At his home on Mason Street, Argelio Cuellar has a sign fastened on his chain-link fence that reads, "Stop Land Grab," which is painted in magenta-colored block letters over yellow roses.
It's a small sign, one of the smaller ones in Government Hill, but Cuellar says the size is intentional—to consolidate his feelings towards the neighborhood’s change. Some of the nearby homes display larger signs. Some have several signs of various sizes and messages.
Cuellar, 65, has lived in Government Hill for 24 years, where he and his wife have raised a family.
"That one is fine, I like that," said Cuellar, pointing to the home across the street, which had several signs. "But (my sign) is only one idea, only one solution."
In Government Hill, the diverse and evolving neighborhood sandwiched between Fort Sam Houston and Interstate 35, north of downtown, some residents have turned to artistic yard signs to express how they feel about their changing community.
Stop displacing us
No se vende
Tax incentives (for developers) to gentrify us—Feels like a genocide!
The signs, which are done to look like post-impressionist paintings, are in protest of the city's decade-old policy to incentivize multi-family housing in the center city. The construction of market-rate and luxury apartments up and down Broadway, which delineates Government Hill from the Pearl, is a direct result of the housing-first strategy for downtown that current presidential candidate Julián Castro introduced when he was mayor. Since Ed Cross and David Adelman built 1221 Broadway, since Silver Ventures began developing the Pearl, since the Museum Reach was completed—all around 10 years ago—the mixed-use growth that has branched off from these early developments—a combination of residential, retail, hotel and, now, office space—shows no signs of slowing down.
It continues to creep into neighboring Government Hill.
For a year now, a difference of opinion on how the neighborhood should handle the change has caused a rift in Government Hill Alliance, the neighborhood association that's represented the near-East Side community since 1988.
Concerned the alliance is being too cozy with developers, some of its former members have splintered off and formed a new group called Government Hill United. Some developments, they say, do not fit the character of the historic neighborhood. Or worse, the newer projects will drive up already-climbing property values, resulting in higher taxes, they say.
While neighborhood in-fighting may not be anything new, Government Hill is at ground zero of such change in San Antonio because it abuts the massive city-backed growth that's approaching from Broadway.
It's taking a direct hit.
"There's going to be change in our neighborhood," said Tiffany O'Neill, one of the early organizers of Government Hill United, which held its first official meeting in April. "But we have to weigh and measure what the benefits are to the neighborhood."
The way the two groups handle voting, transparency, and membership deeply divide the organizations.
Government Hill United’s main fight, however, is to be recognized by the city as a second neighborhood association so its members can be notified when a property’s designation is to be decided by one of the city's commissions.
In such cases, property owners within 200 feet of the land under consideration are also notified.
Because Government Hill Alliance is registered with the city as the official neighborhood association, the group receives notices on zoning changes, planning amendments, code variances, appeals, historic landmark designations, and potential demolitions.
It’s the city’s way of reaching a community at large. But United says that’s not happening under Alliance.
Case in point is 1.7 acres of land on North Alamo Street, which the Zoning Commission rezoned on Tuesday for some sort of multifamily housing. The project is a piece of developer GrayStreet Partners’ larger plan for a 23-acre mixed-use campus it’s calling Broadway East, which will be built on the Government Hill side of Broadway.
United wasn’t made aware of it.
At the zoning meeting yesterday, city officials said there had been no response from the neighborhood association, i.e. Government Hill Alliance, when contacted for its opinion on the rezoning.
And so, from the split in neighborhood representation in Government Hill emerges a larger question:
How much say should residents have in how their entire neighborhood evolves, not just changes happening next door or on their block?
Rose Hill, president of Government Hill Alliance, believes the city decides to pass or reject developments, whether the neighborhood votes to support a project, or not. She also believes having multiple neighborhood associations won't make much of a difference for an area—the near East Side—the city is anxious to redevelop.
"Whether you have one or two or three neighborhood associations, the city's going to make the final decision," she said. "We're advisers."
She continued, "If (a project) is not in (a resident's) favor, I understand that. But there are people in this neighborhood that do see something different, too."
Hill accuses Government Hill United as being anti-development, and says that's the reason the organization does not have the same trust with city departments.
O'Neill says Government Hill United is not anti-development. Nor does O'Neill believe residents are powerless against the city. She says a neighborhood association can affect a development's impact on a neighborhood by challenging its design, project scope and its accessibility to residents.
