The lunch options on Houston Street will get a significant boost on Friday with The Spot of Houston, a kind of midday food truck festival on the empty lot on Houston and Jefferson streets.

The participants are Lada Ladies (enchiladas), Bebere Ethiopian, Garbanzo (Mediterranean), Twisted Traditions (German, American, Asian and Italian), Ay Papi (Puerto Rican), Panifico Bake Shop and Estate Coffee. The gathering begins at 10 a.m.

Also, a mobile women's clothing store called Hola Beaches Airstream will sell its wares.

The Spot on Houston
» When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
» Where: Lot at Houston and Jefferson streets

The event by Centro San Antonio is an attempt to activate a segment of Houston Street that's usually dormant. The activation is the second this summer, and stems from a public engagement process held by the International Downtown Association late last year in which stakeholders and residents brainstormed on how to breathe more life into Houston Street.

Many decades ago — and I mean like in the 1940s and '50s — Houston Street was home to San Antonio's largest retail stores. But in recent years, it has sputtered along despite attempts to revive it with public improvement projects, such as Tri-Party of the late '80s and '90s.

"Centro has always recognized Houston Street as one of our most storied and historical streets," said Liz Burt, Centro's director of placemaking and programming. "At one point it was compared to Fifth Avenue in New York. It has some great architectural bones, but it's had some ebbs and flows."

In the past 10 years, the pattern has been: retailer or restauranteur opens optimistically, then closes. Opens optimistically, then closes. Houston Street is somewhat active on weekdays, but not so much on nights and weekends. It has yet to really get into a rhythm.

There are signs of promise. On the corner of Houston and Jefferson streets alone, a pizza joint called Playland is scheduled to open in the Maverick apartment building in mid-July, and the historic Burns building is currently being remodeled into offices with restaurant space on the ground floor. Both of those buildings are owned by developer David Adelman.

The Alamo interpretive plan, which is currently going through a heated public process, recommends closing Houston Street from Broadway/Losoya Street to Third, and opening it up as an extension of the plaza. A few weeks ago, Revolucion Coffee + Juice opened at 300 E. Houston St. in a spot that has seen Moshe's Golden Falafel and Big Apple Bagels open and close in recent years. La Panaderia at 301 E. Houston St. opened a year ago and seems to be going strong. But that spot has been home to French, Italian and sushi in the last 10 years.

We'll explore Houston Street's future more in the coming months. For now, we wanted to let you know about the food trucks. This is an event that Centro will hold one more time this summer, July 27, and then consider bringing it back in the fall for perhaps the mornings or for happy hour, Burt said.

Also, the first 25 people who arrive on a SWell Cycle receive a free paleta from Steel City Pops.

Unfortunately, that offer doesn't apply to Bird scooter riders.

Featured photo by Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

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Courtesy Alamo Community Group
The Museum Reach Lofts, a project near the Pearl that's currently in the works, may sound like downtown’s latest luxury apartments. Look closer and you’ll find these envisioned dwellings are an anomaly of sorts for the center city: they're affordable.

Like, for real.

Alamo Community Group, a local nonprofit developer and operator of affordable housing across the city, is currently gathering up financing for the $17.5 million project. The project consists of 94 units that will sit on a .6-acre patch of land on the southeast corner of North St. Mary’s Street and Jones Avenue, a hop away from the San Antonio Current, and just down the street from the San Antonio Museum of Art.

The group hopes to begin construction in January and complete the apartments in 2020.

Only eight units will be rented at market rate — between $830 (studio) and $1455 (two bedroom).

The remaining units, 86, will serve households making between 30 and 60 percent of the area median income (AMI) — which is $63,500 for a family of four. Those rents will range between $333 and $858, depending on the size of the household and its annual income.

For example, a family of four making 50 percent AMI ($31,500) could rent a two-bedroom apartment for $715. Or, a single person making 30 percent AMI ($13,350) could rent a studio for $333 a month.

The Alamo Community Group, which also owns the low-income Calcasieu Apartments at 214 Broadway, will eventually market the Museum Reach Lofts to downtown workers in the service industry, or those in lower-paying office jobs.

So how is the nonprofit able to produce affordable units when the majority of for-profit developers only build market rate — another term for “luxury” in San Antonio?

