Sound of the wrecking ball

It’s being called a “ground assault” in conservation circles. Historic properties around San Antonio are being lost in so-called “emergency” demolitions at a rate not seen in more than a decade — despite the creation of numerous historic and conservation districts meant to protect them.

One of the most egregious examples of this regressive revival occurred in Tobin Hills exactly two weeks ago, when a 1930s-era home was razed by the City the day after a new owner began rehab work.

The home had been purchased weeks earlier by Paul Chance Kinnison, a former Peace Corps volunteer who told the Current that rebuilding a historic house was his personal “American Dream.”

“I just wanted to restore a house. I’ve always wanted to do that,” Kinnison said.

He hired a foundation repair crew who were busy stabilizing and leveling the 81-year-old home at 332 E. Myrtle when Code Compliance arrived on April 17. Disregarding the “sold” sign in the yard and the obvious restoration work underway, crews backed the bulldozer off the flatbed. An agitated neighbor even ran in front of the yellow beast, shouting that they were making a mistake. Police escorted Frederica Kushner from the premises and the home came down.

Neighbors are stunned by the City’s aggressiveness.

After leveling Kinnison’s home, crews turned to a converted duplex across the street at 323, the second home on this block City inspectors had determined was in immediate threat of falling down — the City Code requirement for emergency demolition. There the homeowner had a restraining order preventing them from proceeding. The City Attorney’s office challenged the delay in court last week, where the judge rejected their motion to dissolve the order.

“This is in a neighborhood that was determined by the City to be historic,” said Frederica Kushner’s husband Martin. “Since that time, in a two-block area, five properties have been sold in an area where nothing ever happened … and others have been worked on, restored, and improved. And this is just in two blocks of a six-street, 20-something-block neighborhood. As anybody could see, the neighborhood is turning around.”

Residents Dan Hansen and Moe Blakey are busy restoring two Tobin Hills properties apiece. They’ve bickered with slumlords, argued with real-estate “flippers,” and called the police too many times to count on the stream of transients and prostitutes still moving through the area — a portrait of a turn-of-the-century high-society enclave fallen on harder times. They never expected that the principal threat to their revivalist efforts would come from an over-eager code-enforcement department.

Hansen walks me into the converted duplex at 323 Myrtle. The porch line sags, the left residence smells of years of indiscriminate felines, and a bathtub is falling into the flooring, but Hansen is confident it can be rescued. It’s something the professor of biology at San Antonio College knows a bit about.

Hansen restored his first house in New Orleans in 1980. Since coming to San Antonio, he has done the same for a bungalow on the East Side, a Tudor on Mistletoe, and now a Victorian on Pine. He’s engaged to a two-story almost directly across the street from Kinnison’s demolished investment.

As we enter his newest project, Hansen explains that houses are nothing but a series of boxes. A sagging porch or roofline means nothing on its own. It is the load-bearing structure inside that matters — the inner box. In these older Tobin homes they’re almost always in decent shape.

That doesn’t include floors, however.

“That’s about as far as I’d go in there,” he says as I peek inside a bathroom on the upper story. We move cautiously back down the stairwell, observing the many period touches. He admits the house looks rough, yet the room-length planks of longleaf yellow pine flooring downstairs look immaculate for their age.

“Yes, this is a dilapidated house, but do you see any homeless nests? There’s no prostitutes. There’s no drug addicts. I’d be the first one out with a torch if it was.”

I ask if he has called anyone at the City to make sure there isn’t a crew headed to this
Myrtle property with a dozer.

I’m joking, but the question rattles him.

“No. But that’s a good idea,” he says after an unquiet pause.

Consultant Moe Blakey down the street is unfazed by the suggestion of City-contracted crews demolishing his two rough-looking properties where he plans on injecting up to $250,000 for their recovery.

“I’ve got great insurance. If they come in and demolish my house, I’ll sue the City and charge my insurance, too,” he says. “They always talk about people’s rights and by damned if they don’t bully everybody.”

So is the City’s housing department, perhaps, investigating how the Tobin Hills demo of two weeks ago happened? I mean, was there a

Gerald Roebuck, code-enforcement supervisor with the Housing and Neighborhood Services Department, says flatly that “any investigation that needs to be done is done prior to the demolition taking place,” and they don’t consider “who owns it, or why they own it, or what their intentions are.” All that matters is the state of that property right now: Is it an immediate danger to the public? Roebuck says.

Structural engineers aren’t required, but concurrence between several departments is.

Even so, demolition, according to City code, is intended as the remedy of “last resort” — and historic structures are supposed to have special status.

A lot of good it did the Conservation Society of San Antonio when they sued to stop the demolition of the Walgreen’s building downtown. That structure was found to be an imminent danger during the district court’s lunch break on April 11, while the City and non-profit awaited Judge Karen Pozza’s verdict on a requested restraining order to halt the demolition of the circa-1890 building. According to the City, it was during lunch that a broken tie rod was discovered in the building, requiring immediate demolition, said Marcie Ince, president of the Conservation Society of San Antonio. So, kaboom. So sorry.

Once an emergency demolition is ordered, the City has 72 hours to tear down the building.

“We’re not going to wait for somebody to get killed. Once it’s been identified as a dangerous premises, we move forward very quickly,” Roebuck says. “Obviously, in an emergency situation there is not time to go before the board.”

But shouldn’t the property owner at least be notified? Immediate repairs are allowed under the demolition code.

“Even if we were to notify the property owner, nothing would be served by doing that,” Roebucks says. “What would we expect the property owner to do in a few hours?”

With Michael Chertoff-like logic, he concludes: “Any delay in moving forward I think constitutes an unreasonable risk of harm to the public.” I linger over those words, expecting something about National Security or losing the war against water damage to follow, but the defense is resting.

Ince has been watching the City’s treatment of historic properties for almost three decades. She says the pace of such emergency demolitions has been increasing in the past couple of years.

“It makes you realize that as much as we say we are into historic preservation you have to question how much we really believe what we’re saying,” Ince said. “It’s putting historic preservation at a very low priority.”

Summing up the sentiment of most of his neighbors in Tobin Hills, Martin Kushner said, “This property now, we have an empty lot with debris as opposed to a fixed-up house. It doesn’t measure up.”

Calls for information concerning the use of emergency demolitions by the City were not returned by press deadline Tuesday, and documents requested under a Freedom of Information request submitted on April 22 have yet to be provided. State Open Records law requires such documents to be provided as quickly as possible, though 10 working days are allowed.

“Their argument is this is an emergency danger,” said attorney Eddie Bravenec, who represents the property owner at 323 E. Myrtle and recently faced off a bulldozer of his own in the case of the City versus Rev. Seymour Perkins (See “Perky’s Fifteen” on Curblog, March 26, 2008).

“With my client, the house has been occupied and in the same condition for five years. So I think that’s a bunch of you-know-what,” he said.

Bravenec worries about the economic hardship emergency demolitions pose for residents like Kinnison, who not only lost his investment but is awaiting his bill for the cost of the demolition. Bravenec also sees the policy as a potential safety issue for City workers.

Referring to “Castle Doctrine”, or the legislated right to use lethal force to protect one’s home, Bravenec said, “I don’t know if `the City` understands that at some point someone might use it. If they don’t have a court order, they may have some problems at some point.” •

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