By regularly voting in support of projects, United says, Government Hill Alliance may be incentivizing developers to build in Government Hill, because they feel the neighborhood at large supports their efforts.
When asked about this, Hill said it was a fair criticism. But she also said developments in Government Hill were not the main reason property taxes are rising. Rather public schools are becoming more reliant on money from property taxes, because their state funding has decreased, she said.
Government Hill was born from Fort Sam Houston, which is just north of the neighborhood, in the 1870s after suburbs developed around the U.S. Army base from 1890 to 1930, according to the city’s website. At one time, 12,000 people lived in the area, but after World War II, and the construction of the Interstate 35 corridor that separates Government Hill from Dignowity Hill and Harvard Place-Eastlawn, the population declined.
Now, nearly 4,000 residents live within Government Hill's boundaries.
This year's median home value of a house in Government Hill is $116,370, an 11.7 percent increase from last year's figure of $104,100, according to the Bexar Appraisal District. Overall, homes have appreciated 75.9 percent in the last five years. The area, largely because of the growth of the Pearl, with its restaurants and popular programming, has become one of the most attractive neighborhoods in San Antonio. All of the residential developments nearby take advantage of property tax abatements offered by the city, which can span 10 or 15 years.
To try to mitigate some of the effects of the rapid appreciation in home values, the city is considering designating Government Hill as a neighborhood empowerment zone, a state mechanism that freezes city property taxes for eligible residents for up to 10 years. The city is also considering Denver Heights, Hot Wells, the area around Brooks and part of the near West Side. It has not determined eligibility requirements for the program.
In Government Hill, the developments seem to be getting larger.
Jefferson Bank plans to build a 12-story tower for its headquarters at Broadway and East Grayson Street. GrayStreet Partners plans to build Broadway East, which it describes as "an extension to the Pearl District" on properties between the Government Hill single-family homes and Broadway.
However, two smaller developments help illustrate the strife among residents.
Earlier this year, some residents were particularly incensed over what they called a lack of communication from the developers of the Palmetto Town Homes, a three-story, eight-unit project planned for a 0.4-acre lot at 1945 N. I-35.
Late in 2018, the city made Government Hill Alliance aware of the townhomes because the project was slated to go before the Planning Commission in November, and eventually the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC), for approval.
But when members of the neighborhood's splinter group tried several times to arrange a meeting with the developers, they were unsuccessful.
In February, Palmetto Town Homes' design was presented to the HDRC, and developers and irate residents finally met face to face.
Residents Cindy Tower and Antonia Infante, now Government Hill United members, held printed email threads they had sent to representatives of the project: Carlos "Gilley" Mendoza, owner of local real estate firm Gilley Properties International; employees with JMS Architects, a local architecture firm designing the project; and lawyers with Brown & Ortiz, a local law firm representing Mendoza.
Tower said she had collected more than 200 signatures from Government Hill residents petitioning against the townhomes.
"This developer hasn't even had the guts to share these plans with the community," Tower told commissioners.
In an interview after the meeting, Hill said the neighborhood supported the project after meeting with the developers. Hill said the developer and the alliance met in December and January, when members voted to reduce the initial unit total from 10 to eight.
In the end, HDRC commissioners denied conceptual approval for the design, saying the townhomes were too tall, and the entrances facing the street incongruous with the other homes in the neighborhood.
Hill said when the city tells Government Hill Alliance a property in the neighborhood has a prospective zoning or planning change, she and the alliance's board contact the developer and meet to discuss the project. She then invites the developer to an upcoming meeting, where they're given a chance to present the project and take questions from alliance members. Depending on their concerns with the project, members can delay voting to support the project until changes are made.
"We made clear to the city, when an applicant comes in, and they're going to rezone and build, they better tell them they need to come to us, so we can take it to the community," said Hill.
One month later, it was Government Hill United's turn to negotiate with a developer.
In March, partnership SA Quad Ventures contacted Government Hill United about its plans to build Grayson Heights, a 300-unit, mixed-use project slated to occupy about four acres on Carson Street, deep in the neighborhood.
O'Neill said the investment group, which is headed by DFB Pharmaceuticals Inc. president J.J. Feik, approached United because of the group’s reputation of being vocal at zoning, planning and HDRC meetings—a method O'Neill says differentiates Government Hill United from Government Hill Alliance. O'Neill says the strategy gets developers, or their representatives who attend commission meetings, as well as the commissioners themselves, to recognize the organization's voice.