Jennifer Gonzalez, ACG executive director, said the group first determines the maximum rents it can demand given the site’s proximity to amenities such as the Pearl, the Museum Reach, and SAMA.

“When you start to apply affordability to it, that reduces your profit significantly,” Gonzalez said. “That's your answer right there, that's the reason why. We're motivated to try to find a way to put these affordable units here. For us, that's a huge win, that is a successful day. For them (for-profit developers) a win is to maximize their profits.

“We are dealing with trying to find creative ways to really put affordable units on the ground. We’re not trying to maximize those profits. At the end of the day, we're just trying to figure out how to drive down those rents.”

Incentives help, too.

To purchase the land — two properties which are selling for a combined $2.8 million — ACG is seeking an award from the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, which is designed to reinvest revenue from the rise in property taxes into projects within its boundaries.

Also, on Thursday, the group will travel to Austin to attend a hearing by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), the state agency that doles out federal low-income housing tax credits. The ACG is requesting $1.2 million on tax credits, which is a complex process all its own. They are highly-competitive credits developers sell to help fund their projects. Currently, nine affordable housing developments in the San Antonio area are vying for the credits, but only two, maybe three, will actually get funding. Of those nine projects, the TDHCA has ranked the Museum Reach Lofts first.

The funds will be awarded in July.

ACG also is in preliminary talks with the city regarding a $564,000 development loan from the Center City Housing Incentives Policy (CCHIP), which Mayor Ron Nirenberg suspended in December. Nirenberg, who has made housing affordability a top priority, saw the CCHIP program was funding more luxury than affordable apartments. When he put the program on ice, he also asked city officials to revamp it to encourage more affordable housing in the downtown area.

When that program resurfaces, ACG will seek the same tax rebates that have saved developers millions of dollars. To give you an idea, the Arts Residences — a hotel, condo and retail combo, a half-mile south near the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts — will receive a CCHIP incentive worth $10 million, the bulk of which is tax reimbursements.

City officials are working on the revised CCHIP now, said John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations department. He hopes to present the revisions to the City Council in August.

Featured photo by Ben Olivo / SA Heron; rendering courtesy Alamo Community Group

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Prominent downtown developer David Adelman could receive a city incentive worth up to $335,000 for the renovation of the historic Burns building, 401 E. Houston St.

Currently, the remodel has begun on the four-story building. The $11.3 million project will add 39,000 square feet of creative office space to Houston Street, and continue a trend of historic buildings being refurbished for tech endeavors on the corridor. This includes the Vogue building anchored by Codeup, the Savoy building anchored by Scaleworks and the Rand anchored by Geekdom.

The project also will add 14,000 square feet of retail space along Houston and Jefferson streets.

On Monday, the Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) board authorized city staff to begin negotiating the incentive with Adelman. At the meeting, it was unclear what the potential six-figure incentive would fund, but a city official mentioned facade improvements as a possibility.

The project's timeline and potential tenants were also unclear. Adelman did not return requests for comment on Monday. Last year, the developer told the San Antonio Express-News that he’ll pursue federal and state historic tax credits to help fund the project.

In addition to the Burns, Adelman owns the nine-story Maverick apartments across the street. He's also developing the yet-to-be-named, eight-story, mixed-income apartment project at Hemisfair, adjacent to Yanaguana Garden. It's scheduled to open some time next year.

Built in 1912, the Burns building was last home to now-defunct Bromley Communications, which left in 2015. It also was a JCPenney store. It’s a local historic landmark, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This year, the Bexar County Appraisal District values the building at $4.5 million

In a TIRZ, revenue generated from the rise in property taxes is put back into projects within the zone.

Featured photo by Ben Olivo / San Antonio Heron

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Maverick Whiskey, a distillery under construction inside a historic bank building at 115 Broadway, is scheduled to open in early October.

The $3 million project by Dr. Kenneth Maverick, a descendant of Texas Declaration of Independence signer Samuel A. Maverick, could receive a city incentive worth up to $15,000. Earlier today, the Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone board gave city staff the OK to begin negotiating the incentive with Sam Maverick Spirits, LLC.

The distillery, located next to Paris Hatters, will include a 100-seat tasting room, event space, and its own offices and conference rooms.

