A cluster of buildings on the near West Side, on land less than a block long, have been given the OK by the city's historic review board to be designated as a historic district.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center initiated the designation, which the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) unanimously approved last week, on three parcels the group owns on South Colorado Street between Guadalupe and El Paso streets. In recent years, the community organization has rehabbed some of the 11 structures on the site, the majority of which date back to the 1930s, dubbing it Rinconcito de Esperanza as a hub for West Side history, culture and arts.
"Our buildings, our history, our people matter, and are as worthy of historic protection as any other area of San Antonio," Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, told the commission during the video conferenced meeting. The designation must also be approved by the Zoning Commission and the City Council.
In order to create a historic district in San Antonio, 51% of property owners within the area must be in favor of it.
Earlier this year, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center workers began going door to door to garner the support needed to establish a historic district on the West Side. They sought to create a district that stretched from Zarzamora to Colorado streets and from Guadalupe to West César E. Chávez streets. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“For a long time now we've been wanting a historic district on the West Side,” said Sarah Gould, director of the Museo del Westside, a project of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center that's located within the proposed district's boundaries.
In 1986, a proposal to create a historic district in the area was removed from the City Council agenda at the last minute and was never revisited, Gould said recently.
While the pandemic put a pause on the larger historic district, the Esperanza center opted to start small on land it already owns. San Antonio’s municipal code only requires a historic district to include a minimum of two structures.
The Rinconcito de Esperanza has 11 structures on three parcels of land. These are located at 812 S. Colorado St., 816 S. Colorado St., and 1024 El Paso St. The building clusters serve as a reminder when working-class families built multiple structures on a single lot to make ends meet, according to the Esperanza.
The lot at 1024 El Paso St. houses seven residential properties, including a shotgun house and a folk Victorian home built in 1906. At 816 S. Colorado St. sits another folk Victorian home called Casa de Cuentos, which has served as a home, a grocery store, and three different dry cleaning businesses. In 2001, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center purchased the house and began using it as a community gathering space. The former Ruben’s Ice House, slated to be rehabbed into the Museo del Westside, is also located on this land. Built in 2017, the newest structure is the MujerArtes Adobe Studio, where a group of women artists work and put on exhibitions.
According to city preservationists, the proposed district more than meets the criteria for historic district designation: its significance as a visible exemplar of the community's cultural heritage, its recognition as a home to businesses and organizations that have contributed to the development of the community, and its distinctive identity and value, exemplified by the work that the Rinconcito de Esperanza has done to preserve the “intangible heritage of the Westside community in which it is embedded,” according to the application submitted to the HDRC.
Aside from preserving cultural heritage, historic districts in San Antonio also provide owners with tax breaks.
The city of San Antonio offers a 20% tax exemption on city property taxes over 10 years as long as the property owner lives on the property. If the owner substantially rehabilitates the property, they become eligible to choose one of two "substantial rehabilitation" tax incentives. According to the Office of Historic Preservation, substantial rehabilitation requires effort to “prolong the life of the building,” including exterior or interior work. Because this is expected to raise the value of the property, the two options for tax incentives are to have the property taxes set for 10 years at their pre-rehabilitated value, or to pay no property taxes for the first five years, followed by only 50% of the post-rehabilitated assessed value for the next five years.
If the Esperanza can establish a historic district on its own land, Gould believes they can use it to promote expansion in the future. "That way we can at least say, there is now a historic district on the West Side. It is possible, let's make it bigger," she said. "This is the starting point."
Heron Editor Ben Olivo contributed to this report.