The day before United was to meet with SA Quad Ventures, Alliance held its own regularly-scheduled meeting, where attendees praised the developers for the project, calling it a stimulator for the area.
At United’s meeting the next day, members got SA Quad Ventures to agree to use proceeds from the sale of a Sears Craftsman house on Pierce Street, which will have to be relocated for the development, toward owner occupied rehab efforts within Government Hill.
Such a concession would not be possible until residents put pressure on the developer to work with them, O’Neill said.
At a meeting in April, Barbara Ankamah Burford, neighborhood engagement administrator with the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD), told Government Hill United members the city couldn't register the group as a neighborhood association because city policy prevents more than one association within a neighborhood boundary.
Government Hill United is registered as a nonprofit, however.
According to a 2011 policy from the city's Planning Department, the only way two neighborhood associations can co-exist within the same boundary is if the registered neighborhood association president—Hill, in this case—sends a letter to the department agreeing to share the boundary.
In cases like these, the groups are responsible to resolve their differences through mediation, not the city. The city tells feuding groups to use the Bexar County Dispute Resolution Center's dispute mediation service.
In this case, Government Hill United is seeking to share the boundary with Government Hill Alliance, so both groups can receive notices of proposed development projects, and other changes.
O'Neill and Hill were scheduled to meet with the resolution center on April 30, O'Neill said. But because Government Hill United had a meeting scheduled on the same day and time, she asked the resolution center to postpone the mediation meeting. In an interview afterward, Hill said she was no longer interested in pursuing mediation.
Before Government Hill United officially formed at the beginning of the year, some residents tried to stage a coup a year ago. In April 2018, they attempted to lead the organization themselves.
At the time, the city only recognized the current board and president, according to reporting by the San Antonio Express-News, because their names were listed in state nonprofit records, and not the names of the members who replaced them. When the Heron reached out to NHSD about why the coup d'etat was deemed illegitimate, Carlos Valuenzuela, a city spokesman, said the city had no comment, calling the matter an internal issue.
Cuellar is now retired and works part-time at Chick-Fil-A for extra income. His property tax bill used to be around $800, when he first bought the home nearly 25 years ago. It’s now more than $4,000. Cuellar protests the appraisal every year, but he’s only able to shave off a couple hundred dollars from the total.
The father of three has attended Government Hill Alliance and Government Hill United meetings, but says he’s not a member of either and isn’t interested in being one.
He turned 65 this year, so he’ll be seeking a homestead exemption for seniors. He knows the house’s property taxes might be passed on to his children, if they decide to keep the home.
His adult son David said taking over the home depends entirely on his income, whenever the time comes. David said he’s noticed younger people moving in and more traffic on the streets heading toward the Broadway corridor and Pearl. The noise and difficulty driving out of Government Hill is new for this small inner-city neighborhood.
If there's a Government Hill institution that's emblematic of the push and pull going on inside the neighborhood, it's St. Patrick's Catholic Church.
Government Hill Alliance had been holding its meetings in the church's annex building until late February.
At that meeting, which Brown & Ortiz was supposed to attend to discuss Palmetto Town Homes, but didn't, Father John Raharjo told Hill the group could no longer hold meetings there. At the time, Raharjo said the church wanted the space open for parishioners. Hill protested, saying Government Hill Alliance had just paid their annual $300 fee to serve the space. Raharjo said he would return the check and that the alliance could finish their meeting that day.
"Even if we have to have a meeting underneath a tree," there will be Government Hill Alliance meetings, Hill told attendees after Raharjo left the room.
Raharjo said the recent "turmoil" in the Government Hill Alliance led to his decision to bar the organization from holding meetings at the church.
"It's safe to say that the parish here at St. Patrick would like to take one step back, until things are not so contentious among the neighbors," he said.
In March, the church hosted COPS Metro Alliance, a meeting attended by O'Neill and other Government Hill residents. It was also attended by two city officials, including NHSD director Veronica Soto.
At the meeting, COPS Metro organizers informed attendees about the city's downtown housing incentives policy, and began to strategize about how to leverage the May election to get council members to act swiftly on anti-displacement policies. It worked.
The next month, on April 7, the church hosted COPS Metro's accountability session, a type of debate for mayoral and council candidates. For the May election, marquee candidates were grilled about whether they'd support and demand deeper levels of affordability for projects that receive city incentives. All of them said they would.
It's from this pressure NHSD decided to consider Government Hill among the first communities to designate as neighborhood empowerment zones, the state mechanism that freeze taxes for eligible residents for up to 10 years.