Kenneth Maverick, a local ophthalmologist, was not immediately available for comment. But Daniel Esperiqueta, Maverick family business manager, said construction was on track for the distillery to open in the fall.

The building with its Greek column facade was built in 1918 for the Lockwood National Bank. It most recently housed Antiques at One Fifteen Broadway, but that business has been closed for years. The land on which the building stands was the corner of the original Maverick family homestead, according to Maverick Whiskey’s website.

At the TIRZ meeting, board members were told the $15,000 would likely pay for lighting of Peacock Alley, which flanks the building to the south. In a TIRZ, revenue collected from the increase of taxes is invested back into the zone.

» Read more about Maverick Whiskey in an interview Maverick did with the San Antonio Express-News last year.

» Read more about Samuel Augustus Maverick on the Texas State Historical Association's website.

Featured photo by Ben Olivo / San Antonio Heron

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USAA gained conceptual approval on Wednesday for a parking garage expansion at its downtown building at One Riverwalk Place, 700 N. St. Mary’s St., which will result in more parking during non-business hours for people visiting downtown.

The garage will be open to the public, with the public parking starting after 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, after 6 p.m. on Friday, as well as on the weekends and during holidays. The expansion will be a stone's throw west of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

The addition to the six-level garage will add nearly 200 parking spaces, according to USAA’s application to the Historic and Design Review Commission. The total number of spaces would be 475, according to Samira Bitar, executive director of marketing for USAA Real Estate Company.

Currently, the company has more than 200 employees in the building, according to USAA spokesman Matt Hartwig. Earlier this year, USAA announced it would move another 700 employees to its mid-rise building by first quarter 2019. Those employees will be largely focussed in the tech field.

The local company plans to eventually move 2,000 employees into the building, which it bought in 2014.

Renderings submitted to the HDRC show that the expansion will erase Hangar Arc, an obscure downtown mini-street that flanks One Riverwalk Place and the River Walk and that makes a T with Navarro Street at Hotel Havana.

Rendering Courtesy USAA

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After nine months of meetings and brainstorming, the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force presented its first concrete ideas for how to address San Antonio’s most challenging housing woes. The presentation, given to the City Council on Wednesday, offered some concepts sure to be controversial, as well as an array of sobering statistics.

One big issue covered was displacement — when residents of older communities are forced to leave their homes, for whatever reason, because of incoming apartments and condos that often receive incentives from the city. Specifically, in late 2014, early 2015, more than 100 families were displaced from the Mission Trails mobile home park on the San Antonio River on the South Side where luxury apartments are going up.

It’s what drove Mayor Ron Nirenberg to create the task force in the first place.

In recent years, the city adjusted its incentives policy for downtown housing to reduce the possibility of such displacement happening again, but the fear remains.

The task force suggests $1 million be set aside in the upcoming budget for a “risk mitigation fund,” which would assist residents who are displaced with moving costs.

It also recommends a “displacement impact” assessment for any public improvement project that costs at least $15 million, such as the San Pedro Creek Culture Park. There, some residents of the adjacent Soapworks and Towne Center apartments, which cater to lower-income people, are feeling the pressure of an owner who’s talked about raising rents now that the San Pedro Creek is an urban destination.

“If there's a project that we feel like the city has an influence on, we should require an economic analysis and displacement analysis if that project moves forward,” Dawson said. “We could have known five years ago when San Pedro Creek was moving forward that we would have had a Soap Works problem.”

Perhaps the most controversial will be the concept of “by-right zoning,” by which any proposed affordable housing development would automatically receive proper zoning and incentives to begin construction, no matter where in the city it’s located located.

"They don't have to go through the lengthy (rezoning) process,” said task force member Gene Dawson, president of Pape-Dawson Engineers. “They can get their incentive and go build their project."

Lourdes Castro-Ramirez, head of the five-member task force, reminded the council that such a policy would require public feedback.

“We believe in zoning by right, but it has to include community input or a community advisory component,” Castro-Ramirez said. “Make those parameters public so that everyone knows this is how we're going to operate.”

She was alluding to NIMBYism — Not In My Backyard — when neighborhoods pushback against affordable housing. Last year, during the local process for low-income housing tax credits, a federal program that helps fund affordable housing projects, many projects were weeded out because of NIMBYism. Mostly northside neighborhoods.

District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval applauded the forthrightness of the task force.

“It’s going to be extremely controversial,” Sandoval said. “It’s great to do that upfront, before people’s emotions really get in the way. Once you already have a project in mind, it becomes so much harder to go through a process like that.”

Sandoval would know. NIMBYism was the top issue for her last year when she was running for office. Then, the northern part of her district resisted a handful of projects that were pursuing low-income housing tax credits.

How such a policy would play out in the downtown area remains to be seen. In the city’s core, the main barrier to affordable housing isn’t so much NIMBYism as it is the cost to build such housing. Land prices, among other factors, make it a challenge. And the numbers don’t work, developers say.

An incentives policy for downtown housing, known as the Center City Housing Incentives Policy (CCHIP), doesn’t favor affordable housing. Separate from the task force, Mayor Ron Nirenberg also ordered city staff to revise the CCHIP to include incentives that would encourage more affordable housing in the downtown area.

Those recommendations should be presented to the council in August, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said.

The task force addresses some of these barriers with a proposed automatic waiver of San Antonio Water System fees for any affordable housing development. Under the current system, the finite amount of fee waivers are reserved more for downtown developments, mostly luxury apartments and condos, and less for affordable housing projects.

Another recommendation that could strike controversy is the idea of changing the city’s unified development code to allow bond money to be used for the construction of affordable housing. In other words, the city could become a developer of housing under such a proposal.

Currently, bond money can only be used to support affordable housing. During last year’s bond election, $20 million was approved by voters to assist in infrastructure upgrades that would pave the way for an affordable housing developer to come in and build.

Overall, the task force is recommending $20 million in the upcoming budget for various housing needs, including $8 million for neighborhood improvements and incentives for affordable housing, $5 million for a homebuyer down payment assistance program, and $2 million to increase city staff to help make these ideas a reality.

The ideas drew strong and sometimes emotional reaction from the Council, but the were mostly in favor of the direction that the task force was proposing.

District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse was the lone critic, saying that the concepts equalled an overreach by local government. Specifically, he questioned what programs would have to be cut in the upcoming budget process in order to make room for the $20 million.

“Where is the like-minded cut in funding?” Brockhouse asked. “If you want $20 million in the budget, who goes? What do you cut for that?”

He went on, “I have concerns about the city turning into a lender, the city turning into a guarantor, into an underwriting arm, a housing center. There are areas which I’m willing to go into, but also we also have to understand, homeownership as a right is a very difficult conversation. Because quite frankly everyone cannot be a homeowner until they do certain things in their control, in their own responsibility, such as credit.”

Task force member Maria Berriozábal, a former councilwoman who has worked on this issue for 30 years, gave some perspective. She talked about the myriad of housing studies that have been drafted in recent years, and about how they came to similar sets of recommendations. And yet nothing has happened.

“If it’s not there, nothing is going to happen (again) — and that’s the political will,” she said.

In early July, the task force is scheduled to present a more definitive report to the council

Featured photo: Lourdes Castro-Ramirez, head of the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force, goes over housing recommendations to the City Council. Photo by V. Finster / San Antonio Heron

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District 3 resident Sophia Torres, 83, reacts during the Alamo public meeting Monday night at Ron Darner Park Operations Headquarters on the West Side. V. FINSTER | SAN ANTONIO HERON

Past the midpoint of last night's Alamo meeting, moderator Leonard Rodriguez, who sits on the Alamo Community Advisory Committee, asked the 50 or so people in attendance, "On the cenotaph, by a raise of hands, how many of you are opposed to moving it absolutely one inch?"

Nearly every hand shot up. One woman held up both arms as if to signal "touchdown!"

"OK, OK, alright," Rodriguez said. "That message is heard loud and clear. We got it."

The idea to move the cenotaph was the biggest frustration among those in attendance on Monday night at the Ron Darner Park Operations Headquarters on the West Side.

The relocation of the cenotaph, a monument erected in 1940 to honor those who died defending the Alamo, is by far the most contentious of all the major changes being proposed to Alamo Plaza. And the descendants of the defenders say their voices aren't being heard. Also among the groups that opposed the plan are descendants of the indigenous people who inhabited local land way before the Spanish founded San Antonio in 1718.

