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Anticipating UTSA's impact on the historic West Side

by Ben OlivoOct 22, 2018
UTSA's downtown campus is expected to quadruple in size the next 10 years. BEN OLIVO | SAN ANTONIO HERON

This is a column of analysis.

Anyone who's paid attention to the gentrification of near-downtown communities knows that the South Side has pretty much matured; the East Side and Midtown in the midst of their metamorphoses; and the West Side is next. Maybe impediments such as the Bexar County Adult Detention Center and its symbiotic bail bonds shops, or Haven for Hope, or I-35/I-10, have delayed things to this point, but the inexorable development is imminent.

We could all see it coming.

No one, however, saw this coming.

In mid-September, the University of Texas at San Antonio announced plans—with the city, Bexar County, and philanthropist Graham Weston's assistance—to quadruple its downtown campus with new buildings east of the highway, into downtown proper, but also westward toward the historic West Side.

Since the campus opened in 1997, UTSA had a presence downtown, sure, but it was off to the side with no student housing, i.e., no semblance of the kind of neighborhood vibrancy that a small population of young people is supposed to bring. It was called a campus, it was a collection of buildings, but it was small potatoes compared to its UT sibling to the north.

This western segment of downtown, this area that includes Cattleman's Square, this no man's land sandwiched between the West Side/Alazan Creek and the interstate, has been snake bit for a very long time. Before UTSA opened its downtown campus, in the 1980s and early '90s, former Mayor Henry Cisneros built the Vista Verde South project—a giant mall dubbed the "Pink Elephant" for its gaudy paint job, a computer manufacturing plant, and new single-family homes. But it failed. In 1993, then-Mayor Nelson Wolff, brokered a deal to transfer ownership of the abandoned mall to the UT Board of Regents for UTSA's downtown campus, Wolff wrote in his book "Mayor: An Inside View of San Antonio Politics, 1981-1995."

"Out of these ashes will rise a university that will bring hope and opportunity to thousands of young men and women," Wolff said at a press conference the following year.

It never materialized.

Last year, the San Antonio Housing Authority tried to secure a second Choice Neighborhood grant—the same one that replaced the old Wheatley Courts on the East Side with the mixed-income East Meadows. SAHA had similar plans for the Alazan Courts, an idea that received some community pushback. But the agency didn't get the HUD grant.

So when UTSA made its announcement, part of the shock, at least for me, wasn't just that something more was happening with UTSA, but the scale of it.


East of I-35/I-10, into downtown, the university's building two new schools—the $33 million National Security Collaboration Center and the $57 million School of Data Science (with the assistance of a $15 million gift from Rackspace co-founder Weston)—on Dolorosa near City Hall. Between these two, it's erecting a new building for its College of Business. The bulk of its growth, however, is 5-10 years from now, when it will build on properties currently owned by the city immediately west of the campus in the direction of the West Side neighborhoods. At the City Council meeting on Thursday, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston showed 19 acres of land—currently, the Frank Wing Municipal Court, a police substation and a fleet maintenance center—the city will offer to UTSA in the next year or two.

That's not all. As the Heron first reported last week, UTSA has also offered to purchase a 1.5-acre property on West Houston Street from the Alamo College District.

Who knows the full scale of UTSA's plans.

Anticipated with the development growth is the development of the near West Side's youth. If education is the key to solving San Antonio's inequality, what better way than have the city's largest university invest in what has been historically the city's poorest ZIP code—78207? UTSA's plans include the transformation of the College of Education and Human Development into the Urban Education Institute that will use public schools such as Tafolla Middle School, Lanier High School and Brackenridge High School as laboratories. Those relationships have already begun, UTSA President Taylor Eighmy told the Council, and a bigger more detailed announcement is due in a few weeks.

It also envisions a pipeline of talent from local schools to its School of Data Science, for example, and onward into high-paying tech jobs at prominent companies that would have opened offices here because of San Antonio's rich talent pool.

Which is why (and I'm assuming here based on their remarks to the Council) the Westside Preservation Alliance and the Esperanza Center—who are on the front lines of many of San Antonio's gentrification battles—aren't saying "Don't build," but rather, "Let's talk."

"We have serious concerns about the potential for the expansion to usher in rapid gentrification in the West Side and residents' voices and concerns must be heard before the city and UTSA decide the future of the West Side," Yaneth Flores, representing the groups, told the Council.

Coupled with the exciting news are concerns over how the tidal wave will impact, potentially change, the West Side, which is, without question, San Antonio's cultural center. Its soul.

She continued, "We have witnessed low-income to working-case neighborhoods displaced by universities in places like Philadelphia, Harlem, and New Haven (Conn.), and we do not want to see the historic West Side erased by what may ultimately be good intentions for increased student enrollment. We merely ask that UTSA engage the community they wish to expand into before making decisions that will irreversibly impact the community."

Some on the Council questioned Eighmy about community engagement in this process.

Eighmy said those conversations about how and when to engage the community have already begun with the offices of District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales and District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, which, judging from Flores' remarks, must have been news to them.

Afterward, Eighmy expanded on his remarks in an interview, saying that community meetings would likely begin in November or December and carry over into 2019.

"It will involve inviting the community to our campus downtown, but it will also involve our going out into the community and meeting with a number of groups," Eighmy said. "It's part of the beginning of the dialogue."

UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said community engagement with the near West Side neighborhoods will be held in November or December. BEN OLIVO | SAN ANTONIO HERON

"I've encountered some concerns about gentrification, but I also encounter lots of enthusiasm about the idea that there are business opportunities related to having a university downtown, and related to how we hire companies to come in and do the things you have in a normal metabolism," Eighmy said.

He talked about economic development at the family level, at the small business level, and how its Small Business Development Center could play a role.

"The concerns I'm hearing more about are what's going to happen to our tax base if our property values go up," he said. "That's the greater concern. It's not really a displacement concern that I've heard about, so far."

Of course, it's unclear how all of this will play out.

The city's role, so far, has been that of land provider. However, it holds a greater responsibility, one that was articulated in the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force's final report. Houston told the Council that economic and socioeconomic studies on UTSA's impact on the near West Side would be conducted. The idea was born out of the changes at the Soap Factory apartments, aka Soap Works, along San Pedro Creek in west downtown.

"We could have known five years ago when San Pedro Creek was moving forward that we would have had a Soap Works problem," task force member Gene Dawson, president of Pape-Dawson Engineers, told the Council in June.

At Soap Factory, at least two households received relocation assistance from the city, a new measure inserted into this year's fiscal budget at the recommendation of the task force.

At the meeting, City Manager Sheryl Sculley assured District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval the city would be involved in the process.

In an interview last month, Gonzales explained a different priority. Speaking to the Heron before a public meeting on the future of Guadalupe Plaza, the West Side Councilwoman said she welcomes the kind of private investment that's going to help keep people in their homes.

"While I know there's a lot of discussion of gentrification ... the immediate concern is that people are becoming homeless because their homes are in such a state of disrepair that they can no longer live there," Gonzales said.

She continued, "Not that their taxes are going up and being pushed out, but that their houses are falling apart ... So how do we address that concern immediately, especially working with the private sector to develop home packages or grant programs so that we can take care of people's homes so that they continue to live there as long as they are able?"

All worthy of discussion, indeed.

» Some Soap Factory residents relocate with aid from federal dollars
» UTSA's history
» Express-News: UTSA's creation helped a city grow up
» Zoning charter amendments among housing ideas sure to stir controversy

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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