That same month, O'Neill asked Raharjo if Government Hill United could hold their meetings at the church, now that the space was open, and he obliged.
Raharjo said COPS Metro is more aligned with the church's principles, which are to "help those who are less fortunate among us." Raharjo said St. Patrick's Church is also trying to develop COPS Metro's presence in the neighborhood.
When asked if Government Hill United had these same principles, and if that was the reason why he allowed them to meet at St. Patrick's Church, Raharjo said the church had "no perpetual allies."
"Whoever has concern for the neighbors and helps the poor among us," he said, "then they will come to work with us."
As of March, Government Hill Alliance is now holding meetings at Fort Sam Houston Church of Christ on North New Braunfels Avenue.
After Government Hill Alliance's meeting in April, a resident approached Hill and was concerned with the amount of development coming into the neighborhood. Hill said that Government Hill did not have the wealth or power of developers, but said the neighborhood's best way to mitigate their impact was to attend Government Hill Alliance meetings and voice their opinions. The resident walked away satisfied with Hill's response, and said they would attend the next meeting.
As the sky went dark, and Fort Sam Houston Church of Christ's security came to close the parking lot, Hill gave a parting thought, a sentiment that, universally, is shared between Government Hill United, Government Hill Alliance and inner-city neighborhood residents across downtown San Antonio.
"I can tell you, everybody is scared of change," said Hill. "I'm scared of change; we're all scared of change. But what do we do to prepare for it? Nobody's helping us prepare for this."
"It came so fast, it hit us so fast. We didn't know how to prepare."
Setting It Straight: This article has been updated to better reflect the city's strategy for neighborhood empowerment zones.
Grounded Solutions Network, an affordable housing advocacy nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., has awarded San Antonio a $150,000 grant for the development of an anti-displacement strategy.
The ForEveryoneHome grant is funded through the Ford Foundation. Under the agreement that was approved by the City Council on Thursday, the city will pay Grounded Solutions Network $75,000 as a participation fee.
Indianapolis and Winston-Salem, N.C., were the other two cities selected.
The city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD) had allocated $200,000 to $250,000 to hire an outside consultant to craft such a plan.
Grounded Solutions Network staff and local city and community representatives will conduct a needs assessment study, and attempt to identify the causes of displacement, who is being displaced, with a focus on communities of color in San Antonio, according to documents attached to the council's meeting agenda.
From there, they'll create a “displacement agenda" as a policy framework. Community meetings will be scheduled between June and September, according to the agreement, which is the same timeframe Grounded Solutions Network will conduct the study.
When asked if the "anti-displacement" will include a check against large-scale development, Ian Benavidez, NHSD's affordable housing administrator, said NHSD doesn't have specific strategies and are looking at “all options" in “conjunction with the community."
NHSD selected seven people to represent San Antonio on the team to develop the policy alongside Grounded Solutions Network: Veronica Soto, director of NHSD; Lourdes Castro Ramirez, president of the University Health System Foundation and chair of the Housing Commission; Jessica Guerrero, board member of the Vecinos de Mission Trails advocacy group and a board member of the Housing Commission; Tuesdae Knight, president and CEO of San Antonio Growth on the Eastside (SAGE); Richard Milk, director of policy and planning with the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA); Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center; and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who serves as an "honorary" team member.
Grounded Solutions Network is now reviewing the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force report, the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders' vulnerable community study and the University of Texas at Austin's report on displacement in Austin to understand San Antonio's housing issues, according to Benavidez.
Benavidez said the city could have developed the “anti-displacement" policy without the grant via its initial plan to hire an outside consultant, but that Grounded Solutions Network would bring national expertise to the city's housing issues and reduce cost.
The San Antonio team will visit Indianapolis and Winston-Salem, with Grounded Solutions Network covering travel costs, between June and next March, according to the agreement, to see how their teams are addressing displacement in those cities. Indianapolis and Winston-Salem's teams will visit San Antonio within the same timeframe.
Local developer GrayStreet Partners has dropped out of its contract to purchase the Oasis Mexican Cafe property at 210 McCullough Ave., and thus has pulled its request to demolish the 1873 structure, said Peter French, GrayStreet's director of development. San Antonio resident Douglas Hair owns the property.
GrayStreet was "unaware the building was historic,” French said in a text message to the Heron.
Oasis cafe's owners are now planning to buy the building, refurbish it, and revamp the menu and hours of operation, said Armando Garcia, who operates the family business.
