A glimpse at west downtown in 10 years

by Ben OlivoOctober 31, 2019
West downtown Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
This photo shows west downtown, where Weston Urban owns about a dozen properties. Those properties include the lot enclosed with a red fence, and the Little Patch Garden (partially visible, bottom left). Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

For a little more than a year, we've known about big changes coming to west downtown, spearheaded by the University of Texas at San Antonio's expansion, and Weston Urban's obligation to build 265 housing units, part of the same agreement with the city that spawned the new Frost Tower.

Since that agreement was signed four years ago, Weston Urban, the local development company backed by Rackspace co-founder and philanthropist Graham Weston, has purchased more properties, and intends to keep adding to its portfolio, the company says, with the intent of building a community. In total, the company owns, or will own, about a dozen vacant lots and buildings. (Weston Urban is receiving properties from Frost Bank and the city, but not all have transferred over.)

But it wasn't until I spoke to Weston Urban's vice presidents, Mark Jensen and Reeves Craig, who were hired this summer to lead the development, that I realized what the area might actually look like.

In a recent interview, Craig and Jensen described two to four multifamily developments, with an average of 250 units per project, beginning in the next two years. Consider this to be the first phase. Do the math: That could be as much as 1,000 apartments populating west downtown, on land west of North Main Avenue, in the near future.

Ten years from now, which is when UTSA anticipates it will complete the quadrupling of its downtown campus, you're looking at roughly 3,000 units, a figure that doesn't factor in whatever properties Weston Urban acquires between now and then.

Jensen says the company plans to break ground on the first housing development "within about a year."

Mark Jensen (left) and Reeves Craig. Courtesy photos

The developments will be built primarily from the ground up—new structures erected on vacant lots.

Craig and Jensen said the company prefers projects that rise more than five stories—more of the taller, steel-and-concrete variety than the shorter, wood-framed structures that have predominately been built during the downtown area's revitalization the last decade—most with retail space. Seems like a no-brainer to have retail, but it's not. See 120 Ninth Street or the Encore SoFlo as examples of developments that are strictly apartments.

"Everything will have some sort of a (street) activation component," Jensen said. "Just because we're describing this as a big push of residential space, a lot of these projects will be mixed-use in nature."

On its own, UTSA is planning to build multiple buildings west and east of Interstate 35. East of I-35, in downtown proper, where Weston Urban controls more land than any developer in San Antonio, UTSA is planning for the construction of new buildings for its National Security Collaboration Center, the College of Business, and the School of Data Science on Dolorosa, across from City Hall. Pair the new buildings with the recreation of San Pedro Creek, the rehab of the Alameda Theatre on West Houston Street and of the former Continental Hotel on West Commerce Street, and you start to get a sense that west downtown will undergo more of a metamorphosis than some changes here and there.

What the Pearl has done for Midtown and River North, it appears, UTSA and Weston Urban will do for west downtown. Though not without some concerns.

West of west downtown

Among the issues for preservationists, housing advocates, and some on the City Council are the lack of true affordable housing, especially among projects that receive public subsidies, and the impact the redevelopment will have on the historically-underserved near West Side.

It's too early to talk rent levels, Craig and Jensen say. But they are aware of the concerns.

"In our vision, we really want, from a community standpoint, to provide a little bit of everything," said Jensen. "And so, I think for sure, the way we're thinking through things, we want to hit a variety of price points, and product types. Hopefully, we'll be involved in some things that will bring in a true level of affordability."

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Jensen said any development in this buffer zone that separates the West Side neighborhoods from downtown needs to be done in a thoughtful manner.

"It's a great discussion on how to integrate that and the fabric of the West Side and the near West Side," he said.

» Sept. 22, 2019: With Frost Tower finished, Weston Urban pivots toward housing
» May 21, 2019: As downtown development spreads, displacement and gentrification are set to roll over the West Side
» Aug. 27, 2019: UTSA opening West Side resource center this fall
» April 26, 2019: Weston Urban eyes synergy with UTSA expansion

The old Toudouze Market building rests on the corner of West Commerce and North Pecos streets. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Weston Urban lately

Earlier this year, with the Frost Tower nearing completion, Weston Urban searched for a team to begin the next phase of its downtown plan. Jensen and Craig were brought on board this summer.

Jensen arrives from Landmark Properties in Athens, Ga., where he specialized in student housing. Before that, he worked as a market-rate developer at NRP Group's San Antonio office. Craig spend the last 11 years working at USAA Real Estate.

Before Jensen and Craig were brought on board, and before the company co-built the Frost Tower with KDC of Dallas, Weston Urban's main objective was growing the tech district along Houston Street. It had renovated the Rand building, whose anchor tenant is shared-office space provider Geekdom, and the adjacent Savoy building, home to Scaleworks, a sort of M.A.S.H. unit for start-ups. At street level, in those two buildings, Weston Urban has signed Rosella at the Rand, Royal Blue Grocery, 18/8 Fine Men's Salons as retail tenants; a burger restaurant called Bunz by chef Thierry Burkle is on the way. Kitty-corner to the Rand, the company is reshaping the former Frost Bank-owned greensward into more of a park that will be anchored by Pinkerton's Barbecue of Houston.

From the 2015 agreement between Weston Urban, the city and Frost Bank, Weston Urban will eventually own the Municipal Plaza building, which contains city offices and the City Council meeting chambers. Weston Urban will convert the upper floors into housing units, while the council will continue to meet on the first floor.

Earlier this year, Weston Urban purchased the former Toudouze market building on West Houston Street, west of Interstate 35, and a two-story office building on Dolorosa, once a local probation office.

Jensen said the company is considering making a proposal on the Continental Hotel on West Commerce Street, which the city wants to sell to a developer for mixed-income apartments. But hasn't moved on it yet.

"We are big fans of the vision and plan for UTSA’s downtown campus, but do not have any plans to partner on a student housing development," Jensen said.

The duo said they're also still figuring out parking, realizing that despite the ratio of spots to units is trending downward, San Antonio is very much still a car-dependent city.

Weston Urban isn't the only player in west downtown. Most notably, VIA Metropolitan Transit plans to refurbish the old Scobey warehouse complex into a mixed-use development. Alamo Community Group just purchased property from Alamo Colleges District on West Houston Street with the intent of building affordable housing.

Long-term vision

Jensen and Craig could not give an estimate as to how much all of this development will cost. Any project of housing in the urban core is eligible for the city's Center City Housing Incentive Policy, which doles out tax rebates, fee waivers and grants for infrastructure upgrades to those who build housing in the downtown area.

In the 2015 agreement, Weston Urban received a separate incentive package worth $3.9 million in city and SAWS fee waivers for the development of the Frost Tower and 265 apartment units to come.

Craig said the company will also look at Opportunity Zones, a federal program that offers developers breaks on capital gains taxes.

From the investor and lending side, Jensen and Craig said the company is receiving interest from a variety of groups, but could not give details as to whom they might be.

They said Weston Urban plans to hold onto what it builds in the long-term, rather than build and sell for a quick profit.

"At the end of the day, we want to feel real good about what we built," Craig said.

"Definitely," Jensen said. "You know (Weston Urban President) Randy (Smith) and Graham. The mission hasn't changed at all in terms of thinking big."

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

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