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.
By Ben Olivo, Sanford Nowlin and Gaige Davila
This story is a joint reporting project of the San Antonio Heron and the San Antonio Current.
Chris Benavidez and Sheila Hyde, a retired couple who, in 2017, bought and rehabbed a craftsman-style house on West Houston Street, a few blocks from the Bexar County Adult Detention Center, welcome the wave of development that’s expected to enter the near West Side in the coming years.
After retiring recently—he from the U.S. Navy, she from teaching—the couple settled on San Antonio’s West Side for its affordability after spending many years in Seattle, Washington. Benavidez said some of the same growth patterns he saw in the Pacific Northwest are also taking shape in the Alamo City.
“You’re starting to see a lot of that coming here — a lot of these houses are pending under contract,” said Benavidez, 49. “It’s catching on.”
He welcomes the reinvestment and hopes it will help address some of the area’s issues, such as transient foot traffic.
But with development comes a downside. Some community members are concerned about the potential for mass displacement caused by rising property values, predatory practices by investors and code violation enforcements in a part of San Antonio many people consider the cultural heartbeat of the city.
If the West Side gets gentrified, what’s left?
Perhaps the most profound sign of the coming change is the University of Texas at San Antonio’s plan to quadruple the size of its downtown campus over the next 10 years.
But it’s not just UTSA expanding into the West Side. The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) intends to build two mixed-income housing developments in the area near the Alazan Courts, the circa-1939 housing projects west of Alazan Creek, between Guadalupe Street and César E. Chávez Boulevard.
A mile north of the courts, closer to downtown, VIA Metropolitan Transit plans to rehab the abandoned Scobey industrial complex, just east of the detention center, into a mixed-use housing and office development.
Smaller projects are in the works, as well. Nonprofit developer Alamo Community Group wants to build a 160-unit, four-story affordable housing complex at 811 W. Houston St., a cluster of older and modern structures the group recently purchased from the Alamo Colleges District.
On the other side of Interstate 35, in downtown proper, the activity is more immediate. Weston Urban is co-developing the 23-story Frost Tower, expected to open next month. The developer is also obligated — under the agreement between Weston Urban, Frost Bank and the city of San Antonio that enabled the project — to build 265 housing units on properties it owns in the area.
GrayStreet Partners, another local developer active in the downtown area, recently purchased properties on North Flores Street, including the Cadillac Bar and the row of buildings anchored by the former Kallison’s Western Wear store.
Not everyone is as optimistic about the imminent growth as new residents Benavidez and Hyde.
Kristel Puente, a UTSA student who on Sunday earned a bachelor’s degree in Mexican-American studies, said the university has offered little to no details on how it’s going to engage with the West Side community.
“They always say … ‘We’re going to expand cultural programs. We want to honor these neighborhoods,’ ” said Puente, who’s a member of the Mexican American Studies Student Organization, or MASSO, at UTSA. “But they never give you a detailed or strategic plan of how they’re going to do that.”
Puente attended a recent community meeting on the school’s expansion. She said the gathering became heated because the format prohibited vocal feedback and community members felt they weren’t being heard. If UTSA was serious about including the West Side community in its plans, she argued, the institution would have done so before it made its announcement last September.
“It’s not that we’re against the growth or changes or education,” she said. “It’s just we want them to understand the history (of the West Side) and to do better, and they can.”
If the scenario sounds familiar, that’s because San Antonio’s been seeing it play out on the East Side for several years now, said Christine Drennon, an urban studies professor at Trinity University.
“If we don’t start to control the process on the West Side, the result will be the same,” she said. “You’ll see long-term residents pushed out and replaced by higher-income, better-educated residents, mostly from a different ethnic group.”
However, there’s a key difference between the two areas, Drennon points out. While the gentrification on the East Side initially included purchases of stately homes capable of becoming showpieces with some restoration and upkeep, the historically Hispanic West Side is largely composed of smaller homes with lower resale value.
Much of the near West Side’s housing stock is appraised between $40,000 and $70,000, according to Drennon. So, once gentrification takes root, it will be displacing residents from one of inner San Antonio’s last pools of affordable single-family housing.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg acknowledged that if the city is going to avert such a wave, it must act now. He pointed to the work of his Housing Policy Task Force, which has prioritized efforts to tackle displacement, gentrification and escalating property taxes.
