Downtown buildings' owner claims he has plans to fix them
Web Posted: 04/01/2007 12:06 AM CDT
When Professor B.P. Agrawal bought an entire downtown block with frontage on the River Walk, he said it would take a year to restore the old, vacant buildings on the site to their past glory.
That was 14 years ago.
Since then, the portion of Agrawal's property that faces the River Walk, the city's crown jewel, has remained a parking lot.
And three empty hulks of buildings that face the 600 block of St. Mary's Street, kitty corner from the Greyhound station, are boarded up, splattered with graffiti and drawing dozens of complaints from residents.
"It's just going to waste," said Joseph Hillyer, 66, a retired maintenance worker for the city who was waiting for a bus last week a block away from the vandalized structures.
The story of how Agrawal's properties haven't changed for 14 years — longer than the time it took to dig the Panama Canal — illustrates the obstacles faced by civic boosters and public officials who are trying to revitalize downtown.
Many landowners have spent millions of dollars to fix up their buildings. Parts of downtown that were once neglected are now vibrant, thanks in part to tax incentives that spur investment.
But it takes vision, money and hard work to rehabilitate weathered structures built decades ago. Some owners simply are hanging on to buildings that, year after year, remain vacant or undervalued with only a few tenants.
Some owners, like Agrawal, bought their downtown holdings in foreclosure sales, and they pay low property taxes because the structures are vacant.
Agrawal, who teaches engineering technology at San Antonio College, said he has plans for the property and has teamed up with a local developer, whom he declined to identify.
Agrawal said it takes a long time to redevelop old buildings.
"I come from India," he said. "We have buildings in our family that are owned for several generations. Some of the bigger projects require more than 10, 15 years. And there are many examples of that in other cities. So I don't think it has been long."
People who live and work near Agrawal's property don't share his patience.
They've lodged 40 complaints with the city's Code Compliance department since 2001, expressing worries about graffiti, vagrants, and the structural safety of the vacant structures.
Residents have griped about all three of Agrawal's buildings. One is on the northeast corner of the block facing St. Mary's Street. It's a two-story building with elaborate ornamentation that the San Antonio Conservation Society views as a tarnished gem. City officials have designated the building, once called the American Sports Center, as historically significant.
On the southeast corner is a vacant 10-story office tower built in the 1920s with a stunning view of downtown.
Sandwiched between the two structures are the remains of a boarded-up brick tavern damaged by a fire.
Graffiti and broken windows mar each building — even the outside walls of the 10-story office building have been vandalized all the way to the roof.
Over the years, taggers sneaked inside, leaned out the many broken windows on the upper floors, and sprayed the outer walls with paint.
While residents complain about eyesores, Agrawal lives the American dream.
In 2002, Agrawal and his wife bought an 8,500-square foot stucco mansion next to singer George Strait in the Dominion, a gated community in Northwest San Antonio with its own country club.
Appraised at $1 million, Agrawal's private property includes a vast, 3,600-square-foot pool that covers twice the area of the average Bexar County home.
A forgotten lawsuit
Agrawal ultimately is responsible for his downtown holdings. But low property appraisals, ineffective city ordinances, and a misstep by city lawyers created the unintended consequence of making it easier, not harder, for Agrawal to do nothing with the site.
In 2003, the city sued Agrawal's company. Assistant City Attorney John Danner filed court papers accusing the company of slowly demolishing the two-story historic structure through neglect.
But the lawsuit fell through the bureaucratic cracks of City Hall. The case was transferred to two different lawyers in the city attorney's office and they eventually lost track of the case. A judge dismissed the lawsuit last week.
Many of the complaints residents filed with the Code Compliance department were fruitless. Spraying graffiti is a criminal act, but there's no city ordinance on the books that can force property owners to clean the mess.
City officials are considering ways to remedy that problem, and might propose amending the graffiti ordinance this month.
The most serious code compliance investigation occurred in 2003. City inspectors found an unstable wall on the back of the historic building. They ordered the sidewalk blocked off and sought an emergency demolition, records show.
That action put the Code Compliance department at odds with the city's Historic Preservation office, which encouraged Agrawal to hire an engineer and save the building.
Agrawal agreed to tear down the wall and the building was spared. But the work left a gaping hole that exposed the structure's interior to the elements. It still hasn't been covered.
There's little incentive for Agrawal to sell his downtown holdings. Because the buildings are rundown and vacant, Agrawal's company pays reduced property taxes. County tax appraisers set the value of each vacant building at $100, which means Agrawal's company essentially pays taxes only for the land.His company's property tax bill in 2006 for the lots with the three vacant buildings was $19,300, according to Bexar County Appraisal District records.