The city's Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) is no longer pursuing to designate the structure as a historic landmark, OHP spokesperson Ximena Copa-Wiggins confirmed in a text message. When asked why, Copa-Wiggins did not respond.
The potential sale of the property was first reported last month by the San Antonio Express-News.
The article describes the structure as a "salt-box style" home built in 1873 by Ross Kennedy for the Duffey family, in the Irish Flats neighborhood that was populated by Irish and German immigrants. In a brief interview this week, Garcia described the middle portion of the current structure as historic.
On Mar. 13, 1989, the building was considered for historic designation by a city entity called the Board of Review for Historic Districts and Landmarks, but it didn’t pass, according to OHP documents.
Heron editor Ben Olivo contributed to this report.
The initial design for an eight-story River Walk hotel was approved by the Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday.
The 112-room hotel, slated for a 0.2-acre patch of land at 151 E. Travis St., is being developed by California-based Harris Bay, the firm that's co-developing the long-anticipated $150 million, mixed-use Essex Modern City on the near East Side.
Construction could start in October or November, and take 15 to 18 months to complete, said Harris Bay co-owner Jake Harris, who declined to disclose the total cost of the project.
The Artista will have between 10,000 and 15,000 square feet of restaurant space on the river and street levels.
"We believe the Hilton, Marriott, beige-room is very well represented in San Antonio," said Harris. "This is a little outside of that standard Marriott room."
Harris Bay is currently selecting a firm to manage the hotel.
This year, the property on East Travis Street was appraised at $2 million by the Bexar Appraisal District. On April 29, working under an LLC called IconicOZ Artista Fund, Harris Bay purchased the property for nearly $2.2 million from Key West, Florida-based Seaside Hospitality Corporation, according to county deed records.
LLCs like IconicOZ Artista Fund act as investment funds, which developers can use to purchase property or land in federally-designated "opportunity zones," according to the Economic Innovation Group.
These accounts are possible under $1.5 trillion tax bill President Donald Trump signed into law in late 2017. The bill gives real estate developers tax breaks when they build projects in "high-poverty communities," according to the city's Neighborhood Housing and Services department (NHSD).
Under the program, Harris Bay doesn't have to pay capital gains taxes on the property—the tax on profit from the sale of a property held for more than a year—until 2026.
The Artista hotel project site is in the “DownTown” zone, one of 24 opportunity zones in Bexar County.
Previous owner Seaside Hospitality planned to develop a seven-story hotel, but abandoned the project last year because of high construction costs, the San Antonio Express News reported last year. The one-story retail building that stood there previously was demolished to make way for the project.
Harris said Harris Bay initially passed on the project because of how expensive it was to construct a hotel downtown, but says the capital gains tax deferment was an incentive to take on the project, thinking the group could attract more investors.
The project’s site will need an archeological dig, because the land is near two recorded archeological sites, according to a review of the city's Office of Historic Preservation. Harris said the dig could take a few weeks to a month, but he doesn't expect it to delay the project’s construction start in the fall.
About 500 households who face displacement are on a waiting list to receive assistance from the city of San Antonio.
Already, 112 households—or, 288 people—have tapped into a $1 million anti-displacement fund the City Council approved on March 21 for families on the verge of being displaced, or who are in the process of being displaced.
The vast majority of those households, 103, were renters who received an average of $2,300 to help pay rising rents and $500 for utility payments, according to the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD). Under the program, the maximum amount renters can receive is $3,500 for rent payments and $1,500 for utilities.
Two households received help paying their mortgage, but those figures were not made available after the Heron requested them. Under the program, which is known as the risk mitigation fund, homeowners can receive up to $3,500 for mortgage help, and up to $1,500 for utilities.
Seven households were given about $2,500 each to help cover the cost of moving expenses from one rental property to another—five from District 1, one from District 4 and one from District 10. Households can receive up to $3,000 for moving costs, and up to $7,000 if the family is moving from one mobile home park to another.
Not all who are on the waiting list may receive financial assistance from the $1 million displacement fund.
The reasons why residents apply for assistance varies, said Ian Benavidez, NHSD's affordable housing administrator. Some apply to help pay for repairs for their car or house, for example.
If the applicant doesn't qualify for the $1 million fund—which, Benavidez said, gives preference to applicants who have experienced a rental increase—the city may offer aid through other housing pots at its disposal.
