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  #1  
Old Posted Jun 16, 2008, 9:11 PM
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[SA] HDRC protecting downtown eyesore

You won’t believe this.

I was doing a little trolling on the San Antonio HDRC agenda for Wednesday’s meeting and I found something that truly shocked me.

The white-plastic-clad eyesore of a building that has been a vacant, graffiti-covered, drug-infested death-hole is being protected by the HDRC as historic.

Yup, someone applied to demolish it (to build something usable, we can only assume) and the HDRC is recommending a DENIAL of that application on historic grounds. Apparently, one of the clauses allows a building to be deemed historic if important people worked in it at some point. What!?!?!

I am so bothered by this, I can’t even explain it…







all images above from: http://www.sanantonio.gov/historic/docs/HDRC_AGENDA.pdf

image below from saklye04:
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  #2  
Old Posted Jun 16, 2008, 9:56 PM
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Eh, if they were gonna tear it down to build another "3-story" Walgreens or a walk-in Chase bank branch or something lame and quasi-urban, then I'm not that upset. Frankly, it would be cool if they'd restore the building to the original look or at least get rid of the tags and find some use for it.

As for the logic used by HDRC, it boggles the mind, as always.
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  #3  
Old Posted Jun 16, 2008, 10:02 PM
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That building is filled with asbestos, it needs to be torn down.
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  #4  
Old Posted Jun 16, 2008, 11:18 PM
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Maybe one of the members was born in it.
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  #5  
Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 1:20 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sirkingwilliam View Post
That building is filled with asbestos, it needs to be torn down.
Oh yeah, I had forgotten about that little quirk of history in that building.
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  #6  
Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 2:26 AM
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This building actually has great "bones", so to speak. I think it's important to preserve it, based on its overall quality, as well as the fact that the building helps to "frame" the street.

Keep in mind that whatever is built on that site will almost certainly be of inferior design and material quality than the existing building. If you don't believe me, consider the new stucco LaQuintas, Red Roofs, Raddisons, etc. that ring downtown, and compare them to the Exchange Building, or the South Texas Building, or the Guenther, etc.

SKW: It wouldn't suprise me if that building had lots of asbestos and other hazerdous stuff (almost all buildings from that period have it), but you have to abate most of that material even if you demolish the building. Plus, asbestos isn't too terribly expensive to abate. For instance, I redeveloped the Frost Bros. annex, currently the Travis Park Lofts, and it had tons of asbestos.

For what it's worth, the owner (a professor named B.P. Agrawal) has been very resistant to the idea of selling that property (it extends all the way to the Riverwalk). He's not been a very good neighbor for downtown, given the potential of that site. Don't underestimate how greedy many of these guys can be...
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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 4:27 AM
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My problem is that by doing this, they're giving the owners absolutely no incentive to rehab the thing.

Tell me I'm wrong.
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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 5:03 AM
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Okay. "You're wrong."

I think it's important to understand that the issue isn't giving owners/developers "incentives" to do "something" with property. Sometimes the "something" that gets done is a huge step back for the urban fabric (the new Capitol One branch on Main is a hideous example). It would be better to keep the great old buildings, knowing that one day, they will be renovated.

In the meantime, we should continue to work to establish clear guidelines on how urban buildings (and, subsequently, urban neighborhoods) are designed and constructed. Currently, there are very few enforceable standards to maintain design excellence in new buildings. This is precisely why it's important to save the old ones (generally speaking).

Don't get me wrong - I see where you're coming from - it's very frustrating when owners choose to operate their property in a way that's counter to the public good. But in our property-rights strong state (TX) our only real options are dilligent code enforcement and aggressive property value assessments (both of which should create a very real economic incentive for the owners to either redevelop or sell).

Chad.
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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 5:12 AM
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The city has been waiting for years to see improvement in the downtown fabric-- but things like this basically hold it up on street level. This is why I often feel we need to build out the river.

Keeping this eyesore as-is with hopes of improvement is counter-intuitive, especially considering the owner's notorious jerkishness toward other downtown property owners.
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  #10  
Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 5:26 AM
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Ha, well, I would respect their judgment if it was in good shape. Of course no one seems to care about it. I knew right away what building they were talking about without a name or address being listed. It's really the epitome of decay in downtown. I would be for keeping it, only if someone decided to restore it and reuse it.

