Houses like these in Dignowity Hill will ultimately be renovated. Photo by Page Graham.

The term “gentrification” has become quite the buzzword as of late. It seems to fit the maxim: “If you say something often enough, it becomes truth.” However, the reality is much more nuanced than that. Even the Mayor’s Task Force on Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods struggles to define the term.

What has happened to the words “revitalization” or “improvement” in this discussion? Neighborhoods that once went begging for revitalization are now bemoaned by some as becoming gentrified. The primary concern is that people are being displaced from their homes as property values rise.

But are they? Some argue the evidence seems far outweighed by emotion. There are no hard numbers available to provide a quantifiable answer.

Numerous projects have been the source of heated debate, to say the least. Let’s take a look back at some of the most controversial cases of “gentrification” in San Antonio over the past year:

French & Michigan

When Billy Lambert and Céleste Wackenhut decided to make a small commercial building along the Fredericksburg corridor into a live/work space, they thought rezoning it to mixed-use from residential would be a straightforward process. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Vociferous opposition to the project, spearheaded by neighbor and activist Jessica Fuentes, turned their dream into a two-year nightmare.

The building, which previously housed a cabinet shop and an auto repair business, among other things, was rezoned from commercial to residential a few years ago. Lambert and Wackenhut wanted to house their design/build firm, along with an art gallery and other sideline businesses, in the building. Ultimately, they got a conditional use permit for the art gallery, but the design/build operation has been moved elsewhere.

Participants check out art at a recent opening at French & Michigan. Photo by Page Graham.
Participants check out art at a recent opening at French & Michigan. Photo by Page Graham.

How is this gentrification? For some, there was a perception that something as highbrow as an art gallery would make the area more appealing, thus attracting “gentrifiers.” These people would then see the charm of the surrounding neighborhood and choose to move there. This would cause real estate values to go up, and the working poor would be displaced as a result. Although there is some validity to this concept, the Beacon Hill neighborhood is indeed changing, and the addition of an art gallery has little to do with the speed at which it is happening.

Univision Building

As the first Spanish-language TV station in the USA, KWEX-TV 41 represents a significant milestone in Latino broadcasting history. Until last year, the studios were housed on East Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard in a mid-century structure of limited architectural significance. However, the building sat on a large lot, next to the San Antonio River. South Carolina-based Greystar purchased the property, with the intention of tearing down the building to make way for an apartment complex.

The 350-unit Elan Riverwalk apartment complex. Rendering courtesy of Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.
The 350-unit Elan Riverwalk apartment complex. This rendering courtesy of Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.

An uproar from a small group of activists, led by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, ensued. Ultimately, the building was torn down after a messy court battle. Half the building was demolished before opponents could get a court order delaying its ultimate destruction. A few activists were arrested after they chained themselves to the fence at the demolition site.

This fight is more about historic preservation rather than gentrification. The building itself was insignificant. The fight was about preserving a cultural landmark. Many Latino activists feel like too many important structures have been torn down, such as La Gloria on the Westside.

Ultimately, it was what took place inside the building rather than the structure itself that’s important. Fortunately, there are plenty of video recordings of programs to keep these memories alive.

South Main Street Closure

As a growing company, H-E-B found itself needing to expand its headquarters campus downtown. A request was made to close one block of South Main Street, where the campus is located. Despite its name, the street isn’t actually a major thoroughfare because it is also closed at Main Plaza. In the other direction, it ends a couple of blocks to the south. But San Antonians have become shell-shocked by sometimes ill-advised permanent street closures, which have made it increasingly difficult to drive around downtown.

Opposition was fierce, but in a give-and-take situation, the street is being closed in exchange for improvements to surrounding streets, as well as a downtown grocery store. We can only wait and see if this tradeoff was well-advised.

Alamo Brewery

The Hays Street Bridge crosses over railroad tracks in an industrial district on the western edge of the Dignowity Hill neighborhood. North of the bridge sits a nondescript parcel of land, which was donated to the city by BudCo. Developer Eugene Simor had a vision to build an $8 million brewery, along with a restaurant and beer garden, on this land. The city agreed to sell the land to Simor, and the neighborhood association approved the sale, seeing it as an economic generator.

Can you see this parcel of land becoming a park? Photo by Page Graham.
Can you see this parcel of land becoming a park? Photo by Page Graham.

However, vociferous opposition from a small group of people (is this becoming a familiar refrain?) led to a court battle and a split decision that left everyone scratching their head. The Esperanza Center’s Hays Street Restoration Group wanted to see the land used as a park. However, city officials considered the lot to be ill-suited for such a purpose. It sits close to railroad tracks, and is bookended by a refrigeration shop and a lumberyard.

Meanwhile, Simor decided not to wait and built the Alamo Brewery on another lot he owns just south of the bridge. A handful of protestors showed up to the opening ceremony of the brewery to heckle and shout slogans like “liar, liar, gentrifier” throughout the ceremony.

Having failed to compromise with the opponents, the city recently sold the tract to Simor to build a restaurant adjacent to the bridge. This fight is not over, but one has to wonder if it isn’t a huge waste of resources to tussle over this land.

Alamo Beer at Night from the Hays Street Bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.
Alamo Beer at Night from the Hays Street Bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.

Dignowity Hill

Located across the railroad tracks just east of downtown, Dignowity Hill is filled with Victorian homes both humble and grandiose. For decades, the neighborhood has been in decline. Numerous empty lots denote the large number of neglected homes that have been torn down. Many homes show signs of neglect or poor-quality repairs.

All this is changing, and rather quickly. House flippers are coming in, meeting the demand from people seeking to live in the urban core. Homes that were once worth $50,000-$70,000 before renovation are now worth two or three times as much or more. It is likely that Dignowity Hill will be transformed in a few years into a uniformly charming neighborhood filled with restored homes.