In March, the City Council approved a $1 million fund to assist residents on the cusp of displacement—or, who are currently being displaced—because of rising rents or unexpected costs. So far, 118 people have been served—more than half of the total anticipated. The city is also looking to designate the near West Side and two East Side communities as neighborhood empowerment zones under a Texas statute that freezes city property taxes for homeowners for up to 10 years.
“We’re on the cusp of widespread displacement, which is why we accelerated our displacement prevention policies and implemented our mitigation tool,” Nirenberg said.
Still, critics worry whether the city’s moving fast enough on those efforts.
West Side property owners are already receiving offers from developers, often willing to buy their houses as-is.
Kristi Villanueva, president of the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said she’s worried many residents will receive lowball offers for their homes or small business properties and jump at the first they receive.
“Everyone’s being approached with offers, but the developers are basing them on the listing price that these folks paid for their property 10 or 15 years ago,” she said. “If people aren’t educated about their options, they may think they’re getting a good deal.”
Few projects slated for the West Side are likely to have as much short-term impact as the planned expansion of UTSA’s downtown campus. The City and Bexar County have sold five acres closer to downtown, three blocks east of the main campus, to the university. The parcel—within the boundaries of Dolorosa, South Flores and West Nueva streets and South Santa Rosa Avenue—will house a $57 million school of data science and a $33 million national security collaboration center.
The UT System’s board of regents has committed the $70 million to fund the projects, while Rackspace co-founder and downtown developer Graham Weston has kicked in an additional $15 million for the school of data science.
But the project doesn’t end there.
UTSA is also waiting for $126 million in tuition revenue bonds from the Texas Legislature to build a college of business on the parcel. Future plans are also likely to include residential developments for students, faculty and staff.
The university has been gathering input from students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni and community members for its downtown master plan since last year. However, the meeting held May 6 at Guadalupe Theater to discuss the expansion was the only second community meeting this year. Roughly 60 people attended.
“It was evident in the master plan process that residents want a two-way conversation,” said Veronica Mendez, UTSA’s vice president of business affairs. “And, as a university, that’s something we’re good at facilitating.”
But some West Side activists like Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, are frustrated by the process. Sanchez attended the May 6 meeting and said attendees questioned how the university was going to prevent displacement in the West Side.
"There's more to the university expansion than just to be able to see their architectural designs," Sanchez said. "We're talking about gentrification and displacement that will take place after they (build it)."
She said she’d like to see how UTSA will prevent the uprooting of long-time residents, but the university seems to have pushed that responsibility to the city.
“You’re watching a volleyball or tennis match, but you’re the ball going back and forth,” Sanchez said. “So you feel overwhelmed by how you’re being tossed around and getting nothing.”
Still, Sanchez acknowledged that some UTSA administrators have been listening to concerns from West Side residents and activists. The Esperanza Center and MASSO, the student group, met with UTSA president Taylor Eighmy last November and aired concerns about the expansion.
“Back in the ’70s, when (UTSA) wrote up their initial vision statement, it did talk about the history and culture of (the West Side), so how are they building those programs within this school?” Sanchez asked.
“If it’s a Hispanic-serving institution, or people of color-serving institution, what are we doing to help strengthen that?” Sanchez continued. “Without a sense of what they’re doing downtown, it makes us very anxious, nervous and many people angry.”
It’s because of these concerns from the West Side community that the city is requiring UTSA to conduct an economic and social impact study before it considers selling 19 acres of land west of the campus to the university, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said. In the latter phases of its 10-year plan, UTSA expects to build academic buildings and student housing on the land that’s currently home to the Frank D. Wing Municipal Court Building, a police substation and a fleet maintenance center.
“We’ve always been aware of the concerns the West Side community has regarding the displacement and gentrification of the neighborhoods,” Houston said. “That’s exactly why we made the requirement in the contract with UTSA that they prepare an impact study.”
UTSA has hired the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB), a nationally recognized nonprofit focused on supporting equitable neighborhood development, to conduct the study. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because NALCAB recently conducted research and technical support for the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force and also completed an assessment of San Antonio’s most vulnerable communities.
The initial findings of NALCAB’s study should be available by late summer, UTSA’s Mendez said.
“I think that in three months or so we’ll see something actionable,” she added.
Armed with NALCAB’s research, the university will begin facilitating conversations with residents about how to minimize displacement.