Quote:
Originally Posted by sirkingwilliam
That building is filled with asbestos, it needs to be torn down.
Just because it's full of asbestos doesn't mean it has to be torn down, and that doesn't mean it can be torn down either. In fact, any time a building does have asbestos in it, every bit of it has to be removed first, and the building cleaned before it can even be demolished. Can't go filling the air in downtown San Antonio with a carcinogenic substance. The Bank One Tower in Fort Worth that had been slated for demolition, then saved, was full of asbestos. It took about a year to remove all of it. There were guys on site in bunny suits scrubbing the walls to get rid of the stuff. That building is now one of the tallest residential buildings in North Texas.

As for the list of former occupants, I'm not impressed. I love the San Antonio Zoo dearly, but I don't think some building that once housed the offices of a firm that developed the zoo is a just reason for saving a building. Now, if it was something directly connected to San Antonio's government, or some kind of state history (San Antonio is full of it) then of course.

H.C. Thorman developed Olmos Park and a few others:
http://www.mysanantonio.com/business...s.2b8cc51.html

Couldn't find much on H.J. Shearer, though his name did pop up, nothing too detailed.
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  #11  
Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 1:37 PM
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Would rather see this building re-purposed. Haven't you guys had trouble with new designs being "pulled back" by the design guidelines? The "historical" design restrictions in the area would probably reduce any interesting new design to a faux/generic style. No one can really afford to build to the design detail of the historical buildings that are aspired to . Look at UT.... in the attempt to maintain the "master plan".... which ends up working like a historical restriction.... what we have are a pile of generic underproduced buildings. Few new buildings have had the investment to match the details of the original buildings. Even Lake Flato had trouble creating something new that looked great (re: new conference center... they have faired the best thus far). Seems like you are better off seeing an interesting re-use. I say take advantage of the 20's building.... I would love to live in it. I wish Austin had more options like that.

Also, question: is it possible that the historical designation is just a tool to get an unfriendly property owner to play nicer? Is it leverage? You guys would know.
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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 3:02 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MichaelB View Post
Would rather see this building re-purposed. Haven't you guys had trouble with new designs being "pulled back" by the design guidelines? The "historical" design restrictions in the area would probably reduce any interesting new design to a faux/generic style. No one can really afford to build to the design detail of the historical buildings that are aspired to . Look at UT.... in the attempt to maintain the "master plan".... which ends up working like a historical restriction.... what we have are a pile of generic underproduced buildings. Few new buildings have had the investment to match the details of the original buildings. Even Lake Flato had trouble creating something new that looked great (re: new conference center... they have faired the best thus far). Seems like you are better off seeing an interesting re-use. I say take advantage of the 20's building.... I would love to live in it. I wish Austin had more options like that.

Also, question: is it possible that the historical designation is just a tool to get an unfriendly property owner to play nicer? Is it leverage? You guys would know.
I guess the issue that concerns us locally is that this building has been under the same ownership for a long time and the owner has NO incentive push forward with re-use. He has a legal loophole that allows him to pay tax on the usable building and not on the land value, meaning that he pays $19k per year on land that is worth millions. As an investor, it’s a great deal. No one is making any more downtown land, so his land keeps rising in value…and yet he pays nothing to maintain it and virtually nothing in taxes.

(Don’t let the graph fool you – the land is on the Riverwalk. There are two abandoned/boarded up buildings and a surface parking lot that he leases to the Crowne Plaza.)

So, how frustrating it is to hear that the owner is interested in demolishing the old eyesore and now the city (who would benefit tremendously from a new project there and the tax revenue it would create) won’t let him because someone who designed the zoo worked in the building.

Further, the building won’t be re-used in any interesting way as long as this dude owns it. He is notoriously shrewd and the prospect of returning that building to usefulness has to be a very expensive one. I mean, a body can be dead and still have great “bones”, right? These bones are not worth the fight.

This property renders every property around it to be less valuable just by its hulking existence. This property keeps a Riverwalk-frontage surface parking lot in use. This property provides no activity, no life, and very little prospect for future development in its current state. Historical reviewers should pay attention to recent history – this property, in this state, is not changing any time soon.

