for restoration and less than one sixth of their estimate of $1.5 million for demolition and new construction at the site.

The Avenida, in an effort to appease the Mayor’s request for compromise, with only a few days notice, called for a Design Charette on July 27th saying that they had met their responsibility of “due diligence” (a phrase they’ve latched onto). The Westside Historic Preservation Group participated, but protested the short notice given and scheduling of a full work day. The charette was limited to 19 guests selected by Avenida, of which only 11 would be allowed to vote. Only two voting participants represented the Westside Historic Preservation Group.

The July 27th charette (dubbed “Charade” by community members) experienced a morning session that was rocky, but in the afternoon Avenida presented us with the illusion of compromise, but it was only community that presented a real compromise. The Westside Historic Preservation Group collaborating with architect, Ann McGlone, agreed to a partial demolition of the back, two-story portion of the pink building so that the new building could be connected to the older, wooden structure. Hope of a potential compromise was ignited. A meeting to continue the charette/charade conversation was scheduled for the afternoon of August 2nd. A final report back to community was planned for the same evening as part of AGA’s general community meeting.

At a special Board Meeting on August 1st to discuss the results of the Design Charette and prepare for the August 2nd meeting, three new drawings were presented incorporating the Pink Building with plans for new construction. Avenida reps made it seem like these were three different compromise options that would allow for at least partial preservation of Casa Maldonado. The original architectural rendering requiring demolition was still on the table at this meeting. Those of us present were told that the board would go into executive session to select one of three options and that the task at the August 2nd meeting would be for the community to vote between the preservation option and the demolition option.

It wasn’t until the afternoon of August 2nd, when the charette/charade group reconvened to look at Avenida’s new designs, that the truth came out – there was no “preservation option” even though drawings had been previously labeled as “partial preservation”. The drawings shown at the Avenida Board meeting the night before that included a pink structure in the shape of Casa Maldonado represented only a replica that would be built after the Avenida bulldozed the Pink Building.

Oscar Ramirez, CEO of AGA, restated that all obligations had been met and that they didn’t have to listen to THIS community, because they had other “community” that supported them. City Staffers, District-5 Reps, and Mayoral Reps were present at the charette/charade and at the August 2nd meetings witnessing the dysfunction of the process. The city was scheduled to sell a “surplus” piece of land (at a loss to the city) to the Avenida on August 4th for their Project. However, the Mayor postponed the vote on the sale of the property to Avenida until September. Their disregard of the Mayor’s directive to compromise with community may have played a part in that decision.

All arguments against demolition have now been debunked. The structural engineer’s report showed that it is structurally feasible to save the building with skilled workers to bring it up to code. The Promesa Project Manager confirmed that Avenida will not lose grant money if the Pink Building is saved. Even the most conservative cost estimates have shown that saving the existing building would be more affordable than new construction. This could be a win-win situation if not for the anger and stubbornness of the Avenida’s leadership. There is no accountability to the community from Avenida and no love for the Westside community they represent. In fact, Avenida representatives have repeatedly bad-mouthed the Westside community during these meetings.

Opposition to the demolition of the pink building began three years ago, long before Avenida had even applied for federal monies for the Promesa Project. We’re not telling them we don’t want jobs. We’re not telling them NOT to build yet another boxy building (with enough square-footage to meet their grant requirement). We’ve tried to work with them, within THEIR framework. We’ve pleaded. We’ve reasoned and tried to come to a “compromise.” Yet, they give absolutely nothing.

Avenida is a community nonprofit with 501-c3 status. They get city AND federal tax monies, as well as Section 8 funding, “affordable rent” payments from the viejit@s that live in Avenida senior homes, and rent payments from many non-profit tenants. They collect all of this rent on public property that officially belongs to the City of San Antonio and is rented to Avenida for only $1 per year. As property owners, the Avenida was responsible for the upkeep of the Maldonado building, but they allowed it to deteriorate. The properties Avenida “owns” are owned on behalf of community but they continue to claim, “it’s our building, we can do what we want with it,” disregarding public outcry.

Avenida Guadalupe has alienated the community, instilling a sense of fear and oppression. They continue to push themselves further from the potential for future preservation work that should be happening collaboratively with community on the Westside. After 30 years of functioning as a Neighborhood Association and Community Development Corporation they have neither improved the quality of life of Westside residents, nor represented their interests. They appear to be untouchable and are accountable to no one, while receiving public funding and access to endless city resources in our names – building an empire and taking as much money as they can into their “projects.” This is their legacy.

The community’s continued efforts to stop the demolition of Casa Maldonado finally proved successful at the City Council meeting of December 15, 2011. The Council voted to approve allocation of monies from the Offices of the Mayor and of District 5 Representative, David Medina totaling $550,000 towards restoration of the Casa Maldonado in its current location of 1312 Guadalupe St. The AGA accepted the City funds and, due to our persistent efforts, will now be a part of establishing a new precedent for best practices in issues of economic development and historic preservation en el Westside de San Antonio.

The community succeeded in making our voices heard! We are building a strong community conciencia around issues of historic preservation and will continue our work in reclaiming, and celebrating the important buildings, places and culture of our Westside.