The university’s master plan already calls for the new development to interface seamlessly with surrounding neighborhoods and celebrate their history and culture, Mendez points out. Buena Vista Street, in particular, would have a pedestrian bridge that runs level with the vehicular bridge that connects downtown with the West Side. There also looks to be an elevated park that hangs over a Frio Street-level promenade and basketball courts outside a recreation and wellness center that presumably would be available to West Side residents.
Further, the school could choose to locate future projects such as business incubator or student-aid office on the West Side to strengthen its ties to the neighborhoods, Mendez added.
NALCAB Executive Director Noel Poyo said institutions tend to put their heads in the sand when it comes to acknowledging the downside of their growth. He commended UTSA for its willingness to conduct the study.
Poyo added that the gentrification of Southtown, Dignowity Hill, Five Points and other near-downtown neighborhoods is proof the same is coming to the West Side. The time to address displacement is now, he added, not after the damage has already been done.
“There’s no such thing as stopping the market. Try damming a river with sticks; it’s hard,” said Poyo. “But what we can do is shape it and slow it.”
Last week, UTSA administrators and Weston Urban reps, including Weston himself, visited Arizona State University’s campus in downtown Phoenix to meet with university officials about what works, and what doesn’t, in an urban campus setting.
The relationship between UTSA and Weston Urban is one that’s newly formed.
A few years ago, when Weston Urban began purchasing land in west downtown, the developer’s strategy was to continue to unilaterally build around tech incubator Geekdom, using its other holdings.
The strategy changed last year, however, when UTSA’s Eighmy announced the university was expanding the center city campus, which has stayed west of I-35 since it opened in 1997.
“A year or so ago, along comes Dr. Eighmy, and we sort of said to ourselves, ‘This is the collaborator we’re been waiting for,’ ” said Randy Smith, president of Weston Urban.
Now, Weston Urban wants to create a “tight-knit fabric” between its downtown portfolio, mostly located in the desolate western half of downtown, with UTSA’s growth in the same area. And Weston Urban continues to grow, having recently purchased a vacant two-story office building on Dolorosa, next to the land where UTSA’s new buildings are going, and the old Toudouze market property at 700 W. Houston St., for future development.
“Obviously we’re not in the education-space business, but we think there are a lot of things we can do and develop in partnership with the university, community and others that will foster the kind of mixed-use environment that students will get excited about,” Smith said.
Smith said the company is aware of concerns about the western part of downtown and near West Side areas becoming unaffordable to residents.
“I think going forward you’ll see a mix of price points and product types, and local and regional and national operators,” he said.
Developer David Adelman and business partner Barlcay Anthony, CEO of Sea Island Shrimp House, own some buildings a block north of UTSA’s campus, next to VIA’s Centro Plaza transit hub. Those include the former Cattleman’s Square Tavern and the building that’s home to nonprofit Avance. The duo want to build a mix of office, retail and housing on the site.
Adelman sees UTSA’s ambitious plan doing more good than harm to the near West Side by providing higher education options to the community.
“When people are educated, their health improves, their need for social services declines,” he said. “You just want as many people educated [as possible]. I think the downtown campus offers a lifestyle element that has been lacking for a long time, and as we fill it in with people, that creates a livable place for people to say, ‘Hey, I enjoyed my time here at college and I want to stay.’”
Adelman also has strong feelings about the need for reinvestment in neglected communities, whether it comes from a public institution such as UTSA, or the private sector, or both.
“Often if a neighborhood is experiencing disinvestment, declining property values, declining school districts, that’s just bad for our community as a whole,” said Adelman. “If you have reinvestment, I think that’s, on the net, positive. What comes with it is a little bit of gentrification. I actually think a little bit of gentrification is good.”
“If you’re a property owner and you have a neighborhood that’s experiencing reinvestment, that’s good for you,” he added. “But people who are most negatively affected are renters. So I’ve always been in favor of having a displacement strategy to make that a smoother process. … But you know, when you’re born, there’s no constitutional right to live anywhere other than you have an opportunity to buy or rent anywhere where you want.”
Next to the Alazan Courts, on vacant land, SAHA plans to build the Alazan Lofts, an 88-unit mixed-income apartment development—40 units would be public housing, 40 a mix of low-income units and eight market-rate. SAHA also is partnering with 210 Development Group on an apartment project a half-mile south of the courts called the Tampico Lofts. Half of those units would be market-rate and the other half rented to people making 80% of the area median income, which is $53,440 for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
SAHA’s plan: Empty the cinder-block buildings by moving Alazan residents into the newer digs, then demolish the aging courts building-by-building over the course of many years.