Such pots include the federally-funded short-term emergency rental assistance program, which uses $200,000 from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG); the city's Under 1 Roof program, $4.25 million from the city's general fund to repair roofs for low-income residents; and the owner occupied rehab program, $7.43 million program from the city's general fund for assisting low- to moderate-income residents with housing repairs.
The risk mitigation fund uses money from the city’s general fund.
NHSD Director Veronica Soto said two full-time staffers are processing the applicants, which she said explains the long waitlist.
Residents seeking assistance have increased in recent weeks since NHSD started hosting resource fairs at the Christopher Columbus Italian Society, which is adjacent to the Soap Factory apartment complex. NHSD held three "resource fairs" in May.
That initiative was spurred by Housing Commissioner Jessica Guerrero, who told NHSD officials that initial outreach to families who need assistance should be concentrated to Soap Factory residents. After construction began on the San Pedro Creek Culture Park in 2016, Soap Factory’s owners, Houston-based Barvin Group, began renovating the complex. Rents increased and residents on fixed incomes began to leave, the San Antonio Express News reported.
The City Council on Thursday allocated $500,000 from the city's general fund for the installation of air conditioning units in 20 public housing complexes after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rejected the city’s request to use federal dollars for the project.
The $500,000 was originally earmarked for the city’s owner occupied rehabilitation and reconstruction program, which helps low- to moderate-income homeowners repair their homes, as requested by Neighborhood Housing and Services Department (NHSD). The federal funds HUD rejected, $500,000 from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), a $13 million federal fund used in programs aiding low- to moderate-income residents, will be routed into the city's home rehab program.
The $1.5 million program to purchase and install air conditioning units at San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) properties now has four financial sources:
» $500,000 from the city's general fund
» $500,000 from SAHA
» $300,000 from the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, a local nonprofit that funds organizations servicing Bexar County residents with cognitive and physical disabilities
» $200,000 from the San Antonio Housing Trust
SAHA began installing the air conditioning units earlier this month.
The housing authority estimates all installations, approximately 2,500 across 20 public housing complexes, will be finished by the end of June, according to the council's meeting agenda.
So far, 408 air conditioning units across nine complexes have been installed, according to Michael Reyes, SAHA's director of communications and public affairs.
Recently, HUD rejected the city’s request to use CDBG funding for the project because the window air conditioning units SAHA are installing are not "permanent upgrades," the San Antonio Express News reported recently.
[ Read more from the Express-News: "Thousands of San Antonio public housing units lack air conditioning" ]
In February, state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, informed the city and SAHA of the lack of air conditioning in some public housing properties after a local resident, who lives in a SAHA property, said her complex didn’t have air conditioning.
"The idea we have (residents) living in concrete boxes, with summers that have over 30 days of 100 degree heat, strikes me as somewhat behind the times," Bernal told the city's comprehensive plan committee during a meeting on Feb. 20.
"Considering the relatively cheap cost of doing this, to change the everyday life experience of someone, it's not a high price to pay," he continued.
On June 30, riding scooters on sidewalks will be prohibited, a new regulation to dockless vehicles the City Council adopted in a 9-1 vote. District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez was the lone nay vote; District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales was absent.
The council also unanimously voted to reduce the number of dockless vehicles to 5,000—nearly a third reduction from the 16,100 e-scooters and e-bikes currently permitted—as well as the number of companies in operation to three.
Currently, seven companies operate mostly e-scooters on San Antonio streets and sidewalks.
The city's downtown department will be working with San Antonio police to enforce the sidewalk ban, but whether to issue a citation or warning to sidewalk riders will be at the discretion of each police officer, said John Jacks, director of the City Center Development and Operations (CCDO).
The process to select the three operators will begin June 7, and the City Council is expected to vote on the three selections in October. Until then, the companies with more than 1,000 vehicles in operation can apply for permit extensions, which would last until Sept. 30, but they will have to cut their vehicles by half in order to receive the extension.
The three selected operators would be given two-year contracts with a one-year extension. Selected vendors will pay a one-time $25,000 fee for the first year, then a permit of $100 per vehicle the second year and extension year.
To date, the city had made $154,500 from fees, revenue used to pay city staff to correct scooters that are improperly parked on sidewalks, streets or in prohibited areas like Alamo Plaza or the River Walk. The city estimates it could receive up to $53,955 in addition fee revenue from companies looking to extend their permits between now and October, when the three operators are selected. The fees also pay police officers' overtime shifts to enforce riding rules and "rider education efforts," such as spray-on scooter parking decals, posters advertising prohibited riding areas and requirements in the app for companies to share safety guidelines.
