It was a frigid Wednesday night in late February when we held our first housing panel. The staff at Cherrity Bar erected a large tent with heaters, and Heron readers packed in so much we had to open the back of the tent to make a standing section. Among the speakers was Mayor Ron Nirenberg. I remember we cut the discussion short because he had to take a call. More than 200 American cruise ship passengers were under quarantine at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. At the time, it was the largest collection of coronavirus cases outside China.

Yes, 2020 was dominated by a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic.

For San Antonio, that meant a struggling downtown economy. There were other, non-Covid-19 stories, as well. Here are the most newsworthy stories of 2020 for the downtown San Antonio area.

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Diners seated on the outside patio along the Riverwalk at Casa Rio Sept. 24, 2020. Photo by Victoria Martinez
Diners sit on Casa Rio's River Walk patio on Sept. 24, 2020. Photo by Victoria Martinez | Heron contributor

1. Coronavirus and the downtown economy

We've never seen downtown San Antonio as desolate as it was in late March when the spreading coronavirus brought life to a near standstill. You'd have to go back perhaps to 1918, during the Spanish flu, or maybe the 1920 flood, locally. It was eerie to see empty streets on spring afternoons when our downtown economy is usually booming. A person here or there in broad daylight, the sun beating down on unused pavement. On the River Walk, there were more ducks than people. On the weekend many hospitality workers got their final checks, all they kept saying was, "I've never seen it like this."

Our downtown still hasn't fully recovered, which is not surprising considering the crisis' end is still many months away. But even today, still, you can walk around, and there's no telling which businesses will be open, and which will not.

Nirenberg, then Gov. Greg Abbott, ordered bars and restaurants closed, along with many other businesses.

Many downtown businesses weathered the storm and survived long enough to see 2021. Others did not.

Most notably, Mexican Manhattan, a downtown staple and a place of fond memories for many San Antonians, closed in October after 62 years of business. It just couldn't hold on. The Cadillac Bar, which had its own impressive run of 45 years, also closed due to the pandemic. And then there was Reyes Bar, which was reopened in 2019 by Catarino M. Reyes Jr., the son of the longtime proprietor. It, too, closed in 2020 because of Covid-19.

Read more
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town (March 23, 2020)
» Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm (June 14, 2020)
» Downtown San Antonio restaurants navigate low tourism, financial losses (Sept. 30, 2020)
» Cadillac Bar, a 45-year institution, closes its doors following liquidation sale (Oct. 3, 2020)
» Mexican Manhattan Restaurant, downtown San Antonio staple for 62 years, permanently closes (Oct. 26, 2020)

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2. San Antonio adapts housing assistance program

The city's housing assistance program actually started in mid-2019, as an effort to mitigate displacement caused by gentrification in the downtown area. It was that foundation that allowed the city to scale up the program in response to the coronavirus as many San Antonians found themselves out of a job and unable to pay rent or their mortgage. A new version of the program, known as the Covid-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program, was approved by the City Council in early June, and has since assisted more than 25,000 San Antonio households with rent payments, and other cost-of-living expenses.

City officials claim the $75 million earmarked for housing assistance is among the largest—if not, the largest—by any American city. In other words, few other American cities have done more to help keep their citizens housed, and away from eviction, than San Antonio has. And they're probably right. Headlines coming from other major cities would boast certain amounts of millions of dollars in housing aid, and it paled in comparison to what San Antonio had allocated.

Read more
» For some renters, housing assistance from city taking more than a month to receive (July 2, 2020)
» San Antonio earmarks $21.9M for housing relief, but Councilman Treviño says city’s not doing enough (Sept. 15, 2020)
» City Council adds $24M to housing relief, but lessens benefits per San Antonio household (Sept. 18, 2020)
» San Antonio’s housing aid program surpasses 20K families served (Nov. 7, 2020)

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Texas Rangers close the Alamo ground on Sept. 17, 2020.
Texas Rangers close the Alamo grounds on Sept. 17, 2020. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

3. Alamo Plaza master plan sidelined

There were other major coronavirus stories that made our Top 10 list. But we would be remiss if we didn't mention the derailment of the Alamo Plaza master plan.

The current effort to makeover the plaza began in 2014, with the creation of a citizens advisory committee. The process slugged along, until 2018, when a conceptual plan was finally crafted and approved by the City Council and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush after months of heated debate and pushback from various groups. Most notably, This Is Texas Freedom Force, which vehemently opposes the relocation of the 1930s-era Alamo Cenotaph, pushed back the hardest. City officials said the master plan revolved around relocating the Cenotaph. But The Conservation Society of San Antonio also took issue with the unwillingness of the plan's leadership to proclaim the Woolworth building, one of the first lunch counters to desegregate in 1960 in San Antonio—and, therefore, in the U.S.—as safe from demolition.

Throughout 2019, and for much of 2020, things were relatively quiet. The city erected fencing around the plaza and quietly dismantled the gazebo and The Lady Bird Johnson fountain. Then in September, the Texas Historical Commission threw a wrench in the plans by denying the City of San Antonio's permit request to repair and relocate the Cenotaph. The plan's future, as it stands now, is completely up in the air.

Finally, after the Texas Historical Commission weighed in, Judge Nelson Wolff said in November he opposed the part of the plan that partially encloses the plaza.

Read more
» 'We followed all the rules … and still fell victim to politics,' Councilman Treviño on Alamo plan's demise (Sept. 27, 2020)
» Express-News: San Antonio’s stalled Alamo makeover project is taking more fire (Nov. 19, 2020)

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Girls wave during the last Fiesta Flambeau Parade held on Saturday, April 27, 2019. Heron file photo

4. Fiesta, New Year's Eve celebration canceled

It comes as no surprise that Fiesta, the downtown New Year's Eve celebration, and nearly all other annual gatherings were canceled as we look back on the year, as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise. In March, local officials announced Fiesta would be postponed until November. In July, it was canceled for the first time since World War II.

"The highest priority is the health and safety of our Fiesta guests and volunteers," the Fiesta Commission said at the time. "We recognize that the Covid-19 pandemic is not likely to subside sufficiently at any time in 2020 and, in light of public health directives from the Governor, Bexar County, and the City of San Antonio, so we must forego Fiesta 2020 in November."

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Protestors outside Steel House Lofts, where SAHA CEO David Nisivoccia lives, on Nov. 21, 2020. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

5. Alazan-Apache Courts battle heats up

Pushback by preservationists against the San Antonio Housing Authority's plan to demolish the Alazan-Apache Courts dates back to 2017, when SAHA unsuccessfully applied for the federal Choice Neighborhood grant. The authority, at the time, was trying to mimic in large part the funding strategy it had employed with the Wheatley Courts, which was eventually demolished for the mixed-income East Meadows community in recent years. In 2020, however, the battle between preservationists and SAHA came to a head. This was the year the SAHA board voted to approve the redevelopment strategy, even if it wasn't fully funded, which a variety of housing advocacy groups rebuked. The groups' efforts were bolstered in September, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Alazan side of the property as one of "American's 11 Most Endangered Places." It turned personal for both sides in November, when a protest that included the Westside Preservation Alliance, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center and the Texas Organizing Project started at SAHA headquarters on South Flores Street and ended up at nearby Steel House Lofts, where SAHA CEO David Nisivoccia lives.

Read more
» Alazan-Apache Courts named one of America’s most endangered historic places (Sept. 24, 2020)
» How to relocate Alazan Courts’ 1,200 residents? San Antonio Housing Authority says it’s complicated, critics say you don’t (Oct. 14, 2020)
» Housing activists take their protest to San Antonio Housing Authority CEO’s home (Nov. 22, 2020)

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The Arneson River Theatre is packed with Black Lives Matter protestors Monday afternoon.
The Arneson River Theatre is packed with Black Lives Matter protestors Monday afternoon, June 8, 2020. Photo by Isaiah Alonzo | Heron contributor

6. Black Lives Matter protests

The protests against police brutality and injustice started the last Saturday in May. As day turned to night, the gathering morphed into the biggest unrest San Antonio has seen in decades when a few agitators started rioting. It was a shock to downtown's system as businesses boarded up their windows and the center city was stigmatized as being unsafe—this amid a pandemic that had already crippled the hospitality industry. The next day, the organizers of the march brought their followers downtown to help clean up. The Black Lives Matter marches continued the following weeks, as activists chanted the names Charles Roundtree, Antronie Scott and Marquise Jones, who were black men killed by San Antonio police officers.

Read more
» Black Lives Matter march shifts gears as it passes through Southtown to La Villita, Hemisfair (June 9, 2020)
» Protestors demand police reform from Mayor Nirenberg, city officials (June 5, 2020)

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Rendering shows Weston Urban's proposed 32-story tower at 305 Soledad St.
Rendering shows Weston Urban's proposed 32-story tower at 305 Soledad St. Courtesy Weston Urban

7. Weston Urban plans residential tower

Although Weston Urban’s plan to build a 32-story apartment tower on Soledad Street is two or three years away from becoming a reality, the mere surfacing of the plan was huge news for downtown. One, because downtown San Antonio has never seen anything like this. If built, the tower would be a game-changer for this city because San Antonio for the first time would have the type of large-scale multifamily development downtown's in other cities boast. It would also infuse 351 apartments in the core. And two, because Weston Urban recently completed the Frost Tower, so the company has a track record—even if it’s just one building, it was significant as the first major addition to our skyline in 30 years.

Read more
» "Weston Urban plans 32-story apartment tower in downtown tech district" (Nov. 15, 2020)
» "Analysis: Weston Urban’s high-rise tower ‘blazes the trail’ for downtown growth" (Nov. 27, 2020)

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8. Museum Reach Lofts opens

There’s been a lot of talk about the type of housing that should be deemed affordable, and the type that should not. Most of that debate has centered around government subsidized apartments priced for people making 80% of the area median income. With the Museum Reach Lofts, there is no debate. When nonprofit developer Alamo Community Group opened the lofts in December it marked the first time a new downtown apartment development was built with rents the vast majority of San Antonians would consider affordable. Efficiencies start at $290.

Read more
» Museum Reach Lofts, rare affordable housing near San Antonio’s Pearl district, welcomes first residents

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The gates finally came down around the Weston Urban park on West Houston Street across from the Frost Tower.
The gates finally came down around the Weston Urban park on West Houston Street across from the Frost Tower in early November. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

9. Weston Urban Park opens

Technically, Weston Urban's park on West Houston Street wasn't a new green space for downtown. There was a greensward there before when Frost Bank owned the property. But Weston Urban made that space into a park, compete with furniture, a curved berm that's sure to be where people sit during concerts, and a widened Houston Street promenade with more seating. You can also envision how the park will be enclosed with tall buildings, assuming Weston Urban builds its planned 32-story apartment tower kitty-corner to the park, and on eventually constructs another building on the former Frost Bank parking lot across the park's southwest corner, which Weston Urban also owns.

Read more
» 'It was important for us to open the park to people right now' (Nov. 25, 2020)

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10. Government Hill battles commercial zoning

The controversy over two acres of land in Government Hill occupied by derelict homes began in late 2019, when the two property owners—a woman named Sara Martinez and a trust managed by Frost Bank—tried to convert the residential land into a QuikTrip. When homeowners within 200 feet objected, QuikTrip pulled out in early 2020, but that was just the beginning. Martinez and the trust at one point tried to get a Starbucks built on the property. But the majority of the nearby homeowners, fearing commercial encroachment into their neighborhood, fought that one, too. Eventually, the City Council weighed in, which resulted in two delayed votes and a rebuke by many on the council of District 2 Councilman Jada Andrews-Sullivan's wishes for a wider form of commercial zoning. Andrews-Sullivan finally agreed to a less-obtrusive form of commercial, which had been the homeowners' proposed compromise. The zoning case was one nearly all council members had opined on, because it symbolized the kind of commercial development that could eat away at any neighborhood in San Antonio.

Read more
» Flipping neighborhoods? Government Hill zoning case has San Antonio’s inner city communities worried (Sept. 27, 2020)
» City Council OKs rezoning residential land for commercial use in controversial Government Hill case (Aug. 20, 2020)
» Planning Commission recommends light commercial use for contentious Government Hill land (Aug. 13, 2020)
» Starbucks not opening on contentious Government Hill property (Aug. 6, 2020)
» City Council OKs zoning compromise in contentious Government Hill case (Nov. 8, 2020)
» Plans to demolish Government Hill homes for Starbucks denied (July 22, 2020)

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

Clockwise from top left: the 300 block of West Commerce; Alazan-Apache Courts; Broadway East first phase; 25-story hotel proposed by Dream Hotel Group; District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño; Weston Urban's proposed 32-story apartment tower. Photos by San Antonio Heron except Broadway East (GrayStreet Partners), Dream Hotel Group tower (Dream Hotel Group) and Weston Urban tower (Weston Urban).

As these year-end compilations go, we will publish our "Top Stories of 2020" here in the next 24 to 48 hours. The list you're about to read is your list. Here are the San Antonio Heron's most-read stories of 2020:

1. "West Commerce likely to become San Antonio’s next nightlife destination"

Published Jan. 18, 2020

This story, about plans to resuscitate the 300 block of West Commerce Street was by far the most-read Heron story of 2020. The piece talks about plans by a couple of San Antonio's heavy-hitters from the development world—i.e. James Lifshutz and Weston Urban—to turn the block just west of San Pedro Creek into a mini neighborhood with apartments and shops, and bars and restaurants. We wrote about these plans in January, before the pandemic hit. Despite the spread of the coronavirus, which has crippled downtown's hospitality industry, construction has continued on the first phase of this redevelopment: the Lifshutz-owned Kline building. READ MORE.

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2. "Massive $560M Broadway East development near Pearl set to begin next month"

Published Oct. 2, 2020

Though GrayStreet Partners' ambitious plans to build a Pearl-sized development across Broadway from the actual Pearl had been reported previously, a flood of information came out in a little municipal meeting by the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) board in October. That's when Peter French, GrayStreet's development director, made public for the first time the project's size and scale (20-plus acres), timeframe (10 years), cost ($560 million), among other particulars. Later, Heron contributor Richard Webner broke the story that GrayStreet has partnered with Encore Multifamily of Dallas on the master-planned community's first phase. READ MORE.

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3. "Dream Hotel Group of N.Y. plans 25-story development on River Walk"

Published Jan. 29, 2020

In January, a New York hotel company called Dream Hotel Group announced it was planning to build a 25-story hotel and mixed-use development in downtown San Antonio, presumably along the River Walk, and then we didn't hear anything from Dream Hotel Group again. Which is not unusual. It doesn't mean the project's dead, doesn't mean it isn't. Perhaps we'll get an update in 2021. READ MORE.

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4. "Alazan-Apache Courts named one of America's most endangered historic places"

Published Sept. 24, 2020

In September, the groups fighting to preserve the Alazan-Apache Courts from demolition received a shot in the arm when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the aging public housing complex on the West Side as one of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places." The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) says it would cost more to renovate the courts, and thus plans to raze and rebuild. Instead of 100% public housing, the new community will be mixed-income—from market-rate to public housing units. SAHA says current residents will have the option to relocate into another SAHA property on the West Side, or be given a voucher. READ MORE.

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5. "'We followed all the rules ... and still fell victim to politics,' Councilman Treviño on Alamo plan's demise"

Published Sept. 27, 2020

The saga to redevelop Alamo Plaza had reached its zenith in 2018, when pushback from multiple groups grew strongest leading up to the City Council approving the plan—which revolved around the relocation of the 1930s-era Alamo Cenotaph—later that year. In 2019 and for much of 2020, things were relatively quiet, save for some fencing going up, the removal of the gazebo and The Lady Bird Johnson fountain. That was until the Texas Historical Commission weighed in and derailed the plans in September by denying the city's permit request to repair and relocate the Cenotaph. In this article, I interviewed District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, perhaps the plan's biggest proponent, and asked him to play Monday morning quarterback. READ MORE.

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6. "Weston Urban plans 32-story apartment tower in downtown tech district"

Published Nov. 15, 2020

We first caught wind of Weston Urban's plan to build an apartment tower the weekend before the Planning Commission was to consider whether to abandon the city's right-of-way on aerial space above North Main Avenue. The details revealed a development foreign to downtown San Antonio, but which have been common-place for city's with rapidly-growing downtowns: an apartment tower of more than 30 stories with plenty of retail space on the ground level. READ MORE.

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7. "Rosario's owner seeks to demolish site of landmark San Antonio restaurant El Mirador"

Published Nov. 8, 2020

We knew for a year that Rosario's owner Lisa Wong had purchased the former El Mirador building, but we didn't know for sure about her plans. The speculation was that she would move Rosario's down the street into the historic El Mirador spot, but she wasn't doing interviews. Then, in November, she submitted an application to the city to demolish the former El Mirador building and her plans became apparent. READ MORE.

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8. "San Antonio Housing Trust acquires portion of Friedrich complex for $68.7M redevelopment"

Published Sept. 12, 2020

People have been trying to redevelopment the former Friedrich Air Conditioning Co. complex on East Commerce Street for years. When the San Antonio Housing Trust purchased a huge chunk of the property, it signaled that this development—in partnership with Dallas developer Provident Realty Advisors and capital provider American South Real Estate Fund of Atlanta—might actually happen. READ MORE.

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9. "The Floodgate apartment tower closer to reality with razing of East Commerce building"

Published Feb. 6, 2020

Here's another major downtown development that had been years in the making. Then three one-story buildings on East Commerce Street were demolished, making way for the construction of the 17-story Floodgate luxury apartment tower. Construction continues today READ MORE.

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10. "Cattleman Square Lofts project now partnered with S.A. Housing Trust on key west downtown affordable housing"

Published Oct. 22, 2020

For the first time, the San Antonio Housing Trust, which had been criticized for partnering with for-profit developers, partnered solely with a nonprofit builder in the Alamo Community Group on the 140-unit Cattleman Square Lofts in west downtown. READ MORE.

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Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

The Museum Reach Lofts, 1500 N. St. Mary’s St., began receiving its first residents this week. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

For the first time in recent memory, low-income renters began moving into newly-built apartments in downtown San Antonio.

The $17.5 million Museum Reach Lofts is an affordable housing development on North St. Mary's Street and West Jones Avenue near the Pearl by local nonprofit developer Alamo Community Group that's nearing completion.

Unlike the 20 or so apartment buildings that have been constructed using city tax breaks and other subsidies since San Antonio began prioritizing downtown housing, the Museum Reach Lofts offers rents most people would consider truly affordable to the average San Antonian.

For example, rents for households making up to 30% of the area median income (AMI), or $21,600 for a family of four, start at $290 for an efficiency, $308 for a one-bedroom, and $365 for a two-bedroom.

[ For an explanation of area median income, and why it's so controversial, read, "The San Antonio-New Braunfels median income rises to $72,000. Here’s why it matters." ]

Most of the Museum Reach Lofts' 94 units are priced for people earning 60% AMI or less. Only nine are market-rate-priced. So far, the property is 35% leased.

COURTESY ALAMO COMMUNITY GROUP

[ Scroll down for a chart showing AMI levels. ]

Michael Shackelford (left) and Fernando Herrera of Alamo Community Group inspect a window blind in one of the apartments inside the Museum Reach Lofts. Also pictured here is Jose Gonzalez, a tax credit consult for the nonprofit developer. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Since the downtown area began its housing boom 10 years ago, the vast majority of the apartments created have been either market rate or priced for people earning up to 80% AMI, which housing advocates argue is still beyond reach for most San Antonians.

The Museum Reach Lofts' lower rents are the first of its kind for downtown San Antonio in terms of new construction, especially when you consider its location in the Pearl area, where rents are the highest than in other regions in San Antonio, according to surveys by housing research firms in recent years. The area, known as Midtown, is one of 13 regional centers outlined in the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, which calls for a mix of housing options.

An efficiency apartment at the Museum Reach Lofts. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The five-story building is located at 1500 N. St. Mary's St., down the street from the San Antonio Museum of Art. Alamo Community Group envisions the average worker at the museum, and office jobs opening up from the new construction on Broadway, renting at the lofts. They also envision downtown hospitality workers living there, too.

So far, the demand has been huge.

"Right now, we have 40 applicants pending. We only have 94 units," said Michael Shackelford, Alamo Community Group's director of policy. "You can imagine these will go quickly. Especially with Covid right now, everybody's trying to get into something affordable or they're being forced (to) because their wages are being cut."

The kitchen inside one of the apartments at the Museum Reach Lofts. Photo by by Ben Olivo | Heron

This week, the lofts received its first certificate of occupancy for the second floor, which allowed residents to start moving in. Certificates of occupancy are still required for the other floors. Alamo Community Group expects the entire project to be completed by mid-January.

The Museum Reach Lofts offers two computer labs for residents, and a rooftop terrace with views of the Tower of the Americas and the Tower Life building, among other amenities.

Michael Shackelford of Alamo Community Group opens a window blind inside a bedroom at the Museum Reach Lofts. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Alamo Community Group, which also owns the Calcasieu Apartments on Broadway, is planning to build another affordable development in west downtown near the University of Texas at San Antonio's campus.

"As we wrap up the construction, we will immediately focus on the pre-development of Cattleman Square Lofts, which is located in the heart of the West Side and provides truly affordable units in that area," Jennifer Gonzales, Alamo Community Group's executive director, said in a statement.

The Museum Reach Lofts has received an incentive package that includes a $2.8 million reimbursement grant from the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ), and 9% low-income housing tax credits from the federal government worth an estimated $10 million. It's also receiving a 75% rebate on city property taxes over 10 years; the other 25% will feed into the city's affordable housing fund."

Shackelford looks at downtown from the building's fifth-floor terrace. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

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Previously published
» Latest Museum Reach Lofts design approved
» Museum Reach Lofts redesign approval sought
» Museum Reach Lofts design gets initial thumbs up
» City Council approves $3M incentives for rare affordable downtown apartments
» Affordable Museum Reach Lofts receive $2.8M incentive

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

The Museum Reach Lofts design as of Feb. 1. COURTESY GRG ARCHITECTURE | ALAMO COMMUNITY GROUP

The latest design for the $17.5 million Museum Reach Lofts, a rare affordable housing development near the Pearl, was approved Wednesday by the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC).

What's AMI?
The area median income for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area (including New Braunfels) is $66,800, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Here's how it breaks down for lower-income households:
» 80% - $53,440
» 70% - $46,760
» 60% - $40,800
» 50% - $33,400
» 40% - $26,720
» 30% - $20,400

The five-story, mixed-income apartment building at 1500 N. St. Mary's St. at the intersection of West Jones Avenue is being built by nonprofit developer Alamo Community Group and designed by GRG Architecture of San Antonio.

The project consists of 95 units—77 units reserved for households earning less than 60 percent of the area median income (AMI) and 9 units for households making less than 30 percent AMI. The remaining nine will be market-rate priced.

Construction is expected to begin in March, and be completed in September 2020, Alamo Community Group (ACG) Executive Director Jennifer Gonzalez told the Heron earlier this year.

According to the HDRC agenda, the lofts building will include retail on the ground floor. ACG must return to the HDRC to get its signage approved.

In December, the HDRC approved a more colorful design created by Alamo Architects:

A view of the Museum Reach Lofts at West Jones Avenue at North St. Mary's St. The San Antonio Museum of Art is in the distance. COURTESY ALAMO ARCHITECTS / ALAMO COMMUNITY GROUP

Last month, Gonzalez addressed the change in design via text.

"I believe this building (the one approved this week) best reflects the essence and spirit of the River Walk Museum Reach area while complementing the architecture of the San Antonio Museum of Art and Central Catholic," Gonzalez said.

The Museum Reach Lofts is the only new residential downtown project offering apartments to households making 30 percent AMI. The housing boom the downtown area has experienced since the Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP) began in 2012 has produced predominantly market-rate housing.

Gonzalez said the various incentives the project has received makes the affordable rents possible. Specifically, the Museum Reach Lofts' incentive package from the city includes:

» $27,431 in city development fee waivers (CCHIP)

» $295,988 in SAWS fee waivers (CCHIP)

» 75 percent rebate on city property taxes over 10 years (estimated rebate is $34,600 the first year); 25 percent of its city property tax obligation will feed into the affordable housing fund (estimated at $11,500 the first year; CCHIP).

» $2.8 million reimbursement grant from the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone

» 9 percent low-income housing tax credits (a federal subsidy doled out by the state) worth an estimated $10 million after they’re sold to investors

Previously published
» Museum Reach Lofts redesign approval sought
» Affordable Museum Reach Lofts receives $2.8 million incentive

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

A view of the Museum Reach Lofts at West Jones Avenue at North St. Mary's Street. The San Antonio Museum of Art is shown in the distance. RENDERINGS COURTESY ALAMO ARCHITECTS / ALAMO COMMUNITY GROUP

The colorful design for the Museum Reach Lofts, the apartments by nonprofit developer Alamo Community Group, received conceptual approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) on Wednesday. The $17.5 million project will rise five stories on two parcels of land a fraction of a block north of the San Antonio Museum of Art.

What's AMI?
The area median income for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area (including New Braunfels) is $66,800. Here's how it breaks down for lower-income households:
» 80% - $53,440
» 70% - $46,760
» 60% - $40,800
» 50% - $33,400
» 40% - $26,720
» 30% - $20,400
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

The project will go on the southeast corner of North St. Mary's Street and West Jones Avenue and will add 95 units—86 of which will be offered to people making between 30 percent and 60 percent of the area median income. The rents will also be restricted to 30 percent of each tenant's income.