Some preservation groups, including the Westside Preservation Alliance (WPA), see SAHA’s strategy as one of displacement—forcing people to leave their homes while simultaneously introducing housing for higher-income households.
SAHA disputes that notion.
“We're not trying to relocate anybody,” said Lorraine Robles, SAHA’s director of Development Services and Neighborhood. “This is an opportunity for individuals living in Alazan Courts to be able to have an opportunity to get a new unit.”
Tim Alcott, SAHA’s real estate and legal services officer, said Alazan Courts residents will be given options, such as Section 8 vouchers, which would allow them to move to more prosperous parts of town.
The WPA would rather the courts be preserved and improved, keeping the community intact.
“We argue and advocate for its rehabilitation and not for its demolition,” said Antonia Castañeda, a local historian and member of the WPA, at an alliance meeting earlier this year.
But SAHA officials said it would be more costly to renovate the 1939 structures than it would be to build anew.
SAHA’s strategy brings up larger questions about whether introducing market-rate apartments into a severely impoverished community is the right play, or whether the community is just fine on its own, simply needing some upgrades here and there.
To truly understand the complexity of the plan, one must look east.
Five years ago, SAHA forced out the residents of the Wheatley Courts on the East Side to make room for the mixed-income East Meadows development, which was spearheaded by a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant. SAHA officials took issue with some of those who characterized the plan as a displacement.
Each household was given the much-coveted Section 8 housing voucher, and the option to move back into the newly built apartments. Less than a quarter actually moved back.
But Trinity’s Drennon cautions that even good intentions can result in widespread displacement.
She points to the Westside Creeks Restoration Project, which is working to restore a quartet of streams running through the near West Side. The San Antonio River Authority-led project will bring better flood control while beautifying surrounding neighborhoods. But those will come at a price to local homeowners, Drennon said.
“It’s going to be so beautiful, but at the same time, it’s going to increase people’s property values,” she said. “If we do nothing to address that, the question becomes, ‘Are we more comfortable with beautiful creeks or with the displacement of people?’”
Much of the problem, Drennon argues, comes down to the city’s historic neglect of the West Side—especially its schools. When underfunded campuses turn out few students ready for higher education or prepared to take the skilled jobs that offer upward mobility, the surrounding area is unlikely to thrive.
“If wages kept up, the residents would have been able to invest in their own homes,” Drennon said. “Yes, we need to invest in our places, but we also need to invest in our people.”
District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said she’s concerned about gentrification but points out that a different kind of displacement is already happening in the West Side neighborhoods she represents.
Low-income residents are often unable to pay for upkeep on their homes and have faced obstacles getting loans from banks. Gonzales is aware of at least four constituents that have recently become homeless because their residences are no longer livable. Representatives of the Esperanza Center say West Side residents regularly approach them with the same issue.
“The risk we have today is people losing their homes, not because of gentrification but because their homes are in such disrepair that they can’t live in them anymore,” said Gonzales, who initiated several city initiatives to help residents stay in their houses.
Gonzales said she favors a smart and measured approach to new capital flowing into her district, adding that some of the loudest voices calling for a slowdown of West Side development are coming from people who don’t live in the district.
“With UTSA’s announcement people can finally see some degree of development, but for the six years I’ve been in office, we really haven’t had any at all,” she added. “It’s been the 1970s since there was much new development here. So, we’re desperate for new structures, for new investment. We need jobs.”
Esperanza’s Sanchez wants to see a reduction in code enforcement officers in District 5, largely the near West Side, and the culture of code enforcement changed from acting as a “police force” to something more like social workers.
“I know that we’re not a police force,” said Michael Shannon, director of Development Services, which oversees code enforcement in the city. “But we have a job to do, which is to help maintain the health and safety codes of those neighborhoods.”
Shannon said before 2012, about 80 percent of code enforcement cases were from people who reported violations, with the other 20 percent of cases from officers finding violations while on patrol. Those percentages are now reversed, he said.
From October 1, 2017 to September 30, 2018, District 5 had 14,143 code enforcement cases, the third highest in the city behind the East Side’s District 2, which had 15,797 cases, and District 1, which had 18,690. Nearly 12,000 of the code enforcement cases in District 5 were initiated by patrolling officers.
