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Owners of Whitt Printing building seek demolition, challenging San Antonio historic code

Paul Flahive
Bo Lim, owner, gets choked up talking about her grandfather coming to San Antonio in search of a better life. He started the family's first restaurant in Market Square in the 1932.

Owners of the Whitt Printing building want to tear it down, but the city says they can't.

The owners of a longtime near-West Side restaurant are suing the city over its historic preservation ordinance that they say has ensnared them in a bureaucratic morass which has effectively taken their property from them.

What remains of a historic site of a Spanish-language publishing house is at the center of the lawsuit.

The Lim family owns Golden Star Cafe on West Commerce, as well as the adjacent warehouse of the Whitt Printing Co. — a Spanish-language publisher dating back to the early 1900s.

The building deemed historic sits idle after a series of events that have left it a husk of what it once was. The family’s lawyer Peter Stanton described an impasse with the city that he said it is to blame for.

“We have a government that has regulated us into oblivion. And we are here to prevent that. And we'll make sure that the Lims have their day in court,” he said.

The Lim family have been trying to sell the property for years and sought a demolition 10 months ago to make the property more attractive to developers, after its roof had collapsed in the February winter storm. The application to demolish was denied due to the building’s historic significance to the relief of advocates at the Conservation Society and the Historic Westside Residents Association.

“For every building we lose, we lose a part of our history,” said Leticia Sanchez, co-chair of the Historic Westside Residents Association.

The decision was soon-after reversed when head of the city’s Development Services Department, Michael Shannon, determined the structure was a risk to passing residents.

Courtesy Golden Star Restaurant
The Whitt Printing Building after a portion of its historic façade collapsed

This June, attempts to secure the historic façade while gutting the building removing non-historic additions resulted in a portion collapsing. According to Stanton, the partial demolition cost the family more than $100,000 and the result is unsellable, due to the city’s regulations — and unusable, due to the cost to renovate.

“In addition to defeating the purpose of preservation by destroying what they sought to save, the City’s actions have deprived the Lim Family of any beneficial use of the building,” read the lawsuit filed Monday night.

The lawsuit argues the city effectively took over control of the building when it was directing the partial demolition.

The lawsuit seeks to invalidate possible civil and criminal fines against the family for the state of the building’s upkeep by challenging the validity of San Antonio’s unified development code. San Antonio has one of the more robust historic preservation codes in the state. How it is used, and who benefits has long been the focus of debate, with many West Side organizations arguing their historical places have been erased.

“This property has been designated a historic landmark and has also been the subject of a demolition order due to its unsafe condition,” said a statement from the City Attorney’s office. “Maintaining the public’s safety, as well as protecting the historic fabric of our community, are both priorities for the City of San Antonio.”

The statement said the city hoped to find a solution with the Lim family rather than go through “protracted” litigation.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive