State-Owned Building Once Served San Antonio's East Side. Can It Help The Community Again?
UPDATE: Early Friday evening, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill allowing the state of Texas to sell the Sutton Building to a private developer.
In hundreds of Texas counties, there are state-owned buildings that house regional offices for state agencies. But dozens sit unused, abandoned or condemned. It’s up to the governor’s office to revitalize these properties or sell them. One property is located in San Antonio, at a corner of the city where culture and history have complicated the building’s future.
The Sutton Building was constructed in 1912. It was named for G.J. Sutton, Bexar County’s first African American congressman. It served as one of the first state offices located within San Antonio’s African American community.
In 2014, state Health and Human Services employees vacated the building. By then, its foundation was crumbling, and bats had made the building their new home.
Since then, the state decided the building couldn't be salvaged.
“It played its role historically, and now it’s time to repurpose it and do something different,” said State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins.
She represents San Antonio’s East Side, and she said the state pays an ongoing fee of $30,000 a month for property management and security costs.
She consulted with leaders of San Antonio’s East Side to determine if there was an interest in redeveloping the property. They agreed that private developers could put the property to better use.
George Frederick, the president of the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, said it’s time the building was put to better use.
“I believe it’s been sitting there, just sitting there for many, many years not doing anything, so if it can provide something for our community I’m for it,” Fredericks said.
Gervin-Hawkins prepared legislation that allows the state to sell the property to private developers. The bill now sits on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
Every two years, the Texas General Land Office prepares a list of state-owned properties eligible for sale.
Karina Erickson with the Land Office said that the governor makes the final decision.
“As long as the governor does not disapprove of one of those buildings being sold, it can go on the list of properties, and we then act as the broker for that property. We hire a marketing company and say, ‘Hey, tell us about this building, put this on the market,’” Erickson said.
She said it’s a slow process, and there are serious issues to consider, like maintaining the “character of a community” and responding to its needs.
Andrea Roberts teaches community revitalization and urban planning at Texas A&M University.
“If I think about it as a planner, I think of it as an art. Like, what are the functions of these government buildings over time, and how has it changed?” Roberts said.
She said when urban planners and community leaders consider a building's future, they must first learn if the community needs the social services they were once able to access there.
“The idea you have access points within the community, so as a planner, you’re always thinking about strategically about access to services,” Roberts said.
She added that saturating an area with these types of services can benefit a community, but it can also send a signal to investors that an area isn’t profitable.
“So as much as we want affordable access to services that are provided in these government buildings, you also want a distribution of them that doesn’t necessarily signal that this is an area that isn’t worth any for-profit investment,” Roberts said.
Shannon Bard hopes the sale of the Sutton Building will be that signal that San Antonio’s East Side is profitable and ready for business.
Bard is the owner of Sweet Yams Organic Vegetarian Restaurant, an eatery tucked behind the Sutton Building.
She welcomes the promise of a redevelopment project on the Sutton Building site. She said it would give her customers a fresh view of progress instead of what they see now — a condemned limestone building with menacing iron and barbed wire fencing stretched around its perimeter.
“Because then we could have a really awesome view of downtown, you know,” Bard said.
There are critics who fear redevelopment could easily lead to a community being priced out of an area and preyed upon by developers and investors. But Gervin-Hawkins said it can be a positive change if the community is involved in the process from the very beginning.
“You know, development doesn’t have to be bad. You just have to engage people early on. We know that building has been an eyesore for some time, so now we have to look at something different,” Gervin-Hawkins said.
The governor has until this Sunday, June 16, to either veto or approve Gervin-Hawkins’ bill.
If it is signed, the state will then hire a marketing company and search for a suitable buyer.
And then a new chapter in the story of the Sutton Building will begin.
Ryan Poppe can be reached at RPoppe@TPR.org and on Twitter at @RyanPoppe1