Additionally, 30 homes were demolished in District 5 that fiscal year, the highest of any district.
Development Services offers to help residents who can’t afford repairs or fines with the Compliance Assistance Fund. When a fine is paid, Development Services takes $20 and puts it into the fund. However, the fund is nearly dry, according to officials, because it was used to help four Southeast San Antonio residents last year. Less than $20,000 was in the fund, and a maximum of $5,000 can be dispersed to a single resident.
Through the 311 app, anyone can report code enforcement violations or submit service requests. Shannon said most of those reports are made anonymously. When asked if developers could use the app to report on properties or land they’re interested in purchasing, Shannon said it was a concern he’s heard, but hasn’t seen the evidence.
“We don’t want anyone utilizing services in a negative manner,” said Shannon, “in terms of possibly forcing people out of their homes or property.”
The city seems to have acknowledged—somewhat—the frequency of code enforcement violations being levied on people who can’t afford the fines.
Shannon says code enforcement officers are now trained “to have their radar up,” for residents who are struggling financially or medically and likely can’t fix their properties or pay fines. Code enforcement officers can tell Development Services they’ve encountered a struggling resident, then the department can refer the resident to Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD) for help.
Regardless of the help available, Villanueva of the West San Antonio Chamber said many residents are distrustful of a city they feel has neglected their neighborhoods for so long. Connecting those people with programs to avoid displacement will require serious outreach—perhaps even blockwalking efforts.
“The frustration from the neighborhoods is becoming very severe,” Villanueva said. “They don’t know who to turn to.”
Read more about UTSA and west downtown growth:
Ben Olivo is editor of the Heron; Sanford Nowlin is editor of the San Antonio Current; Gaige Davila is a reporter at the Heron
Editor's note: On Dec. 5, the HDRC granted this project a certificate of appropriateness, meaning the single-story buildings mentioned can be razed, and construction can begin thereafter.
Developer Keller Henderson's Floodgate residential tower has landed on the Historic and Design Review Commission's (HDRC) agenda for Wednesday—and its a doozy.
If approved, the $40 million, octagonal apartment tower will rise 17 levels from the River Walk, standing between the Chris Hill-owned Esquire Tavern and the Witte building on East Commerce Street. In its contemporary design by Rhode: Partners of Austin, the Floodgate is scooted back from the neighboring Esquire, creating an opening for a new, mid-block River Walk entrance.
In addition to design approval, Henderson is also seeking permission to demolish the row of vacant, single-story retail buildings that currently sit between the Esquire and Witte. According to the HDRC application, the structures at 139 and 141 E. Commerce St. are designated historic landmarks. Those tenants, including popular restaurant Bella on the River, have already left in anticipation of the Floodgate construction.
The Floodgate will include 53 luxury apartments, and 15,000 square feet of restaurant space at the river and street levels.
Pieces of the historic stone flood wall will be incorporated into the design of the Floodgate at river level, but it's unclear if Henderson will completely tear down the wall and rebuild it in pieces, or whether it will be semi demolished.
The design also shows an automated parking system that will lift tenant's vehicles to floors 2-4.
The fifth floor is an open-air amenities deck complete with a pool and dog lawn.
Floors 6-15 are the apartments, which range from 747 to 1,603 square feet. The 16th floor will consist of three penthouses ranging from 1,664 to 1,924 square feet.
Henderson has not responded to interview requests from the Heron, but in 2017, he told the San Antonio Express-News that rents would be priced around $4 a square foot. That would make them the most expensive apartments in San Antonio.
Doing the math, that comes out to $2,988 a month for the smallest apartment (747 square feet) and $7,696 for the largest penthouse (1,924 square feet).
The project is receiving $3.9 million from the Center City Housing Incentive Policy—an estimated $3.1 million in city property tax rebates, $300,000 SAWS fee waivers, $111,288 in city fee waivers, and a $375,000 mixed-use loan.
The HDRC application does not say when construction would begin. In June, the Floodgate received conceptual approval from the HDRC, but requires final approval before the one-story buildings can be demolished and construction can begin.
Like the glass-covered Frost tower and the Canopy Hilton hotel (on the same block as the Floodgate), both currently under construction, the Floodgate would introduce another contemporary design to downtown's skyline.