Boarded-up building opens a window on S.A.'s LGBTQ history – San Antonio Express-News

The former ACI building is set to be demolished to make way for apartments.
The former ACI building is set to be demolished to make way for apartments.
The former ACI building is set to be demolished to make way for apartments.
The former ACI building is set to be demolished to make way for apartments.
A few blocks from the Pearl and St. Mary’s Strip, both pulsing with activity, a drab building in the shadow of Interstate 35 is one of the reminders of Tobin Hill as it used to be.
The one-story, tan and green rectangle is empty. It sits at the corner of Elmira and St. Mary’s streets, flanked on both sides by modern, expensive townhomes. A trendy restaurant and yoga studio are across the street.
High-end apartments and shops are a short walk away, and more projects are in the works in the near-downtown neighborhood.
But it’s not all new development chasing new money. The boarded-up building also borders on modest older homes and low-slung offices and warehouses — holdouts in a neighborhood that’s attracting higher-income owners and renters as the Pearl’s growth ripples outward.
And with values exploding, some property owners are receiving offers they wouldn’t have dreamed of a few years ago. That’s what happened to Alternative Clubs Inc., or ACI, the former owner and occupant of that squat building.
ACI ran one of San Antonio’s last remaining private men’s clubs — known in the community as a bathhouse — on the edge of Tobin Hill for decades. Its parking lot was often full.
ACI was a throwback to when a handful of such clubs offered gay men a safe place to socialize, before much of the dating scene moved online.
“With the internet being the place a lot of people go to meet and hook up, I don’t think a bathhouse is the central place it used to be,” said Melissa Gohlke, assistant archivist in special collections at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has studied the city’s LGBTQ history.
Last year, ACI moved out amid a dispute over unpaid rent and allegations that its landlord took advantage of the LGBTQ business, a charge his lawyer denies.
Before that, ACI had changed hands and its assets were later sold to a limited liability company overseen by local attorney Justin Nichols, who also represented ACI in the eviction case. The sole member of the company is a trust, and Nichols is the trustee, he said.
The company bought a former gym about three miles to the west, in the Woodlawn Lake area, and opened a private men’s social club last year.
ACI’s former home is slated to be demolished. A Houston-based developer is under contract to buy the site and plans to build apartments.
Robert Widule was part of a group that bought land next to ACI in 2016 and built a cluster of townhomes there. After watching a retail and office project go up across the street, he approached ACI’s owner.
The 10,400-square-foot building has good bones and parking, a rarity in the neighborhood, Widule said in an interview last year.
With the Pearl, the San Antonio Museum of Art and the bars and restaurants along North St. Mary’s Street a short walk away, he thought it could be an attractive spot for a grocery store, restaurant or office building.
“If it wasn’t me, someone was going to do it at some point — make (the owner) an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Widule said.
The owner, Baley Investments LLC, held out for a while, declining Widule’s offers. Then he finally hit on the right price.
St. Mary’s Corner LLC, a company linked to Widule, bought the building and a parking lot across the street in 2017. He declined to say what he paid for the properties, but deed records show he borrowed $1 million for the purchase.
The sale occurred with the understanding that ACI would move out and the property would be redeveloped, local attorney Joel Barber said last year.
Widule’s company struck a temporary leaseback deal with ACI to give the business time to find a new home. The rent was $15,664.50 per month. ACI asked for more time and signed another lease that increased the rent to $30,500 in exchange for Widule delaying renovations, said Barber, who represented Widule’s company.
And then ACI’s ownership changed. The firm that acquired the business stopped paying what Nichols called “astronomical” rent for a dilapidated building after September 2019, according to court documents.
After trying to “resolve this matter amicably,” St. Mary’s Corner LLC moved to evict the club in late 2019 after it failed to pay rent for several months, according to court documents.
ACI fought back. Nichols and another attorney at his firm alleged in written responses to the landlord that the lease agreement was “unconscionable” and “grossly one sided at the time (it) was made.” The business owners had “paid so much rent above any reasonable market rate” that what they owed had been satisfied.
They accused Widule and his company of crafting an “unconscionable lease agreement based, in part, because of the nature of the business and its patrons (almost exclusively gay men).”
“There is no doubt Mr. Widule lined his pockets with ridiculously high sums paid for on the backs of the LGBT community — a community in which Mr. Widule lives and owns property but has not returned any of his profits to LGBT businesses, charities, or initiatives,” they said in the court filings. “The LGBT community is nary but a cash cow for your client, and it will stop — now.”
They also threatened to “alert the local LGBT news outlet and other media sources,” court documents indicate.
Last year, Barber dismissed the accusations against Widule, saying they “were part of ACI’s negotiation tactics intended to bully St. Mary’s into rent concessions.”