Are the working poor who rent homes there being displaced by landlords ready to cash out? If so, no one really knows how many people are affected. Regardless, there is a perception of gentrification, with no easy answers. The need for affordable housing far outstrips supply – there are waiting lists – and there are those who simply don’t qualify for government assistance.

Mission Trails Trailer Park

Manufactured housing is an alternative for those who cannot afford a traditional home on a lot. There are downsides to this concept, however. For starters, manufactured homes depreciate in value, and although the residents may own the home debt-free, they merely rent the land on which it sits.

As our urban core neighborhoods get more desirable, developers are looking for opportunities to build apartments. Mission Trails sits next to a once-forlorn part of the San Antonio River. But the recent Riverwalk extension and investment has changed all that. The trailer park itself was in a state of disrepair, with out-of-town owners seeking to sell it for the right price.

Mission Trails Trailer Park is now almost deserted. Photo by Page Graham.
Mission Trails Trailer Park is now almost deserted. Photo by Page Graham.

Once again, activists opposed the rezoning of the land. However, we do live in a capitalist society, and the people living in the trailer park didn’t own the land under their structures. It was inevitable that they would be displaced, whether to make way for apartments or single-family homes.

The transition has been problematic. Although residents have received nominal financial assistance, in many cases it hasn’t been enough to cover the costs involved. Many of the homes were too old and fragile to be moved. One even broke apart in transit to another location.

This is a thorny issue to say the least. Those being displaced are not the property owners and therefore have little rights. Regardless of that, they deserve a measure of respect and dignity. The Mayor’s Task Force on Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods seeks to formulate policies that may prevent this kind of displacement.

Mahncke Park

The situation in Mahncke Park is more about historic preservation than gentrification. Recently, a decision was made to pursue Historic status. This drew the ire of many residents who view it as more government intrusion into their lives.

Yard signs like this one are a common sight in Mahncke Park. Photo by Page Graham.
Yard signs like this one are a common sight in Mahncke Park. Photo by Page Graham.

Once again, the battle of words has been vociferous. Having sat through one of their presentations, it seems the Office of Historic Preservation doesn’t do an effective job of communicating the advantages of historic designation. Nor do they seemingly do enough to allay the fears of those who are wary of an additional layer of bureaucracy and perceived control over their properties.

The most damaging blow, however, was the relatively recent change to requiring only 30% approval amongst property owners to start the process moving. As the yard signs show, this became the cornerstone to opposition in Mahncke Park.

Perhaps the city should take a good, hard look at their regulations. Relaxing rules and reducing bureaucracy wherever feasible might serve to reduce opposition.

Davis Court Coffee Shop

Is it really fair if the city makes an error on a zoning map and pulls the rug out from under a business? Many would say the answer is no. But rules are rules, and that’s exactly what happened to CommonWealth Coffee House.

Located on Davis Court behind a car wash, the owners sought to put their business in a home that had erroneously been zoned as commercial on a map. They spent a significant amount of money preparing the building, all of which was thought to be legal. Shortly before the time that they were ready to open, the error was found – this property was actually zoned residential.

Ultimately, a compromise was reached – a conditional use permit has been issued – and the business will be open soon. However, it is going to be a challenging situation. There is no parking allowed along Davis Court, and car wash employees seem to take up any spaces that are available.

Since parking is scarce, most customers will likely be those who live or work nearby. Photo by Page Graham.
Since parking is scarce, most customers will likely be those who live or work nearby. Photo by Page Graham.

Alamo Heights Gateway

Is downtown Alamo Heights a good location for an apartment complex similar to those further down on Broadway? Residents of this bedroom community were clear in their message: No.

Alamo Manhattan had sought to build a mixed-use complex on a tract of land where Austin Highway meets Broadway. After initial opposition, the scale of the project was reduced, with the top story moved back to reduce the appearance of mass. Those opposed were not satisfied. Yard signs against the project began popping up all over the community.

Don't even think about putting an apartment building here! Photo by Page Graham.
Don’t even think about putting an apartment building here! Photo by Page Graham.

Opponents to the project won the day. Despite some support by the city council, who hoped it would be an economic generator, there weren’t enough votes to approve it. At the time, developers refused to scale back the project any further, claiming it would be economically unfeasible. Today, the parcel of land sits empty, amid speculation that scaling back is now an option.

Some of these situations appear to be clear-cut cases of gentrification, most notably Dignowity Hill and Mission Trails. Others are about related issues, whether it is historic preservation or preventing development. In every case, an acrimonious battle occurred. Situations like these often serve only to produce losers; victories are pyrrhic in nature at best.

Gentrification in San Antonio is nowhere near as dramatic as it is right now in other places, like Austin or Brooklyn. Affordable housing is still available in the urban core, but it is indeed a shrinking pool. By how much this is happening cannot be quantified, however.

This is an ongoing process – whether it reaches critical mass in 10, 25 or 50 years remains to be seen. It’s a good thing that the city is discussing this issue at a relatively early stage in its development.

Change is inevitable, and it’s necessary to embrace change rather than oppose it. It’s a waste of time and resources to be on the wrong side of history. Hopefully, proactive measures like the task force will help find solutions to this thorny issue. It will be simpler (and cheaper) to address the situation now, rather than later.

Related Stories:

Save Miguel’s Home: The Human Face of Gentrification

Mayor Taylor Takes Helm of Gentrification Task Force

Task Force: Raise the People, Not the Rent

Urban Housing Stock Concern of Gentrification Panel

Gentrification “Angriest Issue in Urban America”

Page Graham

Page Graham

Page Graham has been a resident of San Antonio – on and off – for over 30 years now. He has moved into the corporate world, making a living developing training materials and Powerpoint presentations...