Inside the Messy Demolition of the Univision Building

“Whose Culture? Our Culture!” “Whose history?” “Our History!” chanted members of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the Westside Preservation Alliance and Save KWEX as their activist colleagues were hauled off by a San Antonio Police Department van last Tuesday afternoon. In an act of civil disobedience that ended in eight arrests, protestors staged a sit-in at the half-demolished Univision building downtown, moments after a judge dissolved a temporary injunction, which allowed developers to continue the tear-down.

Activists refused to leave the premises and some laid down across the driveway to prevent a truck from entering the site. SAPD issued a warning and eventually arrested the protestors on criminal trespass charges.

Dubbing themselves the “Univision 8” the activists and other concerned parties argue the demolition of the historic Spanish-language news station is an affront to cultural preservation and charge the City with changing the rules in the middle of the game, making effective opposition impossible.

Before her arrest, activist Itza Carbajal with the Westside Preservation Alliance told the Current, “We are frustrated the court didn’t hear us and we are frustrated that the City doesn’t hold accountable their own developers ... Our main concern is that the City doesn’t care about our rich history, it cares more about ‘economic development.’”

In the battle pitting robust downtown housing goals against preserving the cultural legacy of Univision, activists say it’s a fight they’re willing to sacrifice for—even without the aid of the media company itself, who’ve said they’re not in favor of granting the site historical designation.

Established in 1955 as KCOR-TV (the precursor to Univision and later changed to KWEX-TV), the downtown building housed the first Spanish-language television station in the United States. After several decades in its downtown spot, the station relocated earlier this year to northwestern San Antonio. South Carolina-based Greystar is set to build a $55 million, 350-unit multifamily development on the former Univision site. Calls to Greystar were not returned by press time.

The brick-and-mortar structure itself holds significance, according to preservationists. The Univision building was the first instance of mid-century modernism in San Antonio’s downtown core, says Lance Aaron, a Texas-Mexico cultural heritage preservationist present at the demonstration. The only other example is the La Villita Assembly Hall. “For me it was heroic, it was vanguard. And now they’ve wiped out 50 percent of it in the La Villita Historic District,” he said.

Sue Anne Pemberton, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, concurs; this particular architectural style is scarce in San Antonio, she said. “It’s a national problem and a public perception problem. People aren’t recognizing mid-century modern as important yet,” said Pemberton. But even more, preservationists say, the value of the building is its legacy within the Latino community.

“It’s had a huge impact on civil rights and in giving the Spanish-language population a voice,” said Pemberton, of the building’s cultural significance. “It also allowed an opportunity for Mexican-American businesses to have an audience that they could advertise to, which, previously, they were not able to do with the mainstream American population.”

Former Univision reporter Patti Elizondo says she was “devastated” to learn of the demolition. Echoing Pemberton, she says the station was a pioneer in granting the Latino community a platform and microphone—it “gave us freedom from oppression” said Elizondo.

So, when the building faced the threat of demolition, some groups leaped into action. The Conservation Society requested the Texas Historic Commission review the building for historic designation. The THC found the Univision site was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under three possible criteria: architectural landmark and two designations for communications and ethnic heritage. The City’s Office of Historic Preservation similarly determined it met five criteria (that’s two more than necessary to stamp the site as a landmark in SA) yet failed to designate the building as a landmark site, irking preservationists and activists alike.

Following suit, the Office’s Historic Design and Review Commission voted down the call for historical designation in September. Pemberton and others contend the commission voted against the label because partial approval of the apartment complex was underway since May, giving ‘economic development’ priority over cultural significance–tax reimbursements and millions in City incentives tied to the new complex only added to the criticism. Indeed, according to HDRC meeting minutes from September 4, the staff noted the building satisfied the criteria but that the commission should weigh the cultural interpretation against conceptual approval. Pemberton described the process as “backward,” saying the historical significance determination should have been made before the developer got the green light from the City. Calls to the City Attorney were not returned by press time.

Seeking recourse, the Conservation Society sought to appeal the HDRC decision through the Board of Adjustment. The application was approved and the item placed on the agenda for early November, signs the avenue for appeal was viable. “As far as we were concerned … it was still ready to be heard and moving forward,” Pemberton said.

But that wasn’t the case. BOA went into executive session moments before hearing the group’s case. When they emerged, BOA said they were just informed by city attorney staff that they had no jurisdiction over the appeal. Demolition began immediately afterward.

Pemberton and the roughly 20 other activists in attendance were floored, “They’ve had the appeal paperwork in their office for a month and could have made this decision long before that or given us some direction,” she said.

Preservationists and activists would have liked to see an attempt to reuse the building instead of its complete demolition. Victor Salas, a member of the HDRC and a local interior architect, wasn’t present on the day of the 5-3 vote, but says the historical argument holds merit and that he would have cast his ballot in favor of the designation. (Other HDRC members were unavailable or declined to comment.) Salas says the structure was ripe for reuse.

“There was the possibility of incorporating the design into the new plan and making it work,” says Salas. His vision mirrors what Pemberton and some conservationists proposed. “I know there’s a big push for housing in downtown and I totally agree with that,” said Pemberton. “But whether or not the Univision building could have been incorporated into that project is really something that could have and should have been looked into.”

Other ideas, put forth by groups like Save KWEX, included repurposing the site as a museum for mass communications and culture, a tribute to the industry trailblazer.

As the building comes tumbling down, the City has suggested placing a monument to enshrine Univision’s legacy. But some activists say that’s too little too late. “That’s not enough. It’s really disappointing,” said Elizondo (who alluded to her own “secret plan” to memorialize the station.)

During a press conference November 14 in front of the City’s Development and Business Center, the Univision 8 and the grassroots groups they’re part of called for an investigation into the City’s “procedural failure” as well as into the Greystar deal. The activists are also requesting a meeting with Mayor Julián Castro and City Manger Sheryl Sculley to express their grievances. The groups want city staffers to admit they made “several errors.”

“Unfortunately, now the building is gone and the cultural significance of the site is gone, but surely we can fix the process to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Pemberton.

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