The amendment banning sidewalk riding was one that the council was supposed to consider in October, but District 9 Councilman John Courage motioned to have the matter decided today after District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran said extending dockless vehicle vendors' permits, while not banning sidewalk riding, did not address reckless riding behavior.
CCDO recommended addressing the sidewalk ban in October because companies with original permits, which extend into the summer, are allowed to have their vehicles ridden on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, scooter permits that expire this month prohibit sidewalk use.
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston explained the October recommendation would prevent a “mixed message” towards users and dockless vehicle vendors.
But council didn’t want to wait until then.
"Waiting until September or October to initiate this, it's just a case for more accidents to occur," Courage said. Courage also suggested CCDO consider special permits for people who work downtown to use the scooters after the 11 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. riding curfew, which was imposed by council on Feb. 14. According to CCDO, accidents have decreased by 36.4 percent since the curfew was approved
In an April phone interview, John Jacks, director of CCDO, said companies that don’t have their permits extended must phase their vehicles out by September. No new dockless vehicles companies will be given permits during this extension.
CCDO capped the vendor amount to three so the city would have less involvement in their enforcement, putting the onus on the companies to move misplaced vehicles, Houston said. A fourth vendor could be added if more people started riding dockless vehicles in areas where they’re not commonly used, such as in the suburbs. The 5,000 vehicle cap could be increased, too, via approval from the council's Transportation Committee.
When the currently-operating dockless vehicle vendors permits expire, at various times during the summer, they can apply for the permit extension.
Lyft, Razor, Bird and Lime’s permits expire in June; Jump, Spin and Blue Duck’s permits expire in July.
When the three companies are selected, the $25,000 up-front fee will cover the cost of delineating parking zones, which CCDO began installing around downtown in February, among other infrastructure needs.
These recommendations follow a series of initiatives by CCDO and the council to regulate dockless vehicles and their riders since operator Bird hit the streets in June of last year.
On Oct. 11, the City Council began a pilot program to structure the regulations. In January, the Transportation Committee issued a moratorium on issuing permits to dockless vehicle operators after a groundswell of complaints of reckless riding and vehicle clutter on sidewalks.
In October, CCDO will present more recommendations to the council regarding the dockless vehicle program, including capping a vehicle's speed limit to 15 mph, and requiring vendors to encourage riders to use helmets and park in designated zones.
On Tuesday, the Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) board unanimously granted up to $2.5 million for the rehabs of the Travis Park Plaza office building and garage, across from Travis Park; and the Grant and Kress buildings on Houston Street.
The two projects, which are each due to receive up to $1.25 million, are being lead by GrayStreet Partners, the local developer that's become a major downtown player.
For the $13.4 million project at Travis Park Plaza, 213 E. Travis St., the TIRZ funding will go towards removing the pavement around the building to make way for landscape beds and tree wells. The rehab is expected to be done in 6-9 months, said Peter French, GrayStreet Partners' director of development.
In a TIRZ, which are created by the city, revenue generated from the rise in property taxes is reinvested into projects within the boundary.
On the retail end at Travis Park Plaza, Hopscotch, an "immersive art experience" venue, will occupy the first floor, along with Lola Coffee, a local coffee purveyor.
Previous plans to add more levels to the building's garage have been scrapped. Instead, the company plans to use a valet service and "stackers," which are mechanical platforms allowing cars to be stacked two to three vehicles within the same parking space inside the northwest side of the garage.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, who chairs the Houston Street TIRZ board, offered the TIRZ's assistance for lighting if GrayStreet Partners needed it.
The TIRZ contribution in the $43.5 million refurbishing of the Grant and Kress buildings, 305 and 315 E. Houston St., will fund facade renovation and waterproofing, the creation of a "green roof" space, and other landscaping.
The Grant and Kress buildings, which have been vacant for decades, are the future home of WeWork’s first San Antonio space.
WeWork, the upscale shared workspace, will occupy 75,000 square feet of space in both buildings—the top two floors of the Grant (former children's museum) and the top four floors of the Kress buildings. Currently, the space is being prepared. French said WeWork would begin its own finish-out in early 2020, but he didn't know how long it would take the company to move in.
A 15,000-square-foot food hall, on the bottom levels of the Grant, is slated to open in early 2020.
The TIRZ funding agreements go to the City Council in June 6 for approval.
For more articles on GrayStreet's other projects throughout downtown, click here.