St. Mary’s Corner LLC did not promise any repairs because it intended to redevelop the property, and ACI assumed maintenance responsibilities, he added.
ACI owed more than $91,000 in rent by late 2019.
Judge Rogelio Lopez Jr. sided with the landlord. ACI appealed but later withdrew the appeal in part because the business moved out in early 2020.
Bathhouses and private men’s clubs have long been seen as safe havens for gay men — and are now largely a remnant of the past.
“These places … offered a kind of an oasis for people to be themselves without being ridiculed or experiencing acts of violence,” said Robert Salcido Jr., executive director of Pride Center San Antonio, a nonprofit that promotes and supports the LGBTQ community.
Bathhouses were part of gay culture, with their national heyday in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, UTSA’s Gohlke said. They created a sense of community.
The businesses arrived in San Antonio by at least the early ’70s. The Executive Health Club, which opened in 1973 on East Houston Street, was the first local gay bathhouse that Gohlke is aware of.
“The club offered a place where men could go to have anonymous sex, and that was and continued to be the main pull for bathhouses: men could go and hook up, and it was a safe space for them to do so for the most part,” Gohlke said.
Amid the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, authorities shut down bathhouses in New York, San Francisco and other cities. Gohlke, however, is not aware of that happening in San Antonio.
The Executive Health Club eventually relocated to Avenue B and later to Austin Street in the city center before closing in 2012. Those locations were close to gay businesses and in more secluded areas, allowing patrons a degree of anonymity.
“Just the fact that a health club existed for that many years really speaks to the importance of that institution in the community,” Gohlke said.
It’s unclear when ACI opened but it was in business by 1996, when an Express-News article mentioned the all-male private club with a pool, weight room, television room and bedrooms.
ACI had been the only private club for gay men in the area for years, Salcido said.
Bathhouses are often perceived as run-down and unclean but in many cases “it’s quite the opposite,” he added. Club operators are usually well-versed in sexual health and partner with organizations to offer testing and distribute condoms.
The popularity of bathhouses has declined with the advent of the internet and technology, as apps such as Grindr, Tinder and OkCupid are more common conduits for meeting people nowadays. The spaces are becoming “more like a relic from the past,” Gohlke said.
Historic neighborhoods in the city center such as Tobin Hill are seeing more development as people seek to live within walking distance of work, school, eateries, shops and bars.
Warehouses and bungalows are being replaced with condominiums and townhomes, and abandoned properties torn down or renovated.
That’s sparked tension between residents concerned about preserving the character of their neighborhoods and new arrivals hungry for denser housing like apartments and rows of townhomes, said Rick Lewis, assistant professor in practice in architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Housing costs and taxes are rising.
“We are in a new era of rethinking urbanization from the standpoint of greater density and people living in closer proximity,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any going back. The Pearl is an example of that.”
Silver Ventures’ transformation of the decaying Pearl brewery into a gold- and brown-toned mix of apartments, restaurants and stores has set off a wave of development around it.
Dilapidated houses are being fixed up and more restaurants are opening. And Paula Starnes, a Tobin Hill Community Association board member who has lived in the area for more than 30 years, credits the Pearl, which she describes as “a lovely place.”
“I used to make a joke with people who had stuff for sale and couldn’t get enough money for it — if you just said it was a mile from the Pearl, you’d be able to sell it,” she said.
At the same time, property values and taxes are surging. The median value of single-family homes within two miles of the complex jumped from $83,050 in 2015 to $202,880 in 2020, according to the Bexar Appraisal District.
“It’s a complicated issue at times,” Starnes said.
Proximity to the Pearl and the St. Mary’s Strip drew Urban Genesis to the area.
The Houston-based developer builds single-family and multifamily rental housing and is under contract to buy the former ACI building, which it plans to demolish and replace with around 60 apartments.
Rents are expected to range from about $1,300 to $1,600 per month. The $27 million complex won’t have a pool, fitness center or gaming lounge.
“In exchange for not necessarily having all the bells and whistles of a typical apartment complex, we provide a really nice, safe, quality housing experience,” said Urban Genesis founder Matt Shafiezadeh. “We like the neighborhood to be the amenity.”
The company is also planning to build about 58 rental townhomes on a site between Locust and Grayson streets that was once occupied by Flasher Equipment. Projects near The Rim shopping center and in Stone Oak are also in the works.
“We’re excited,” Shafiezadeh said. “We really like Tobin Hill, and we want to do more there.”
The razing of the former ACI building is imminent.
After its demolition, Urban Genesis plans to break ground on the apartments early next year and finish construction in 13 to 15 months.
Madison Iszler covers real estate, retail, economic development, and other business topics for the San Antonio Express-News.
Reach Madison at 210-250-3242, and @madisoniszler.


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