Rents start at $290 for low-income individuals.

As San Antonio debates how much affordability it can demand from developers in exchange for incentives such as tax rebates, the Museum Reach Lofts, no one would argue, offers true affordability in downtown. It's a block from the Museum Reach segment of the San Antonio River, and within walking distance of the Pearl to the north and downtown proper to the south.

When it was looking for a site for its next project, Alamo Community Group, which also owns the low-income Calcasieu Apartments on Broadway, decided on this corner of Jones and St. Mary's street. ACG Executive Director Jennifer Gonzalez said it filled the need for workforce housing for those employed at Credit Human and Jefferson Bank, which are moving its headquarters next to the Pearl, and also downtown hotels, restaurants and bars. The area, known as Midtown, is also one of the 13 regional centers outlined in the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, which calls for a diversity of housing.

"As we looked at that area, it was kind of a perfect storm," Gonzalez told the City Council Nov. 15. "There wasn’t a tax credit project in the area … There isn’t any workforce housing providing this level of affordability."

Construction is expected to begin in March, and be completed in September 2020.

The project is receiving $1.2 million in 9 percent low-income housing tax credits, a federal program administered by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Gonzalez anticipates the project to gain roughly $10 million in equity after the tax credits are sold to investors. It's also receiving a reimbursement grant worth up to $2.8 million from the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone for the purchase of the land. City development and SAWS impact fees are also being waived. It could also receive a rebate on the city portion of its taxes, under the Center City Housing Incentives Policy (CCHIP), but the policy is currently on hold.

The design by Alamo Architects includes an interior courtyard and an open parking garage.

The Museum Reach Lofts will have to return to the HDRC for a final approval on its design.

COURTESY ALAMO COMMUNITY GROUP

Related
City Council approves $3M incentives for rare affordable downtown apartments

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

The Museum Reach Lofts will be located on the southeast corner of North St. Mary's Street and West Jones Avenue. BEN OLIVO | SAN ANTONIO HERON

The Museum Reach Lofts, a rare affordable apartment project that nonprofit Alamo Community Group (ACG) is developing, was approved for a $2.8 million incentive this morning by the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone board.

Construction is scheduled to begin March 30, and be completed in September 2020.

The award will be used to reimburse the nonprofit for the cost of purchasing the land.

Overall, the $17.5 million, five-story project will add 94 apartments to the southeast corner of North St. Mary's Street and West Jones Avenue, just north of the San Antonio Museum of Art. The area is close to the Pearl, one of the priciest districts to live in San Antonio—not just downtown. Most rents in this area hover above $2 a square foot.

At the Museum Reach Lofts, 42 units will be offered to households making 60 percent of the area median income (rents between $624-794), 35 units at 50 percent AMI ($513-$651), and nine units at 30 percent AMI ($290-$365). The remaining eight units will be market-rate priced, between $774 and $1,008).

[ Editor's note: The area median income used here is $66,800 for a family of four, the latest figure provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the greater San Antonio area. Some city departments, and the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force, use a 2016 figure from the U.S. Census American Community Survey 1-year estimate. ]

"This we consider to be a very exciting day to have affordable (units) downtown," ACG executive director Jennifer Gonzalez told the board.

Earlier this year, the project also receive 9 percent low-income housing tax credits, a federal program administered by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

For the project, ACG, which also owns the low-income Calcasieu Apartments at 214 Broadway, is also receiving $323,419 in city and SAWS fee waivers through the city's Inner City Reinvestment and Infill Policy program, and a $564,000 forgivable development at no interest from the Center City Development & Operations department.

So, many incentives, which is how this project's affordability is possible, Gonzalez has said in the past.

"We are dealing with trying to find creative ways to really put affordable units on the ground," Gonzalez said in a previous interview. "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."

Gonzalez has said this level of affordability is critical to the many lower-income workers in the downtown area—not just in the service industry, but people with lower-paying office jobs.

After the meeting ended, one employer made the same point.

"I'm going to employee some folks who will be able to live that close," Richard Hartman, co-owner of Tycoon Flats on North St. Mary's Street, told members of the ACG team after the meeting adjourned.