And for all of the Chicken Littles who fear that something plastic would go up in its place – what about if another building like Vistana went up? What if another Weston Centre was built? The possibilities for a tract on the Riverwalk and in the commercial center of our downtown are limitless.
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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 3:26 PM
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Not from SA, but that building should be saved and that awful modernist facade cleared off of it and restored. A classy pre-war brick & stone building is better than some modern glass and concrete eyesore even at (or rather especially at) twice or three times the height, IMHO.
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  #14  
Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 3:29 PM
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Originally Posted by alexjon View Post
My problem is that by doing this, they're giving the owners absolutely no incentive to rehab the thing.

Tell me I'm wrong.
you've nailed it. and, like i said, he's not paying tax on the land either so he has NO incentive from any direction.
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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 3:41 PM
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more for you:

here is the SA Express-New article from 04/2007 talking about this property and a few more photos of the beauty.

(all found at http://www.mysanantonio.com/business...e.3b584f3.html)






Downtown buildings' owner claims he has plans to fix them
Web Posted: 04/03/2007 01:35 AM CDT

John Tedesco,Express-News

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.
Ambitious plans

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."
Sheltering vagrants

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.
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  #16  
Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 4:20 PM
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I really don’t care for this building. Far to long it has been sitting there doing nothing. It has a great location. Parking lot on the river. Hello, can you just imagine...

Anyhow we can’t save everything. I think it should be just torn down. The potential for something great is there, but that’s what it is potential; until someone or something acts upon it...

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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 5:35 PM
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Assume downtown to be just another neighborhood with some historic structures.

I live in the Deco District in San Antonio (just another neighborhood with some historic structures) and if there was a house on my street that had been vacant, boarded-up, tagged-up, jacked-up, occupied-by-vagrants, used-as-a-drug-dealing-site...for 14 years, I would kiss the feet of the person who finally decided to bulldoze it to make way for something new.

And this is especially true if the cost of revitalizing the house was significantly more (to the point of being prohibitive) than a tear-down/rebuild.

In one corner: Vacant, tagged-up, and historic vagrant magnet.
In the other corner: New, usable, non-historic tourist/resident/business magnet.

I don't see the argument.

(And I don't buy the slippery slope theory that this creates potential problems down the road. I bought an 80 year-old house because it was in great shape and was a beautiful piece of history. There are similar houses in the neighborhood in varying states of decay that should be demolished for the health of the neighborhood. Society and the market value history. They should be allowed to decide what is historic and when it is important to save it.)
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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 6:23 PM
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The building actually takes up a very small part of that block. Maybe only 1/8 or less. It would be nice to see a developer come in and restore it and use it in conjunction with other buildings in a project. That building could be residential and retail, and they could have larger/taller buildings to the west. The building doesn't even front the river, so anything new that was built, would pretty much have a blank block to develop and plan something along the river. I don't understand why the building has to be torn down first, when there's a lot of surface parking (about 50,000 square feet worth) right next to it.
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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 7:01 PM
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The building actually takes up a very small part of that block. Maybe only 1/8 or less. It would be nice to see a developer come in and restore it and use it in conjunction with other buildings in a project. That building could be residential and retail, and they could have larger/taller buildings to the west. The building doesn't even front the river, so anything new that was built, would pretty much have a blank block to develop and plan something along the river. I don't understand why the building has to be torn down first, when there's a lot of surface parking (about 50,000 square feet worth) right next to it.
As a developer I would pause at the notion that the portion of my site with the greatest potential for height was already nailed down as a thin 10-story structure.

Remember that the Riverwalk has rules attached to development that limits the amount of sunlight that can be blocked from the Riverwalk itself - causing a whole host of design alterations to accomodate the rule. Ideally, the tallest structure would be on the east side of the lot, with building scaling down towards the river, providing the maximum density while still observing the sunlight regulations.
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Old Posted Jun 17, 2008, 7:08 PM
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I just walked by there not but 30 minutes ago and thought how cool it would be to renovate that place. I started searching online and found this thread incredible timing I must say.

Two things anyone know how to get investment capitol started to renovate a historical site?

What permits would I need or process would I need to start to show neglect of historical landmark so the company that owns it would/could be forced into selling it?

I would really like to gut the inside and turn the top floors into some simple office spaces/lofts. I would like to renovate the historical building on the ground floor into a conference space with a museum attached.

Anyone know how to get the ball rolling on this type of thing. I'm very interested in seeing if I could actually pull something off. Never done anything like this before but there is so much potential in that building.

Last edited by ChrisM; Jun 17, 2008 at 7:22 PM.
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