Agrawal has rejected offers by investors who want to buy the properties and do something with them, said Ben Brewer III, president of the Downtown Alliance.
"He might be more inspired to move forward more quickly if he was having to pay higher taxes," said Brewer, who sees "tremendous" potential at Agrawal's site and hopes something will start soon.
Michael Amezquita, the county's chief appraiser, said he understands Brewer's concerns but pointed out his job is to appraise property as accurately as possible, not prod landowners to develop or sell their property.
Agrawal, 61, moved from India to the United States in 1970, and came to San Antonio in 1974. A year later he married a childcare physician, Remedios Ching, of the Philippines. He worked as an engineer for Tesoro Petroleum Corp., and was hired in August 1992 to teach classes full-time at San Antonio College.
In the early 1990s, during the savings and loan crisis, the federal government was selling foreclosed properties at rock-bottom prices.
One of those sites was the block at St. Mary's and Martin streets with River Walk frontage. Agrawal's company, RBRA Inc., bought the land and the three vacant buildings, which had asbestos problems, at a foreclosure auction in March 1993 for $352,000.
RBRA doesn't own other downtown properties. Records show the company owns a vacant lot near Gardendale Street and Datapoint Drive, which has drawn the ire of neighbors who complained to Code Compliance about overgrown weeds.
RBRA also owns Agrawal's old house on the 100 block of Merry Trail on the city's North Side, which has stayed unoccupied for years, neighbors said.
When RBRA bought the downtown land in 1993, other investors were pumping money into the area. A block away, developer Tom Guggolz and architects Ted Flato and David Lake were transforming the historic Exchange Building into apartments.
It wasn't easy — they had bought the building in 1988 and fought for several years to secure financing. But tenants began moving into the restored units in May 1993. Today, the Exchange Building still attracts residents seeking a downtown lifestyle, and an oyster bar operates on the ground floor.
Agrawal touted his own ambitious plan. In 1993, he said it would take a year to renovate the 10-story building into a hotel, offices or apartments, and restore the American Sports Center into a restaurant.
But the years drifted by with no signs of progress.
In 1999, an architectural student named Kyle Tostenson studied the site for his master's thesis and was given the keys to the buildings by Agrawal.
From the office tower, which was completely gutted on the inside, Tostenson found a stunning view of downtown. He saw strong demand in the market to restore the office building and the historic building near it.
As for the parking lot near the River Walk, Tostenson wrote: "I feel this part of the property is grossly underutilized."
Agrawal declined to discuss details about his future project. Records filed with city and county officials in the last several years show that at one point, he and Ed Beck, a property owner across the river, planned a mixed-use complex called Plazas Del Sol with two high-rise hotels. The plans called for the demolition of Agrawal's buildings.
Asked whether the project was still alive, Beck said it was no one's business.
"That's private property," Beck said. "That's not public property, stupid."
On a recent drizzly morning, Alys Maldonado endured the worst part of her day by trying to stay dry in a boarded-up, graffiti-covered doorway in one of Agrawal's buildings.
Maldonado, 20, routinely waits for the bus at that spot, which is the easiest way to catch a transfer that takes her to St. Philips College. Sometimes, when she's by herself at the bus stop, she feels nervous.
"If it wasn't vacant, I'd obviously feel a lot safer," Maldonado said.
Down the block, Mario Oliver, a 26-year-old food server hurrying to work at the Palm Restaurant, said it's a shame nothing seems to be happening at the property.
"I've wondered why it's been vacant for so long," Oliver said. "There's a lot of buildings downtown that are just taking up space."
City Councilman Roger Flores, whose district includes downtown, is familiar with such complaints about Agrawal's buildings. But he said as long as the structures aren't dangerous, he feels the city is powerless.
"I have a tremendous amount of concern about it," Flores said. "But frankly, there's very little we can do."
Agrawal said his buildings aren't tarnishing downtown's image. He pointed out that he's boarded up the ground floor of his buildings in an attempt to secure them.
Records show that calls for police to the 600 block of North St. Mary's have dropped in recent years. In 2003, police were called 18 times to that block for disturbances ranging from criminal mischief to burglaries.
Last year, police were called eight times for minor infractions, which included homeless people camping in doorways.
"The property is cleaned," Agrawal said. "We are in touch with the city on that."
Agrawal didn't dispute that vandals and the homeless have trespassed in his buildings, and he acknowledged they can still get inside by climbing to upper levels and entering through broken windows. He said he doesn't want them there.
But he added that if his vacant buildings are sheltering the homeless, then it's a kind of public service.
"They can't go to their families," Agrawal said. "Their family abandoned them."
Brewer, president of the Downtown Alliance, laughed in surprise when told of Agrawal's comment.
"I'd rather have them stay at a homeless shelter," he said.