In exchange for the incentive, ACG agrees to keep the rents affordable for 35 years.

The City Council still has to approve the TIRZ incentive. In a TIRZ, the increment in revenue generated from the rise in property values is reinvested back into public improvements within the zone.

Previously published
» Affordable housing near Pearl obtains crucial funding, land
» Museum Reach Lofts to offer true affordability

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

The development team behind the Pearl is considering some form of affordable housing as it expands. Rados | SAHeron

In a brief email exchange with the San Antonio Heron, Bill Shown, managing director of Pearl developer Silver Ventures, said his group is "very interested" in building affordable housing as the development expands in the coming years.

On Tuesday, the Zoning Commission rezoned seven acres of property Silver Ventures owns south and west of the Pearl, including the old Samuels Glass Co. and Fox Motel sites on Newell Avenue, and several parcels on the other side of the San Antonio River.

Shown said it's likely residential units would be built on most of those parcels, and that affordable housing could be in that mix.

"We are very interested in tackling affordable housing and seeing whether we can do it in a way that is transformational," Shown said. "Whether that happens on one or more of these sites (or at all) remains to be seen."

Several thoughts come to mind.

For starters, what is affordable?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines an affordable unit as one a household can reside in for 30 percent or less of its income. Local officials typically define affordable units, apartments usually, as those being rented to people making 80 percent or below the area median income (AMI), which in the greater San Antonio area is $63,500 for a family of four, according to HUD.

Many affordable housing advocates say even rents priced for people making 80 percent AMI is not truly affordable for most San Antonians.

Under proposed revisions to the city's Center City Housing Incentives Policy, market-rate developments up to five stories tall and that are built in downtown's outskirts — including the Pearl — would receive a tax break only if 20 percent of its units were affordable: 10 percent at 80 percent AMI and 10 percent at 60 percent AMI. Or, if the development were higher than five stories.

Incentive packages are necessary in both cases — to offset the cost of adding affordable units or to build taller with steel and concrete — Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told members of City Council at a recent briefing.

Incentives are no longer needed for apartment developments on the outskirts of downtown that as so called "stick built," meaning they are built with wood frames and therefore can only go up four stories.

Under the revisions, people making 80 percent or below of the area median income would qualify to live in city-incentivized apartments, but then the rent would also have to be tailored to the tenant so that it does not exceed 30 percent of their income.

"What we heard from affordable housing providers and others was that if you're going to do an affordable housing requirement, you need to do both," Houston said.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the revisions on Oct. 11.

Shown's comments are also significant because private developers don't voluntarily build anything that's not going to return maximum profits. In downtown San Antonio, "affordable units" are added to projects usually because incentives in some form are included. The nonprofit San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corp., whose properties are tax exempt, partners with private developers in this way. Read this Express-News article for a complete explanation of the process.

In June, Jennifer Gonzalez, executive director of nonprofit affordable housing developer Alamo Community Group, explained to the Heron, "When you start to apply affordability to it, that reduces your profit significantly. ... 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."

The nonprofit is currently in the process of building the 94-unit Museum Reach Lofts, a few blocks southwest of the Pearl, which will contain 86 units for households making between 30 and 60 percent AMI. Those rents will range between $333 and $858 a month, depending on the size of the household and its annual income. The lofts were one of a handful of affordable projects to be awarded low-income tax credits from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which helped make the project possible.

The Pearl area has the highest rents for Class A apartments in the city at $2.33 a square foot, according to a second quarter 2018 report by Austin Investor Interests, a market research company that studies San Antonio.

The downtown area has the highest rents on average, $1.70 a square foot, according to the research.

In the rezoning, Silver Ventures, the Pearl's development firm started by billionaire Christopher "Kit" Goldsbury, was given carte blanche to add more apartments, but also a high-rise office building, a hotel, a brewery, outdoor music venues and restaurants.

Shown said there is no timetable for the Pearl expansion.

"We are very deliberate in planning and conceptualizing and move only when we're convinced that a concept is compelling," he said.

Currently, two major projects are under construction: the 10-story Credit Human headquarters on Broadway and the Brewery South apartments on Newell Avenue (the crane above) — are well into construction. The Credit Human headquarters is scheduled for completion in early 2020, and Brewery South should be complete "a little before then," Shown said.

Previously published
Rezoning allows Pearl to add more apartments, hotel rooms, office space and breweries

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

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