Setting It Straight: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of the $1 million risk mitigation fund that's been used so far. It's 25 percent.
Two months after the money was allocated, 118 people have been helped by San Antonio's $1 million fund, which was set aside two months ago by City Council to assist residents on the verge of displacement—or, who are being displaced—because of rising rents or unexpected costs.
Of the 118 total, 112 people were given emergency assistance, which helps residents stay in their homes by helping with rent, mortgage payments and utility bills.
Around half of them—52—were children under the age of 18, with 48 between 24-99 years of age. Nine were between 18-24 years old. Eighteen were either elderly or disabled.
The policy, which was created by the city’s Neighborhood & Housing Services Department (NHSD), was approved by the City Council in late March.
The 118 people account for 45 households, according to the data NHSD provided last week.
Of that total, 12 households live in District 2, San Antonio’s East Side—the most of any district.
District 3, San Antonio’s southeast side, had eight households take advantage of the assistance, while Districts 1 and 5—the downtown area and the near West Side, respectively—had five households each.
Four families were relocated entirely—all of them from District 1.
NHSD officials have estimated the $1 million could help up to 200 families, if the families are given the maximum amount of assistance. Around 25 percent percent of the $1 million has been used to assist 45 families, according to Ian Benavidez, NHSD affordable housing administrator.
In a phone interview with the Heron on March 21, the day City Council approved the $1 million, NHSD Director Veronica Soto said the funding was going quicker than NHSD had anticipated, after the department had more than 60 families on a waitlist to receive assistance. Most of those families, she said, and those applying for assistance from NHSD, also qualify for another program called the Short-Term Rental Assistance fund, which uses federal dollars to assist income-stressed families.
A request for proposal (RFP) to develop a larger "anti-displacement" policy has been drafted by NHSD, and it's expecting to hire a consultant in June—using $500,000 from the Homeownership Incentive Program, a city program that loans between $1,000 and $15,000 for first-time home buyers. The consultant will develop an “anti-displacement” policy for 10 months.
Along with the RFP, NHSD applied for a $150,000 grant from the Grounded Solutions Network, a Portland, Oregon, nonprofit housing policy consulting firm, to aid in creating the "anti-displacement" policy. The grant, and additional consultation from Grounded Solutions Network, will operate in tandem with the city’s effort to develop a larger "anti-displacement” plan, if San Antonio is awarded the money.
Meanwhile, NHSD is using census and city data to study the inner West Side, and the East Side neighborhoods of Denver Heights and Government Hill, where urban development and rising property taxes are risking long-time residents' ability to remain in these neighborhoods. Data regarding code enforcement actions, and the number of homeowners and renters in these neighborhoods is also being collected. NHSD is looking to designate these areas as neighborhood empowerment zones, a Texas law that allows homeowners to have their city property taxes frozen for no more than 10 years.
Read more about the city's anti-displacement efforts:
Local real estate group GrayStreet Partners has been busy filling up its Houston Street portfolio.
Last week, international architecture firm Gensler moved its San Antonio office from Travis Park Plaza to the second floor of the Schaum building, 229 E. Houston St.
Gensler, which is the firm designing GrayStreet’s projects, including the rehab of the former San Antonio Light building on Broadway, now occupies 6,500 square feet in the Schaum, which is also home to The Palm steakhouse and basement cocktail bar Jet-Setter.
The second floor of the Schaum has been vacant for decades, said Peter French, GrayStreet’s director of development.
The number of Gensler workers in the building is unknown; interview requests to Gensler were unreturned.
A block east on Houston Street, GrayStreet is rehabbing the Grant and Kress buildings, on the 300 block of East Houston Street, which will become home to global workspace company WeWork. French expects the rehab to finish toward the end of the year.
WeWork’s San Antonio location is slated to consume 75,000 square feet of the Grant and Kress, which will be connected in the rehab. The empty lot next to the Kress building, on the corner of Houston and Jefferson streets, will be repaved for parking for the space.
WeWork, which has locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, Austin and Houston, provides desk space starting at $45 a month. Geekdom, a San Antonio-based startup workspace also on Houston Street, has memberships starting at $50 a month. French says he doesn’t see the spaces as competitors, because their target markets are different.
French said, in comparison to Geekdom, WeWork spaces are likely to attract a larger, more corporate office market, but is still capable of hosting startup companies.
There are no new details on the food court that's slated for the Grant building, in the space last occupied by the children's museum, French said.
[ Previously published: Work begins on Houston Street food hall ]