Laredo: A Book Store Project Forces St. Peter’s Historic District Residents to Grapple with Change
Feature Photo (above): The historic two-story at 1602 Victoria Street being proposed for a book store/coffee shop. Image: Google Streets.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Laredo (Webb County) — A couple’s dream of opening a book store with a coffee shop in the St. Peter’s Historic District has the community tied up in knots over how the mostly residential neighborhood can coexist with downtown.
Margarita Govea and husband Jose R. Cantu purchased a two-story ruin and by their own admission overpaid, $67,000 sale price, for a structure that was no more than a foundation and four brick walls.
Jose R. Cantu and wife Margarita Govea address City Council on their restoration project. Image: City of Laredo video archive.
“The home was down to the frame. There was no roof, weather came in and destroyed the second floor. There was no plumbing, no electrical,” Govea told City Council at their Oct. 21 session. “It had been red-tagged by the city as a nuisance building.”
Their house, located at 1602 Victoria Street, was built in 1885 and last renovated in 1949, according to the county appraisal district. It has a total living area of 3,872 square feet, if one counts the second floor. But that use is in limbo.
Councilman Roberto Balli, already familiar with the property, complimented the couple for the expense and effort they went to in restoring the house–a project that is still underway.
“I didn’t think that building was going to be saved. I thank you for that,” Balli said.
The historic district, named for the St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church located within it’s east end, is a mix if residential and commercial buildings that were constructed in the late 19th to early 20th century. It also has one of Laredo’s few official neighborhood associations, and the district has experienced some gentrification in the past few decades. Many lawyers have converted homes in the district into professional offices.
It lies between the Union Pacific Railroad yard to the west and the historic central business district to the east and south.
The St. Peter’s Historic District highlighted in yellow shares its eastern boundary with downtown. Image: Google Earth/graphic by Adolfo Pesquera.
Govea and Cantu plan to open a specialty book store on Hispanic literature. The idea is to provide an ambience where patrons can read at their leisure, and have a cup of coffee or tea, if they wish. Govea also plans to schedule literary events such as book readings, book signings, poetry readings.
If the business does well, they would like to apply for a license to serve wine and beer, but the main revenue will always be off book sales; some neighbors fretted alcohol sales meant a “full-on bar,” she said.
Their little project ran into parking problems, however. Even though a prior business establishment had been able to use four angled parking spaces to back onto Victoria Street, city staff said that was no longer possible and the only parking that could be allowed on site would be six spaces in what was formerly a rear courtyard.
Without additional parking, they cannot use the building’s second floor. City staff offered a solution–since the lot was just one block distant from the downtown historic district, apply to rezone it as part of the Historic Central Business District. A designation as an HCBD property erases the parking requirement.
Their case went to the Planning & Zoning Commission, which recommended approval.
A large group of neighbors came forward at City Council to protest the rezoning, not for what the house will become but for what it could be should the book store ever leave. Every homeowner that spoke insisted that the city provide a special use permit (SUP) for a book store and deny the rezoning.
This left P&Z Director James Snideman with the task of reiterating–apparently, this comes up a lot–that an SUP will not resolve the parking restriction and provides the couple no relief.
Snideman, who pointed out that he also overpaid for a money pit of a house in the district, then got to the main obstacle affecting the St. Peter’s district. The development rules are too confining. Staff is in the process of drafting a new land use and development code that will provide a broader range of mixed uses and less parking restrictions.
However, a new city code is more than a year away and in the meantime, Snideman said, rezoning is the only option. Balli, acting as mayor pro-tem, wasn’t buying it. He instructed Snideman to consult with legal and find some way to help Govea and Cantu get what they need through an SUP.
Roberto Gonzales, one of the few residents to support the couple, noted that those residents that talked about and showed photos of their beautiful homes neglected to mention that many of those nice homes stand next to empty houses that continue to fall apart.
“Unfortunately, these protests just encourage vacant properties,” Gonzales said. “If you guys don’t approve the recommendation of the (P&Z Commission), what message does that send to other investors that want to fix these homes up?”
Historic buildings in disrepair in the 1400 block of Matamoros Street, across from St. Peter the Apostle church. Image: Google Streets.
Jose Cevallos, a founding member of the neighborhood association and author of its bylaws, said he felt the process pits people against each other. The obstacle that keeps surfacing in this and other development cases in the district is parking. He pleaded with council find a fix so this issue doesn’t keep coming up.
“These are local policies. We can overcome it.”
Empty and neglected commercial spaces on the west end of St. Peter Historic District. Once thriving businesses that depended on the railroad depot traffic across the street. Image: Google Streets.
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.