Last year, a plan unveiled by another set of out-of-town consultants suggested the cenotaph be moved out of Alamo Plaza and closer to Market Street. That idea, and the infamous glass walls concept, spelled doom for the plan.

In the current version, the design team of Reed Hilderbrand (Cambridge, Mass.), PGAV Destinations (St. Louis) and Cultural Innovations (London) crafted what they felt was a compromise: move the cenotaph roughly 500 feet south from its current location in front of the long barracks to in front of the Menger Hotel, where one of the Alamo defender funeral pyres was located.

The descendants are frustrated because they feel like the feedback they gave last year — to not move the cenotaph one bit — is not being heard this time around.

"The Alamo is part of Texas, and that's why so many people are upset," said Brandon Burkhart, president of This is Texas Freedom Force. "That (cenotaph) means more than anything to all of us. We feel like the Alamo advisory committee, (Alamo CEO Bruce) MacDougal, (District 1 Councilman Roberto) Treviño are not listening to what we are saying."

As another woman put it, "It was part of the initial feedback to keep it where it's at."

Many others compared the cenotaph to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a sacred war memorial that should be left alone.

Alamo public meetings
All meetings are scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
» Tuesday, June 19, Phil Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center, 8400 N.W. Military Highway
» Wednesday, June 20, Embassy Suites Hotel & Spa at Brooks, 7610 S. New Braunfels Ave.
» Thursday, June 21, San Antonio Garden Center, 3310 N. New Braunfels Ave.

Some in the audience submitted their feedback via mobile device or notecards, which was collected and projected on a screen. Among them:

» “Don't surround so closely with trees so that the memorial disappears behind the foliage.”

» “Leave it intact and in place.”

» “War memorial and family headstone sits on sacred ground where Alamo defenders blood was shed, do not reinterpret or reimagine Texas history,” which drew the loudest applause of the night.

Many feel like the cenotaph move is a done deal. They quoted comments Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Treviño made to the media about their desire to see the Cenotaph repaired and moved, but it was unclear which media outlet they were quoted in.

"No decision has been made, that I guarantee you," District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse told the audience. "Part of the public process is: What is the real quantity of opposition? We're going to figure that out with members of the state. I can tell you this: My colleagues are honorable down to a T."

When told by one audience member that all Alamo discussions should be held in the open, and not behind closed doors, Brockhouse responded, “Hello, that's where I stand on it ... Nothing is happening behind closed doors. If there was, you would hear it. I would say it is wrong."

Audience members were reminded that the plan is still in draft mode, and that the public feedback process began Monday night. Four other meetings are scheduled for this week in different parts of the city, and four more are scheduled for July 16-19. And the Alamo Community Advisory Committee continues to meet to give their feedback on the plan.

There is no schedule or deadline for the plan to be taken to the City Council for consideration, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said in an interview.

At the end of the meeting, the feeling among many still there was that their voices had been heard. It took the better part of two hours, constant interruptions and a few insults to get there.

Originally, the evening's format reserved time for people to ask questions, but only at the very end, if there was enough time. Instead, audience members, many of whom were holding up signs that read, "Don't Move the Cenotaph," were asked to submit their feedback via smart phone or notecard, which would then be compiled and projected on a screen for the room to see.

During presentation by the consultants, audience members wedged in their questions anyway. To their credit, city leadership capitulated, and what resulted was a combination of open dialogue and a continuous look at the comments coming in realtime that seemed to satisfy most in the room.

Trish DeBerry, president and CEO of The DeBerry Group, which is organizing the public feedback process, said the remaining meetings would be run very much like the way last night's meeting unfolded — a mixture of spoken and written comments with the moderators kind of improvising along the way.

Tonight's meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. Phil Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center, 8400 N.W. Military Highway.

Featured photo: Roberto C. Treviño, District 1 City Council member and Tri-Chair on the Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee, introduces the proposed process and steps of the Alamo master plan at the first Alamo public meeting Monday night at Ron Darner Park Operations Headquarters. V. FINSTER / SAN ANTONIO HERON

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Maggie Wright holds up signs in opposition of moving the cenotaph during a public meeting Monday night. V. FINSTER | SAN ANTONIO HERON
Leonard Rodriguez, president and CEO of Westside Development Corporation, asks how many in the audience are opposed to the cenotaph being removed "one inch." V. FINSTER | SAN ANTONIO HERON
COURTESY WESTON URBAN

Weston Urban, the developer behind the glassy Frost Tower, plans to transform the oak-lined greensward across Flores Street into an actual park, complete with more seating and furniture, art, fountains, retail, and a restaurant with outdoor dining.

The green space at 210 N. Flores St., long owned by Frost Bank, was acquired by Weston Urban in the complex land deal between those two parties and the city of San Antonio that is resulting in the new tower.

The plans go before the Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday, having received conceptual approval from the commission in March.

The portion of the park that faces Houston Street will be designed in tandem with the tree-lined promenade at the base of the Frost Tower, on the other side of Flores, so that the two sections act as one continuous park experience while also connecting to San Pedro Creek Culture Park.

“It’s really meant to be part of a story — that space from the park through the Houston Street promenade, then engaging with San Pedro Creek,” Weston Urban President Randy Smith said. “In our eyes, we want all three of them to complement one another.”

While the space is privately owned, Weston Urban ensured, in its documents submitted to the HDRC, that it will be public: "all are encouraged to take advantage of the space."

On the northwest corner of the park, there are plans to build a restaurant. Weston Urban is in talks with a handful of potential operators, some from San Antonio and others from the region, Smith said, declining to name names. It would be “very Texan,” he said.

The park is scheduled to be finished by the time the Frost Tower opens in summer 2019, however the restaurant could take longer.

Smith said programming will be key to the park’s success.

“Without great programming and activity, a great park is not really a great park,” said Smith, who declined to divulge the project’s cost.

The acre park is being designed by Seattle-based landscape architects Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, which is also designing the promenade.

Rendering courtesy Weston Urban

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The first public meetings on the Alamo Interpretive Plan begin tonight on the West Side. All meetings are scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

» Monday, June 18, Ron Darner Park Operations Headquarters, 5800 Enrique M. Barrera Parkway

» Tuesday, June 19, Phil Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center, 8400 N.W. Military Highway

» Wednesday, June 20, Embassy Suites Hotel & Spa at Brooks, 7610 S. New Braunfels Ave.

» Thursday, June 21, San Antonio Garden Center, 3310 N. New Braunfels Ave.

The plan to revamp Alamo Plaza has drawn criticism from descendants of the 1836 battle, preservationists, architects, and urban planners. The pushback began June 7 at a packed auditorium at the Witte Museum, when consultants presented the plan to the public for the first time. By far, the largest point of contention is the relocation of the cenotaph, the circa-1940 monument to the fallen defenders, which would be moved roughly 500 feet south from its current position in front of the long barracks to in front of the Menger Hotel.

In a version revealed in April 2017, the cenotaph would have been moved to a park above the River Walk, closer to the Convention Center than the Alamo. City officials and planners feel that keeping the cenotaph in the plaza is a compromise, according to media reports.

Another significant change would be closing the entire plaza to traffic, as well as Houston Street from Broadway/Losoya east to the plaza. Also, Losoya Street would be converted from one-way heading south to a two-way street.

The plan also calls for the demolition of some of the buildings across from the Alamo, including the historic Woolworth’s building, to make way for a kind of interpretive museum.

The project, which is being lead by Reed-Hilderbrand Landscape Architects of Cambridge, Mass., is scheduled for another round of public meetings in July. It will eventually go to the City Council for approval some time this year.

For more details on the plan, visit these links:
» NowCastSA Webcast: Committee reveals new draft site plan for Alamo Plaza
» San Antonio Express-News: Proposed Alamo plan would overhaul heart of downtown but is stirring controversy
» The Rivard Report: Alamo master planners present new ideas for the plaza

Courtesy rendering

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You wouldn’t be 100 percent accurate if you said the San Antonio Heron's coverage will be focussed on a city policy. But you’d be close.

The city of San Antonio’s incentives policy for downtown housing is intended to expedite the construction of apartments and condos. The way a city revitalizes its downtown, the thinking goes, is by having more people live there.

As one downtown leader told me years ago, when I reported on downtown for the San Antonio Express-News: An increased population floats all the boats. More people means more vibrancy, more diverse retail, more 24/7 dining options, more things to do, and on and on.

In order to accomplish this, the city created its Center City Housing Incentives Policy (CCHIP), which launched in 2012, early on in Mayor Julián Castro’s “Decade of Downtown” campaign. The program offers tax rebates to developers (which can be worth millions of dollars), fee waivers (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) and smaller goodies.

The result is the construction of 6,543 units, aided by $97 million in CCHIP incentives, the San Antonio Express-News reported in January. That’s a lot of additional people and worth touting, indeed. So why, then, is downtown still a ghost town on many nights? Because many of the units have gone up, not in downtown proper, but in the neighborhoods that encircle downtown. Land prices, and other deterrents, have pushed developments away from the core. Only now are you starting to see a few more developments planned for what is truly downtown.

The program’s original footprint, the areas where developers could build and receive incentives from the city, stretched far outside downtown’s boundaries, into older neighborhoods well into the east and south sides of town. Why was this? Years ago I remember asking city officials and downtown planners about this, and the answer then was that the entire urban core needed to be populated — not just downtown. Though downtown’s population may be growing at a snail’s pace, it’s important that abutting communities thrive as well, because these zones will, in effect, feed each other in terms of activity.

It was intentional.

But the policy had some unintended side effects.

In late 2014, early 2015, the residents of the Mission Trails mobile home park, more than 100 mostly low-income households along the San Antonio River, an entire community, were displaced for luxury apartments — luxury apartments that benefited from CCHIP.

It was a media circus. I remember after the City Council voted to rezone the property, which allowed the developer, White-Conlee Development of San Antonio, to move forward with its plans and eventually uproot the families, Castro left his seat on the dias and made his way into the audience to console some of the residents who had come to plead their case.

Since then, two significant things have happened regarding the housing policy. First, the city redrew its boundaries in 2016, bringing the footprint closer to downtown. Second, Mayor Ron Nirenberg late last year put a moratorium on CCHIP because it was resulting in more and more luxury apartments, and very little affordable housing. City officials are now revamping CCHIP to include mechanisms that will result in more affordable housing.

Simultaneously, Nirenberg’s five-member housing task force, which formed in October, is scheduled to provide City Council with actionable steps to solve San Antonio’s housing woes — not just downtown. Included in these solutions, it’s assumed, will be how to prevent or lessen the effects of displacement.

As one housing expert told me last week, and I’m paraphrasing, there’s something morally wrong about giving tax rebates worth millions of dollars to a developer whose project will help raise the taxes of, and therefore potentially displace, working class families. As a journalist, I choose not to fully endorse this way of thinking, but it should absolutely inform the way we at the Heron think about housing development in the downtown area.

I didn’t always think this way.

During the Mission Trails uprooting, I remember getting a call from one of the activists, pleading with me to cover the story. Even though the families didn’t live downtown — the trailer park was along the San Antonio River south of Mission Concepción — they were still victim of CCHIP. I told her that because I was the downtown blogger at the Express-News, and because what was happening to these residents wasn’t downtown, that it was out of my scope of coverage. That was one of the worst mistakes of my career.

Though CCHIP doesn’t touch that far south anymore, it’s still our mission at the Heron to understand the effects of this policy — the bad, and the good — on every facet of the downtown region. Is the policy working? Will it? At what point will city officials shelve it? How will the city address gentrification? What kind of city incentivizes luxury apartments while San Antonio remains so economically segregated? Is downtown truly for everyone in terms of housing?

We’re launching to try to answer some of these questions. But we also want to make sure we shine a light on the good that’s coming from these policies, as well. Many of these neighborhoods need private investment to thrive — just ask the West Side. But what is the right balance?

Not all of our stories will be this heavy, we promise. Part of reporting on how downtown is evolving is informing you about events, the culture, major public projects like Hemisfair and San Pedro Creek Culture Park, and introducing you to some of the people who make downtown San Antonio a unique place.

We have many more ideas, which you’ll see come to fruition in our upcoming stories. And we are eager to officially launch the San Antonio Heron on Monday.

Photo of the Hays Street Bridge by V. Finster / San Antonio Heron

This is what we'll be writing about. Click here to read about why we decided to form the Heron.

ben@saheron.com

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